French etiquette – Discover the rules that actually matter

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Much has been written about French etiquette. After all, it is a French word, and la politesse has been an important part of French culture since the Bourbon era.

There are so many different ideas about French customs and manners, even those that live in France cannot agree on them. So, we are going to look at some of the ones that just about everyone in France agrees upon.

French etiquette for travelers

Before delving into some of the unwritten rules of French etiquette, let me reassure you. If you are a tourist, nobody expects you to understand the intricacies of French manners and customs.

The occasional faux pas will be forgiven. Basic good manners are enough, as they are in most countries.

Only if you spend time in the country will you start picking up the subtler rules of etiquette in France. But few of those are essential for visitors.

Talking to locals

When talking to people in France, a few good habits will open doors. Or at least stop them from being slammed behind you.

Do try to use a little French, even if you only say s‘il vous plaît (please), merci (thank you), and bonjour (hello).

If you feel bold enough to strike up a conversation or need help with something – whatever your level of French – always use formal terms: vous vs tu.

Speaking in French will usually receive a positive response, even if you struggle to get it right. The French recognize how tricky their language is and give credit for trying.

If you need to converse in your native language, ask before switching languages. A simple parlez-vous Anglais? can work wonders.

Avoid being overly familiar with strangers. Address strangers formally: bonjour Monsieur or Madame is appropriate. Do not chance a mademoiselle¸ it is rarely appropriate when speaking to adults.

Try not to be rude or impatient with staff. The service culture is more relaxed in France. Customers are always looked after, but you may not be their immediate priority.

Stick to these basic rules of French etiquette and you will be off to a good start.

French Greetings

Good French etiquette requires that every interaction in France should start with a greeting.

For example, say hello to employees when entering a small business, like a boulangerie or bar. The staff will likely say it to you too. And don’t forget to say au revoir when you depart.

While out and about, you may also encounter strangers saying bonjour, especially if you make eye contact. It is common in residential areas, less so in shopping or business districts. The only thing to remember is to return any bonjours you receive.

Oh, and be sure to listen out for a bonsoir (good evening) later in the day.

La bise

If there is one French greeting that everyone knows – and sometimes fear – it is la biseLa bise translates simply as ‘kiss’.

Faire la bise is the custom of greeting friends and family with cheek kisses. Ingrained in French culture, it is the standard greeting amongst friends and family.

Unfortunately, the covid pandemic has seen la bise virtually disappear from everyday life. Whether it will make a complete return is unknown. But if it does, here are a few pointers on getting la bise right.

Firstly, ALWAYS remember this is a greeting reserved for friends and family. French etiquette requires a simple handshake for casual acquaintances or in a business setting.

Secondly, despite the name, you do not actually kiss each other. Simply pucker up and air-kiss – not loudly – as you touch cheeks.

These are the basic rules of la bise. There are others, some of which are a mystery even to long-term residents in France.

For example, one to four kisses may be suitable: based upon familiarity, occasion, and even by region. Two is typical, but if in doubt, follow the lead of the other party.

Bear in mind, la bise does not discriminate. A handshake might be enough for casual acquaintances. But amongst friends and family, expect everyone to exchange kisses.

Dining etiquette in France

The French like a good time. It is woven into the fabric of their language.

From bon voyage (have a good trip) to bonne fête (Happy birthday), bon is a word that appears whenever fun is on the agenda. But perhaps the best way to have a good time in France is through food!

There is a very long list of subtle – and not-so-subtle – French manners and customs when dining.

From arriving fashionably late (no more than 15 minutes) to bringing a gift (flowers or dessert, not wine as the hosts will have carefully chosen the wine for dinner).

Table manners in French etiquette are complicated; from keeping hands under the table to arcane bread etiquette (not on your dining plate, eat sparingly throughout your dinner).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the nature of conversation matters. A golden rule of French etiquette is to avoid discussing money, religion, or voting intentions. Most other subjects are fair game.

But while few rules truly matter when it comes to French etiquette, there is something all diners love to hear in France – Bon Appétit.

This signals your appreciation for the joys of good food and gets used every day: at the dining table, when colleagues head home for lunch, or when heading out to a restaurant. Use it, and use it often. It will always be well-received.

Apéro

You know good times are about to begin when your host declares “c’est l‘heure de l’apéro” (it’s apéro time).

Short for ‘aperitif’, it is a pre-dinner drink typically accompanied by snacks, such as gâteaux apéritif or a few slices of saucisson sec.

It is a beloved French custom with its own subculture, albeit more relaxed than some of the more formal aspects of French etiquette.

Handily, some apéro customs also apply to the first glass of wine served with dinner.

As in many countries, it starts with a toast. A simple toast is chin chin (cheers). Often accompanied by santé (health) or santé bonheur (health and happiness). Special occasions may demand a lengthier toast.

French etiquette then requires each glass to be clinked while maintaining eye contact as you move around the group.

Only after doing this can the drinking begin. It is good form to take a sip before placing your drink down.

After that, kick back, relax, and let the festivities begin.

Tipping etiquette in France

Tipping rules are opaque and a source of concern for some visitors.

If you ask a local, they will say tipping is not expected in France. Service charges may appear on restaurant bills, but there is no implicit expectation to tip.

Staff are usually paid a fair wage and do not rely on tips. However, a small gratuity is always welcome. 5 -10%, or simply rounding up the bill, is more than enough.

But do not worry, as nobody will raise an eyebrow if you do not leave a tip. Unlike displaying bad manners…

Final thoughts on French etiquette

Like any culture, most French manners and customs are unwritten and only truly understood by those who spend time in the country.

You do not need to know French etiquette to have a bon temps (good time).

But if you want to do like the locals – or intend to spend time in France – knowing a few French manners and customs will help you get the most out of your time there.

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