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.” 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. 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! 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…

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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 for more information on French lessons or private tours.


  • 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!