French etiquette – Day to day do’s and don’ts

The guidelines to avoid a faux pas in the French society.

The summer holiday season is here and France will be crammed with tourists. Being well versed in the social behavior practices is important if you are planning a vacation out of your country. Every country has its own customs and traditions that dictate the rules of communication and etiquette. French people, like everyone else have their specific manner requirements as well. After all, “Handsome is as handsome does”, said Tolkein in the Fellowship of the Ring.

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La poiltesse” reigns social behavior amongst French as does formality. The way you act, talk, dress, eat… everything is more formal as compared to American standards. The following tips are handy to avoid being stamped “tourist” if you are vacationing in France.

Hello’s and goodbye’s

No matter who you meet or speak to, you have to begin with a greeting. “Bonjour” and “Bonsoir (after 6 pm)” are the expected hello’s. These are used with the words “Monsieur” and “Madame” for men and women respectively. You say your goodbye’s with “Au revoir”. Greetings are offered with a light handshake. Kissing on both cheeks or “faire la bise” is a form of greeting amongst family, friends and colleagues.

Bob, is it?

The French take names very seriously. The social norm dictates that you don’t use the first name of a person unless you are invited to do so. You address the person the last name. Knowing academic titles and using them properly is required.

You or you?

The use of the pronoun “you” as “tu” or “vous” dictates many relations in France. As a general rule of thumb use “vous”. It indicates politeness and respect. The word “tu” is used as relationships grow. And you wouldn’t want to go offending someone, would you? 😉

Let’s play dress

The French are known for their fashion consciousness. When in France, don’t dress “American Casual”. Although there are no strict dress codes on a day to day basis, American casual is a little too casual for us. We rarely wear shorts unless it’s the beach. So, dress more formal, more like business casual.

Bon Appétit

Be it a dinner, a party or a cocktail party at someone’s place, it is customary to arrive 10 or 15 minutes late, so that the host has enough time to be ready. Guests are seated by the host. Never start eating until your host and hostess have begun and always wait until a toast has been proposed before you drink wine.

Table manners dictate that you keep your hands on the table at all times during a meal — not in your lap. However, take care to keep your elbows off the table. Bread is served with every meal and it is broken with hands, never cut. Unlike Americans, we, the French keep this broken bread on the tablecloth or the bread plate and not the bread basket. We also don’t cut salad; lettuce is folded on to the fork.

It is considered impolite to leave anything on the plate. Taste everything that is offered. When finished eating, place knife and fork side by side on the plate at the 5:25 position. Leave your wine glass almost full if you don’t care for more. However, never refill your own glass of wine for more. Wait to be served!

To gift or not to gift

Flowers (natural as far as possible) and chocolates are perfect gifts when in doubt. However, when it comes to flowers, stay away from 6 or 12 (for lovers), odd numbers, especially 13 since it is considered unlucky, chrysanthemums or red roses since they are used in weddings. We also love our wine, so if you decide to gift wine, make sure it is really good.

General, not so general

Don’t forget your P’s and T’s. Always say please and thank you. Keep your voice low in public. Yelling is considered a sign of anger and impoliteness.

We, the French love conversation in general. However, don’t ask personal questions or expect us to show you around in our house. We also dislike speaking of politics. A smile is considered polite in most cultures, however we don’t indulge in smiles just for politeness. We smile only when we feel like it. Our humor is satirical and sexual at times. So keep an open mind to humor.

That said, enjoy your stay in France, be it a week…or a decade. 🙂

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