French Etiquette: The Dos and the Don’ts from an Insider’s Perspective

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French Etiquette: The Dos and the Don’ts from an Insider’s Perspective

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”: You may have heard this often without paying attention to this expression. In this age of globalization, it is truer than ever. Living or traveling in France requires tact and adaptation to manners and to the French etiquette. With my experience of teaching French and French culture to a large number of expats and visitors in Paris at French à La Carte, I often explain the cultural differences to my students. In this article, I have listed eight tips that will hopefully be useful if you have social interactions with native speakers in France. Vive la différence !

The kingdom of politeness

A polite formality governs daily life in Paris. Say “Bonjour” (hello), “Merci” (thank you) and “Au revoir” (goodbye) whenever you leave a place. At first it can be quite disconcerting being greeted by a complete stranger in the close confines of an elevator. But that’s the French way, and it is quite lovely in such a densely populated city such as Paris. Manners are very important to French people and can be tricky for overseas visitors. “Please” (s’il vous plaît) “Thank you” (merci) and “ You’re welcome” (je vous en prie or de rien) are used in any circumstance. If the expression “Je vous en prie”, which corresponds to the proper French etiquette, is too difficult for you to pronounce, you can answer by the more casual “De rien.

Photo credit: Dave Lastovski/ Unsplash

Punctuality: never be on time if you are invited for dinner!

I know, it sounds strange to foreigners, but don’t arrive exactly on time in France. If you arrive too early or even on time, you might find your host still in jogging shorts and your hostess taking a shower, which can put you in an awkward situation. When you are invited to diner, never arrive on time. Fifteen minutes late is ideal. In France this is a golden rule. But be warned: for meeting in a company with French colleagues, this rule obviously doesn’t work. In this situation, it’s important to arrive right on time.

The art of conversation

The secret rules of conversation in France are important to know if you interact with French people. We love serious debates and long discussions. We call it “débat.” We are not scared of confrontation when people disagree with us or don’t share our point of view. “Je suis d’accord!” (I agree ); “Je ne suis pas d’accord!” (I disagree); “Tu as tort!” (you are wrong) say the French in the middle of a passionate debate… This is “un débat,” an argument or a long discussion about ideas generally politically orientated and it can go on for hours. French people expect others to disagree and argue with them. The debate dates back to the French revolution and philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau were renowned for that. French people like to talk about topics such as current affairs (“l’actualité“), the environment, ecology and elections. You might also notice that French discussions tend to be filled with ideas and ideology rather than being based on personal experiences– exactly the opposite of the pragmatism favored by Americans. While pragmatism considers thought as a tool for problem solving and action, the art of debate tends to be a demonstration of how far you can defend your ideas brilliantly rather than finding a “concrete” solution.

Photo credit: Kaci Baum/ Unsplash

Food, politics, art: the top 3 topics of conversation

Avoid talking about money and stick to safer routes such as French culture, art, food, music, philosophy, architecture, and popular events. As an example, the French love to talk about food, so, if you are invited, it is appreciated to comment on the different dishes served. French people can speak with passion about their best pâtisserie, boulangerie, fromager, and from personal experience, it can last at least two hours! Other topics like current affairs can also be on the list. So do make sure you brush up on French news before accepting an invitation. If you live in Paris, discussions about the latest exhibitions can be a good topic as well.

Table manners

French etiquette is complex and a book could be entirely dedicated to this topic! I will avoid detailing all the codes explaining how to place elbows, hands, pick up a forks. Instead, I’ve selected a few tips that can be useful when you are invited to someone’s home:

– As mentioned above, arriving 15 minutes late is considered normal.

– Offer to bring something: wine, champagne, dessert. If you go to an informal diner with close friends, people tend more and more to offer to prepare a dish (like a starter or dessert). If you are invited to a more conservative dinner party, and the host tells you not to bring anything, bring something anyway! (Maybe a box of chocolate or some flowers.)

– You are not served as you would be in a restaurant, so offer assistance to your French host (before, during and after the party)

L’apéritif is an established tradition in France. If you are invited for dinner, expect to start the festivities with pre-drinks for at least one hour before the meal is served.
Do not start eating before your French host.

