When we were in France last year, we had nothing but good experiences with the French. Our experience in Italy on the other hand, was a different matter… But I often come across people who either hated Paris or France, or think that the French are arrogant and rude. Of course there will always be exceptions and you will meet rude people wherever you go. But in general, I have found the French to be very friendly and helpful. However, if you behave like an idiot (in their eyes), do not be surprised if you get treated like one. You need to understand their culture and their ways. Here are my tips on French etiquette:-
- Do not be loud and obnoxious. This is one of the things that I found to be most off-putting and annoying in other tourists when we were in France. You do not need to speak loudly to get your point across. The French are generally very dignified and reserved, and this type of behaviour is likely to alienate you even more.
- When entering a store, always say ‘Bonjour’ and when leaving always say ‘Au revoir’, even if you are just browsing. Do that you will probably get better service. The addition, a salutation such as ‘Madame’ or ‘Monsieur’ is optional. In some high-end stores, you should wait to be served instead of making your own selection and pulling stuff off the shelves. Yes, this can apply to department stores too. When we are at Le Bon Marché last year and hubby was buying shirts, one does not simply just pull your size off the shelf and take it to the changing room. You ask for your size. In this case, hubby was given a shirt in a different colour but the same cut, in his size, to try. Yes, it goes against ‘the customer is always right’ principle that we are used to but that’s the way they do it in France. You are more than welcome to continue doing what you normally do, but don’t complain if the French are rude towards you when you do so.
- Same goes for buying produce at the grocer’s or at the markets. It is not usually self-selection which means you do not handle the produce yourself. You should tell the seller what you are looking for and he/she will make the best selection for you. There are exceptions sometimes though so I usually observe what the locals do and follow suit.
- Learn some French words. It really goes a long way and benefits you at the end of the day. I’ve found that the French really show their appreciation for any attempt at speaking their language. ‘Bonjour’, ‘merci’, ‘au revoir’, ‘s’il vous plaît’ are really easy words to learn. Even a ‘parlez-vous anglais’ and waiting for the usual ‘oui’ (lots of people in Paris speak English) before you launch into a torrent of English words will probably earn you a French friend. My parents have been to Paris twice and got away with only knowing a few French words. They even stumbled into a French restaurant for dinner one night where there was only one waiter who spoke broken English. The menu was entirely in French, everyone spoke French, but between them and the waiter, they managed to order their food and had a wonderful meal. They say that they were treated very politely and everyone was very friendly. It probably helped that my parents greet everyone in France with ‘bonjour’ and they say ‘merci’ and smile a lot. There are some great free podcasts that you can easily download from the internet to learn French. I personally have never been a fan of podcasts as I find them too boring and repetitive but for someone who wants to learn the language but can’t find time to sign up for a course, or have regular classes, this is a convenient way to learn the language, or at least the basics of it.
- At a restaurant, calling a waiter ‘garçon’ is seriously one of the worst faux pas you could make. And yet, I still read many guidebooks recommending that. I brought up this subject with my tutor and she looked completely scandalized when I asked if that was an acceptable way to attract a waiter’s attention. She told me I should never, ever use that! The best way would probably be to say ‘s’il vous plaît’. One other thing about dining in restaurants… Do not order just one dish. While it is perfectly acceptable to order just two courses for lunch instead of the usual three, one is a very lonely and unpopular number. A good meal is one of the most important things to a French person, and ordering just one course is almost an insult to the chef and to the people you are dining with. Also, while dogs are welcomed in most restaurants (yes, some dogs will even happily sit on chairs next to their owners), a doggy bag is a definite NO NO!!!
- Contrary to some guidebook again, tipping is not compulsory. Generally, you will round up your bill to the nearest euro and leave the small change behind, but tipping is not necessary. By law, your restaurant bill already includes a service tax. I asked my tutor if she ever tips and she gave me a blank stare… LOL. By all means, if you are dining at a 3 Michelin star restaurant and it was so amazing that you feel like tipping, go right ahead. Just don’t do it out of obligation.
- If you are driving, don’t drive too slowly and do not hog the left lane on the expressway if you are driving slowly. Funnily enough the French can be quite aggressive behind the wheel. Driving in France is quite similar in some ways to driving in Asian countries. One weird thing is when you park, you are allowed to gently bump the cars in front and behind you while you squish your car in between spaces. So if you are walking down the road and see this happening, don’t run off to call the police. It’s perfectly acceptable in France.
- When meeting for the first time, it is appropriate to shake hands. Between friends, you may share a ‘bisou’, that’s the fabulous French ‘air kiss’. For ‘le bisou’, you lean in towards your friend and kiss the air next to their cheek without planting any part of your lips or face on their faces. The custom of ‘bisous’ is extremely complicated as the number of kisses depends on which area of France you live in. Down south, it even gets up to 4 kisses, which can result in a lot of knocking around of heads. For Paris, it’s two ‘bisous’. I asked my tutor which sides should you lean into first for the first kiss. She believes you should lean to your right first, and then your left. Who am I to argue with a French woman who has lived in Paris? The other thing about invading personal spaces is the French do not do hugs. It’s an invasion of personal space so no matter how close you are, even if you’re family, you do not do hugs!
- And finally the sticky question of ‘tutoyer’ and ‘vouvoyer’. The French have two ways of saying ‘you’ – the formal ‘vous’ and informal ‘tu’. One should always use ‘vous’ until invited to use ‘tu’. Yes, this applies to all interaction, including the taxi driver, the sales person, the waiter, everyone… They are especially particular about this in the country. However, the younger French generation are not so strict about this rule and between friends, you could easily get away with ‘tutoyering’. I was ‘tutoyering’ my tutor after my first lesson. Again, if in doubt, observe your French counterpart and follow what they do.
I hope this post has shed some light on some crazy French customs and has helped you ‘devenir un parisien ou une parisienne… un peu, peut-être’.