So, your trip to Paris is booked. Now it’s time to learn the details of the French way of life. The French are a society very proud of their culture, traditions, and, of course, food. To be taken seriously in their country, you need to take their culture and traditions seriously. Learning a little about French etiquette and manners before you go will allow you to have a much smoother trip, blending in seamlessly with the locals.
The Basics of French Etiquette
1. Do Say Bonjour!
Greeting a person before any kind of interaction (asking for the time, walking into a store, walking into the same elevator as someone) is customary and expected in France. Jumping straight into your question or conversation is considered rude, so giving them a “bonjour!” (“bonsoir” after 6 PM), and possibly an “Excusez-moi de vous déranger (I’m sorry for bothering you), if you’re greeting a person who is otherwise busy, will go a very long way.
2. Do be Polite.
When it comes to French etiquette, being polite is absolutely key. Always be sure to say your s’il voul plait (please), merci (thank you) and je vous en prie or de rien (you’re welcome). In any transactions or interactions, politeness will get you better service, and, of course, show your appreciation and respect. It’s a simple move, but an important one.
3. Don’t hug. Kiss instead!
Few places are as famous for kisses as France is. American-style hugging is considered rude in France, but la bise, the kisses on the cheek as a greeting is the standard way to say hello to your friends and family. When meeting someone for the first time, you’ll likely be shaking hands, but if it’s someone you’re already familiar with, start with the left cheek, and make a kiss sound, then repeat on the right side. In Paris, it’s standard to have two kisses (one left, one right), but elsewhere in France, up to four kisses can be standard. When in doubt, follow the lead of the person you’re interacting with.
Social Etiquette in France
4. Don’t be on time.
Fashionably late is a way of life in France. With the exception of business dealings and restaurant reservations, it’s expected that guests will arrive between 15-20 minutes later than the time stated. Your host will be planning on that extra time, so take your time getting there.
5. Do bring a gift.
If invited into someone’s home, it is customary to bring a small, but high-quality gift. Quality is important as it communicates the appreciation you feel toward the host for the invite.
6. Don’t talk about money.
Another key component of French etiquette revolves around topics of conversation. While wealth is front and center in most of the world, the French put far more importance on art, food, politics, and ideas. Discussing wealth, or what people do for a living is considered rude and tacky. Keep your conversations to one of those four topics, and you’ll be able to mesh well in any situation.
7. Do learn to love the comfortable silence.
While you might have met your best friend in a long line at the grocery store, casual, small-talk conversations are very uncommon in France. Don’t kick up a conversation with someone in line, or go beyond a quick “bonjour” with someone in an elevator. Comfortable silence is preferable to small talk chit-chat at almost all times.
8. Don’t shout!
Shouting or yelling is only really used in moments of anger in France. Raising your voice in public and on public transit (perhaps especially on public transit) is considered rude and should be avoided. Instead, use body language to express excitement!
9. Don’t eat on the go.
As a baseline, the French respect food above many things. The flavors are meant to be savored and enjoyed slowly, so take a seat and a few minutes to enjoy that snack.
10. Do expect people to cut the line or queue.
Waiting in an orderly fashion is not a thing in France, so don’t expect people to do so. Get right in there in the fray and queue up for things the French way.
11. Don’t touch!
When browsing the local markets, don’t touch the fruit or vegetables. Once you greet the merchant (per #1), they’ll be right there to help, and will be happy to select the item for you.
Dining Etiquette in France
12. Don’t expect a quick meal.
If you’re eating at a restaurant, dining is an event. The service will be slow because one of the delights of French culture is a slow, delicious meal with great wine and sprawling sparkling conversation.
13. Don’t ask for a to-go bag.
A lot of care is put into preparing food and drink in France, so leaving food on your plate, especially in someone’s home, is communicating a lack of appreciation for the effort put forth in the kitchen. Only put what you’ll eat on your plate, and finish the whole thing.
14. Do learn the etiquette around wine.
Wine is an important part of cuisine in France, and manners while enjoying it are equally important. It’s customary to discuss the flavors and notes in the wine. When it arrives, smell the wine, and take a small sip that you hold in your mouth to explore the flavors. If you’re done, leave your last glass mostly full to signal that you don’t want any more.
15. Don’t ask to modify the menu.
While it’s no big deal to ask for a modification on a menu item in the US, unless there is an allergy in play, it’s a no-no in France. Eat the food as the chef intended it. Trust me, they know better than us, and you won’t be disappointed.
16. Do leave a tip.
While service charge is included in the bill, servers are still paid minimum wage, so prepare to leave a little tip to show appreciation for great service. The amount of the tip is less important than the fact that you’re actually tipping, so don’t feel obligated to leave the 15-20% customary in the US.
French culture can feel totally mystifying. On the surface, it feels very similar to other western cultures, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find customs established to ensure a polite and lovely society. With their respect for others, and focus on rich and worldly interests, it’s hard to not fall in love with this amazing place and it’s beautiful people.