–Compliment her or him. It is the appropriate moment to use all the adjectives connected to food that you have learned during your French lessons such as “C’est vraiment délicieux!” (it’s very delicious!), “Excellent”, “Original!” If you wish to initiate a conversation, just ask how that delicious dish was prepared. There is a chance that the conversation will continue for hours on that topic!

Courtesy of French à La Carte

Don’t talk too much about money

Historically, France’s love of ideas and learning has always taken precedent over making money. France’s obsession with thought, beauty and art has always overshadowed wealth, unlike the United States or other western countries that revere capitalism. Since President Nicolas Sarkozy, it became more acceptable to have money and to flaunt it. Nevertheless, it is not in the culture to talk about money and it remains rather taboo. This means that if you want to meld into French life, avoid asking people what they do for a living or how much they earn (of course you wouldn’t!). It would be considered vulgar, tacky and even boring.

Avoid certain expressions like “Bon appétit

It’s one of the first phrases you learn in standard French textbooks or in guides– and you will hear it everywhere you go. But the two little words “bon appétit” should never actually be uttered in France. The expert on good manners, Jérémy Come, told BFM TV that there is no question about whether or not you should say “Bon appétit!” because the expression means “Good digestion!” A way to replace the two words is by saying “Bonne degustation!” which means “to taste, to savor”– so the focus is on the pleasure of eating.

You should also avoid using the verb manger with no complement after the word. If you say “Je mange un croissant” (I eat a croissant) this is fine as you actually eat something. Whereas, if you say “Je mange avec des amis ce soir” (I eat with friends tonight) it places the focus on a physiological act whereas it should be on the social act. So anyone who is a stickler for good manners should say “Je dîne avec des amis ce soir” (I will have dinner with friends tonight).

Photo credit: Christina Flour/ Unsplash

Chut… silence please!

Silence can be very appropriate in France, especially among strangers. Even if you feel very excited about something and want to share your enthusiasm, try to temper it. If you are in a lift, don’t go further than “Bonjour”. At a grocery store, if the wait is long, a French person might throw a look of exasperation– you might also hear “rrrrrroh!” (which is a mark of impatience and for you a good chance to practice your rolling Rs)– whereas an English or American person will grab the opportunity to engage the person behind them in conversation. The French rarely strike up a conversation with their neighbors in a queue or discuss intimate detail of their personal life. The French like to preserve their privacy and will respect yours.

Do you wish to learn more about French Etiquette ?

If you wish to learn French in Paris on a one-to-one basis, French à La Carte offer customized French private lessons in Paris to match your needs, learning abilities, schedule, and location in Paris. We provide cultural coaching to our students explaining the differences between Anglophone and French culture. If you are interested to learn more about us, call us or contact usWe offer several options:  French for beginners, French conversation, French for children, Business French. In addition to your lessons, if you want to learn French in real-life situations such as going to a bakery or in a food market to practice your speaking skills with your tutor, we also offer French immersion in Paris. Find more insights about French language and French culture on our Blog, Twitter, Facebook

Lead photo credit : Photo credit: RawPixel/ Unsplash

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Based in Paris, Florence is the founder of French a la Carte, an agency that offers private and tailor-made French lessons to expats and also immersion in Paris with private tours in easy French for French learners. Florence is a "Parisienne" with her eyes turned toward abroad, and she has as an endless curiosity for Paris. She feels both like a native and an expat who likes to play the tourist in her own city. She was first a press attachée for ARTE, a Franco-German cultural TV channel, before turning to French language teaching. She founded French à La Carte in 2012. For lovers of Paris who would like to improve their conversational French in a efficient and enjoyable manner, French à La Carte also offers private tours which immerse the students in the vibrancy of Paris, with fulfilling outdoor activities adjusted to the level in French of each student. A pastry and chocolate tour in Saint-Germain-des-Près, the discovery of Paris vibrant neighborhoods, a private visit to the Rodin museum or a tour on the influential & feminist women in Paris, these are examples of what French à La Carte can offer. You can contact her at http://www.private-frenchlessons-paris.com/contact for more information on French lessons or private tours.

