“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.
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 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).
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 us. We 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