Each culture has its own rules of etiquette, some more formal than others. France is one of the countries with rather formal manners. Considering the word “etiquette” comes from the French that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
It is not uncommon for Americans to consider the French rude yet much of that impression comes from a lack of knowledge of French manners and rules of behavior. When in Paris we did our best to follow these standard rules of behavior and found the French to be very polite and courteous in return.
Let’s take a look at some of the basic rules of French behavior.
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French Manners and Etiquette
One of the most important things to understand is how to greet someone. A simple “bonjour, Madame/Monsieur” (hello, good morning) or “bonsoir” (good evening) rather than “hello” will help you get off on the right foot. We found that almost everyone we encountered in hotels, shops, restaurants, etc. in Paris spoke English. They were pleased we made an attempt to greet them in French and then were more than happy to switch to English rather than hear us butcher their beautiful language.
If you plan to try out your beginning French language skills keep in mind the difference between “tu” and “vous”. Stick with the formal “vous” to be on the safe side. And rein in any overly enthusiastic impulses. The French tend to be more reserved, especially with strangers.
The French use the continental style which means the fork is held in the left hand with the tines down, and the knife in the right. The food is speared by the fork and brought to the mouth with the tines down.
Elbows on the table is considered bad manners in France, just as in America. However, the French keep both hands on the table, rather than in the lap.
Women do not pour wine for themselves; the man sitting next to them does.
Sit up straight, chew quietly and don’t laugh or speak too loudly.
In addition to basic table manners mentioned above, there are a few things one should know about dining in restaurants in France. First of all, the French tend to eat their meals at regular hours so you might have trouble getting a full meal late afternoon or early evening. Many restaurants close in between the lunch and dinner seatings.
Reservations are a good idea and be sure to be on time or call if running late.
Tables are usually very close together. We ended up having a very interesting conversation with people seated near us at one small restaurant. It turns out the woman next to us had not only been on the same plane but had been sitting directly behind me. It is truly a small world.
The tip is included in the meal and there is no expectation of anything else. However, if your service was excellent, a 5% tip is acceptable. Don’t overdo it, though, as you might be seen as a showoff.
Greet the shopkeeper with a polite “bonjour, madame/monsieur” upon entering the store and “au revoir” when leaving. Do not handle items in a boutique or upscale shop without asking first.
In grocery stores or food markets, do not pick up the produce yourself. Ask for what you want and the shopkeeper will help you.
Talking too loudly, taking up too much space, eating on the Metro, smiling at strangers on the street – these things are frowned upon in France.
Leave the jogging suits, ratty t-shirts and running shoes at home. It’s absolutely true that the French dress better. One of our favorite things to do in Paris was people watch from our seats at a sidewalk cafe. It was easy to spot the tourists. The French, on the other hand, all looked beautiful. I recall an elderly man who needed the assistance of a cane yet was wearing well-cut dark red trousers, sweater, artfully (yet casually) tied scarf and a dapper hat. Even the two year olds had tiny scarves around their necks.
It’s important to dress appropriately for the situation. Fancy restaurants may require a coat and tie for men. When attending or even just sightseeing in a church, avoid hats and bare shoulders.
Important words and phrases to know:
- Bonjour – hello
- Au revoir – goodbye
- Merci – thank you
- S’il vous plait – please
- Excusez-moi de vous déranger, Madame/Monsieur. – “Excuse me for bothering you, ma’am/sir”. Begin your questions with this phrase so as not to appear rude.