Going to France is a chance for the trip of a lifetime. Many of us yearn to see the Mona Lisa in person and climb the Eiffel Tower or wander around the cobbled streets of Montmartre. We want to buy fresh baguettes and eat local delicacies in a street café.
However, it is worth bearing in mind that the French have a very strict set of rules or etiquette, itself a French word. There are ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ that are helpful to know in advance to avoid putting your foot in it and causing offense.
Their manners are very different from other nations, their sense of pride in their nation is firm. It is acceptable to hold a door open for a lady but not for a lady to pour her own glass of wine at dinner. Knowing these minefields in advance can ease a trip to the Gallic nation.
As Expatica reminds us, in France ‘la politesse’ or manners, rule. French people may appear overly formal, but they are used to a strict set of cultural rules that they will not bend for foreigners. There are forms of address that are important to master and in this unique nation, the art of letter writing is not dead.
20 Don’t Expect Frog Legs and Snails on Every Menu
There is a myth that French people spend all day eating frog legs, snails and carrying around baguettes. This stereotypical view of the beret-wearing French national is far from the truth. They do love their fresh baguettes, but the days of wearing berets outside haute couture are long gone.
They do eat frog legs and snails, but this is not common fare and is mostly confined to certain areas of the country where they are a specialty. Frogs used to be taken from French swamps, but as stocks depleted, this practice was outlawed and most ‘French’ frog legs now come from Indonesia.
19 Don’t Try and Buy Your Baguettes in the Afternoon
When buying fresh bread, buy baguettes in the morning. The stocks will deplete in boulangeries, as baguettes should be consumed on the day of purchase. If you need a baguette in the afternoon, boulangeries are likely to have sold out and express surprise that you are asking for the item late in the day.
Indeed, boulangeries may close over the lunch period and may close altogether if they have run out of fresh bread. They will sell various other types of artisan bread, but if you want a fresh baguette, go early in the morning.
18 Don’t Assume Shops are Open All Day Every Day
French timing is very different from American timing. It is best to be well aware of this in advance and go with it. Many shops open in the morning and then re-open at 2.30 or 3 pm and stay open later. Many stores are closed on Sundays. French people take their day of rest quite literally.
There are some shops that will advertise that they are ‘non-stop.’ This doesn’t mean 24 hours, but rather that they don’t shut at lunchtime. Try and plan your day so that you are not stuck in the middle of the day and remember that dinner is often eaten late in France, from 8 pm onwards.
17 Don’t Eat One Course in a Restaurant, Only Go if You’re Hungry
French people take their food seriously and regard dining out in the same way. They take great time and trouble over their food and they assume that if someone is visiting their restaurant, they have gone because they are hungry. If you are not hungry, don’t go! Ordering a starter on its own is regarded as very bad form and many restaurants will offer ‘prix fixe’ menu that is a set price for two courses.
It is also regarded as an insult to leave food on the plate, so if there is a problem with the dish, send it back rather than leave it, to avoid upsetting the chef.
16 Don’t Ask for a Doggy Bag, it’s Considered Very Rude
Asking for a doggy bag is regarded as very rude. Do not be surprised if you are refused if you do ask for one. The waiter and other French guests will be astonished and possibly insulted if you do ask to take your remaining food home. It is just not something that is done in France.
Etiquette is very important to French people, especially if dining in their homes. Any slips will be regarded as an insult to the host, so it is worth doing a bit of research on how to behave in order to prevent any discomfort.
15 Don’t be Surprised at Being Kissed, it’s Very Normal as a Greeting
If you meet a stranger in France, the correct greeting is to shake hands. When you are introduced to a friend or acquaintance, they will kiss you on both cheeks and possibly on the original cheek a second time. Don’t be offended by this, it is simply a custom.
French people find hugging awkward so try and avoid it unless you know the person well. Always make sure that you greet people with a ‘bonjour.’ French people are sticklers for etiquette but are more reserved in some ways, so don’t expect the American level of smiles and conversation.
14 Don’t be Picky About Food in a Restaurant, it’s Considered Rude
French people are coming around to the idea of food allergies and intolerances, but they have taken time and effort over their dishes and will not welcome attempts to alter their menus. People have been thrown out of restaurants for trying to make changes to dishes, so be aware of this before you order.
Obviously, it is acceptable to ask for meat to be cooked rare or well done but be aware that the waiter will want you to experience the food in the best way the chef intended. So, they may make recommendations as to how your food should be eaten.
13 Don’t Make Negative Comments About Their Country
The French are a proud nation and fiercely patriotic. Look at the symbols of national pride in Paris, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, built by Napoleon Bonaparte, for example. The Arc was built so the French people would remember Napoleon and his battle success and to French people, it says ‘France.’
They are proud of their nation and proud of their government. It’s best not to insult these institutions or you are likely to get a very direct response. Their national motto is ‘equality, liberty, and fraternity,’ and people believe the French respect equality above the others.
12 Don’t be Shocked at Their Openness
The French attitude about relationships is quite different from the American. For instance, it is quite normal to stay close to exes and they are often invited to weddings and remain lifelong friends. It may sound like a cliché, but it is a reality that many French women don’t just tolerate their husbands seeking out other relationships, but they actually expect it.
In a survey, over half of French respondents regarded relations before marriage as not being a moral issue and 95 percent regarded it as acceptable. Attitudes are more liberal and things are not as taboo as it is in other countries.
