Skip to main content

Social etiquette

How to fit in when in France

The French have a wonderfully mixed bag of the formal and the informal (or even slightly haphazard) when it comes to social norms and etiquette. La politesse is ingrained in to French life and there is many a quirky booby trap to trip the unsuspecting foreigner. 

It’s no wonder that the faux pas was adopted long ago and is a well understood phrase in the English language.

Origins of etiquette

Much of modern French etiquette originated at the royal court in the 17th century. With so many aristocrats loafing about with little to do, it was almost a type of parlour game to devise a check list of acceptable social behaviour befitting of a noble of high birth.

This amusing diversion took root however. The list grew and eventually became referred to as an ‘etiquette’, an old French term for ticket, and quickly migrated to the courts and royal circles around Europe. 

It soon became a blueprint for sophisticated and gracious behaviour. Today’s French etiquette and social customs may have evolved and developed over the centuries but they still have many facets and they are deeply nuanced.

Madame Vacances guide to greetings
Madame Vacances guide to greetings

The kiss

A handshake is common of course and a kiss is probably more usual than in the UK. The kiss can deployed appropriately at most social meetings but the trick is knowing how many.

Famously, the number of kisses can be the cause of a degree of confusion, resulting in awkward bumping of faces, bashing of noses and proffering of cheeks in anticipation for a kiss that is not coming. Not to mention good old fashioned air kisses, intended for a cheek that is no longer there. 

The number of kisses to be planted varies from region to region. Much has been written about this but, in theory, the quantity seems to increase the further south you go. In Brittany the norm is just one kiss, perhaps two, while in Corsica five is not unusual. In Alsace three kisses is customary, to the south in Provence and the Côte d’Azur it’s four.

At least the air kiss is perfectly acceptable on most occasions. Best not over-do the theatricality but the Ab Fab mwah-mwah kiss is just fine.  

French office life can be complicated and the morning’s work can take a while to get started as everyone arrives. It is very likely that everyone will either shake hands or kiss their colleagues, every morning on arrival, so best not arrange an appointment for 09:00 sharp.

Do you ‘tu’ or do you ‘vous’?

This is a tricky one when in your native language you neither have to consider how well you know someone, nor weigh up how formal (or not) you feel the occasion is, before addressing them. All in the split second before thanking them for their kind hospitality or murmuring how lovely they look.

Under normal circumstances ‘tu’ is for friends and family. The default position to adopt is to use ‘vous’ until invited to graduate to ‘tu’. With children and animals it’s safe to go straight to ‘tu’; likewise God, strangely enough, though you could try using ‘vous’ initially and wait for the invitation to use ‘tu’.

Open all hours

In the UK we seem to have largely forgotten the old etiquette of greeting the shop keeper – perhaps because their numbers have declined. In France though it is expected to offer a ‘Bonjour Monsieur/Madame’ on entering a shop, often a greeting extended to all the other customers too. Maybe even the doffing of a hat.

Paris flower shop
Paris flower shop

Giving flowers
A simple, thoughtful gesture, internationally understood as a symbol of friendship, gratitude and goodwill. But be careful. You could come unstuck and enter faux pas territory. 

A bunch of 6 or 12 stems is for lovers; and odd numbers are considered unlucky, especially a bunch of 13 stems. And best avoid red roses which are viewed as ‘wedding flowers’.

It gets more complicated. Not uniquely to France, lilies are synonymous with funeral flowers. And tread very carefully with chrysanthemums which in France can be associated with cemetery graves; or - perhaps worse - yellow chrysanthemums which some believe imply that the hostess’s husband is being unfaithful. That would not be a great start to the evening. 

Maybe best to stick to a nice pot plant.

And don’t think that giving a bottle of wine is necessarily a safer alternative. If you do offer wine, it will need to be French. Obviously. And make sure it is a decent bottle – not something picked up from the petrol station, or dragged from the back of your wine rack.

Guide to dining in France
Guide to dining in France

À table!

Meals usually begin with an inviting ‘bon appétit’. Or as we say in the UK, ‘bon appétit’.

These days certain quirks of French dining customs are quite familiar. Cutlery is often retained by diners over both starter and main courses. Cheese – a staple feature of classic French meals – is served before dessert. And coffee is taken when everyone has finished eating, not alongside desserts.

Basic French table manners are fairly universal: it’s safe to say you should avoid licking your knife, start drinking before everyone else has a glass in front of them, eating noisily and bolting your food. 

On a more rarified level, don’t spread your foie gras like pâté; just slice it and eat with your bread. For that matter, best not fuss around removing the rind from your Brie – just eat it, it’ll do no harm.

But beyond these basics, never click your fingers to catch the attention of the waiter. 

Bread is usually provided on the restaurant table, but rarely butter, and there are never side plates for each diner’s bread – it just goes on the table, crumbs and all. And the baguette is usually broken or torn, not sliced.

When travelling by train or bus you may want some fresh air. But be warned, if you open a window and someone else prefers the window remains closed, then they win. 

The rules of engagement of French etiquette may be obscure but they are most definitely there.