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Comments

  • Sally Williams
    2020-07-14 06:41:02
    Sally Williams
    Bonjour Olive, With due respect to your comments on Paris and the French people in general, perhaps your lack of understanding that this is one of the largest tourist destinations of the world and I have regularly seen how some tourists conduct themselves, be they American, English, Australian and even New Zealanders and I can tell you many of them do themselves no favours. Firstly it helps immensely if one can even try and speak the language and maybe you believe these French citizens were rude, arrogant and pushy as you have stated simply because of a lack of communication on your part. Many non French speaking tourists walk into a shop completely oblivious that the owner or server has acknowledged them by saying hello. If one doesn't even bother to respond, then, it can be a bad start. I think that perhaps you had a couple of bad experiences and you place everyone in the category that you have described, and that is a pity. Personally I find the majority (like most places in the world) warm and hospitable and you get what you give. Lastly has it entered your mind that you are in their French speaking country and so many of them have a thing about speaking English although some speak it better than they believe but they will tell you otherwise. One cannot make comparisons between France and its people and New Zealand. Vive la france!

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  • Olive Crothall
    2018-07-25 14:42:40
    Olive Crothall
    Perhaps I gave the wrong impression,I didn't mention smiling all the time,I just naively expect someone to respond in return when a friendly,polite approach is made. All I found was a race of rude,aggressive,bad mannered people with no sense of any etiquette whatsoever. Our entire experience in paris was amazing and we explored every little corner and soaked up all the tourism sites,as well as many places off the beaten track but the whole trip was marred by the arrogance of french attitude and having been brought up to use your manners,I was blown away by the complete disrespect shown by everyone we encountered. The patriotism shown by the football crowds at the boozy bars that masquerade as cafes was an absolute classic,rowdy parties in the street right throughout the night, well several nights ,every single game !!!!! Then the disgusting mess and trash including urine and vomit,broken bottles and all the detriment of their celebrations is just left behind for someone else to clean up,then they just do it all again with out any consideration whatsoever. They have a misguided extravagant show of patriotism but no actual pride in their surroundings. We have returned home,after 6 weeks in paris,and am back,safe and sound in our hometown ,friendly little city. By the way,having had a wee bit of turmoil in the past few years,as in having most of our city destroyed by earthquakes,including having my own home crumble down around my feet,an excursion to paris was designed to make me feel better, and in the main,this worked,it was only the people that left a bad impression. Clean,green New Zealand is so peaceful.

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  • Marie Johnson
    2018-07-21 13:41:36
    Marie Johnson
    Olive , If there is one I've learned about the French is that smiling at people all the time is not going to win you any friends. Smiling all the time indicates that you are not a "serious" person or to put it bluntly you are a fool.

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  • olive crothall
    2018-06-24 10:33:43
    olive crothall
    Have just spent 2 weeks so far in paris and have been my usual smiling, pleasant, polite self !!!! I have never met such rude, arrogant, pushy, aggressive people in my quiet little life before.!!! I realise they are very stressed and busy but I have had to face the worst manners I've ever seen and have realised that theres no way they can be coerced into returning a greeting or even manage a smile in response. The tourism offices have been rude and abrupt and completely unhelpful, though we have fortunately done our homework and love the history of paris and the sights and weather are superb, its just a shame that the people are so unpleasant ! Fortunately I've been able to have a friendly chat with one or two persons, the rest are pitiful, be nice to get home, the best memories will only be our photos.

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  • Etiennette Fennell
    2018-06-21 20:31:48
    Etiennette Fennell
    Lorsqu'on a vécu dans un pays tel que l'Australie, si on compare le comportement des gens, c'est alors que la politesse des Français devient plus visible. En Australie, les gens parlent fort dans un restaurant et ne se soucient pas des gens à la table à côté. Ils sont habitués aux grands espaces. Ils entrent dans un magasin comme dans un moulin et en sortent de la même façon. À table, ils mangent sans se soucier de ce qu'ils mangent: on mange pour ne pas avoir faim et il y a rarement de compliments.

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  • ron shapley
    2018-06-21 14:21:44
    ron shapley
    So...............Julia had it all wrong ??

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  • Antoine
    2018-06-19 14:25:19
    Antoine
    Bonjour, Juste une petite question, depuis quand la France est le pays de la politesse? Pour preuve, en arrivant aux Etats-Unis, j'ai été choqué que les gens me disent bonjour dans l'escalier, s'excusent en me bousculant ou me remercie de leur tenir la porte... Et pourtant, je viens du Nord de la France qui est supposé être la partie la plus amicale et aimable de l'Hexagone. A part ca, plutot d'accord avec l'article. :) Bonne journée!

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