11 Don’t be Surprised if Children are Expected to Eat the Same as Adults
It may be a culture shock to see French children eating at a formal table with their parents. Children regularly eat with adults and sit at the table until the meal is over. It is regarded as very rude to leave the table before the meal has ended, so children are expected to stay put.
They will also be offered, and eat, the same food as the adults and are much more open to trying new foods and flavors. Children are taught about healthy, appropriate eating in school and vending machines are banned in schools to avoid temptation.
10 Do: Be Polite to Shopkeepers and Treat Them as Equals
It is regarded as very rude if you don’t greet the shopkeeper when you enter their shop, whether you are intending to buy something or just browsing. When leaving the shop, you should also say goodbye to them. Shopkeepers regard themselves as equals to anyone else, so they do not tolerate being spoken to rudely or treated as inferior.
If you are in a hurry, be prepared to be patient, there is no room for rushing in and rushing out of a French shop. Servers may refuse to give you what you want if they think you are rude, manners are more important to a French shopkeeper than making money.
9 Do: Expect Men to be Gallant, it’s Part of the Culture
Gallantry is a matter of national pride for French men. If they hold open a door for a lady or open a car door, they are not being sexist, they regard it as politeness and a necessity. Gallantry predominantly exists in France between men and women, so expect a man to pull a chair out for you in a restaurant or allow you to walk on the inside of the sidewalk to protect you from danger.
If you find it uncomfortable, try to remember that the French man means no insult. The best response is to smile and to say thank you.
8 Do: Be Mindful About Pickpockets, Americans are a Big Draw
There is always a risk of pickpockets, especially in major cities. However, tourists are a particular draw for pickpockets as they are often distracted and have something with them worth stealing.
Once a pickpocket hears an American accent, they may think they have struck gold. Take the usual precautions, carry the minimum with you, keep things in secure bags rather than pockets and wear a bag over the body rather than on the shoulder.
Be extra careful near ATMs or in very crowded places or on public transport. French people may be just as well behaved as any nationals, but there is a criminal fraternity in every country.
7 Do: Be Discreet and Expect Honesty from French People
The French are a nation of discreet people and are close with their families and friends, but more reserved, if polite with strangers. They are formal in most relations and do not expect or understand over-familiarity with people that they do not know. They respect their personal space and do not strike up conversations with people who are not friends.
This discretion is guarded and may lead to people being seen as rude. They will be direct and honest when necessary and will defend themselves or their national pride if they feel threatened or insulted.
6 Do: Make an Effort to Speak French, Even a Bonjour Will Help
When you are greeting a French person, it is not regarded as polite to say ‘hi’ or ‘hello.’ It is a compliment to use French and to say, ‘bonjour Madame/Monsieur.’ This may seem old-fashioned, but it is common practice in France and will endear you to a French person.
Similarly, it is polite to say ‘au revoir’ or goodbye when departing, even from a shop where you haven’t bought anything. It will be regarded as rude to omit this. If you do have any French, then it will be greatly appreciated if you use it, but as many people speak English, they may soon lapse into your language once the initial gesture has been made.
5 Do: Take Gifts if You are Invited to Dinner, but Never Take Wine
French dining is a minefield in itself. If you are invited to a French family’s home, the first thing to remember is that guests are expected to arrive up to an hour after the time stated. The host will wait until all guests have arrived before serving drinks and no one should eat at the table until the host has signaled the start of the meal.
You may think of taking a gift for the hostess, which will be received graciously. However, if you take wine it will be seen as an insult to the host as if to imply that they cannot choose decent wine for themselves.
4 Do: Keep Conversation Light and Avoid Talking About Money or Salaries
The French find it very distasteful to talk about money or about jobs or salaries in a social situation. Obviously, if you are in a business meeting, this is not relevant. Some subjects are regarded as taboo, others, such as philosophy are regarded as too boring for dinner table chat.
However, many French people love a debate, but be careful to remain within acceptable boundaries, and don’t contradict for the sake of it. Remember that France fought to be a republic and they have a sense of national honor and pride as a result.
3 Do: Be Prepared to be Judged by How you Dress
The French value their style and try to remain clean and well groomed in all situations. Indeed, it is frowned upon to adopt casual dress in some situations, so be careful of upsetting people if you are being taken out by French folk.
This is particularly important in restaurants. The French have a more formal attitude to dressing and they expect people to dress up to dine out. The French have an innate sense of style and it comes easily to them but try and err on the side of more formal and you are more likely to get it right.
2 Do: Keep Noise to a Reasonable Level, Excessive Noise is Frowned Upon
The French, do not, as a rule, tolerate loud, raucous behavior. They rarely eavesdrop on other people’s conversations and expect to be able to hold a conversation at a respectable level as well. If you speak to a French person, it will be greatly appreciated if you lower your voice and speak in a respectable tone. This will lead to a warmer response than a raised voice.
It is wise to keep noise levels to a minimum in public and to respect the personal space of others. It is frowned upon to eat on public transport as well, so try and hold off until you’re in a more private setting.
1 Do: Be Prepared to Help Out a Stranger, There’s No Worry About Lawsuits Here
Despite their reluctance to interact with strangers, French people are immensely chivalrous when it comes to helping out strangers in need. For instance, if an elderly or blind person is attempting to cross the road, a French person will instinctively go to help and not worry about being bothersome.
In America, there is often a concern that touching someone else will be seen as a negative gesture and could even result in a charge of assault. French people have no such worries and would rather risk any negative action in the name of chivalry.