French Etiquette: 13 Faux-Pas Foreigners Make in France and How to Avoid Them

Introduction

During this quarantine, I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about French culture and the proper protocols to follow in various social situations and the infamous faux-pas. This blog post was influenced by a conversation about French culture and first impressions as a visitor. Initially, my first impression of France and French culture was in Paris, and it was mixed; some people were helpful, while others just ignored me. It made me feel like Parisians were quite snobby, or was it a more widespread cultural phenomenon.

What is a faux-pas?

The word faux-pas translates to ‘false-step.’ Literally, it means to blunder or to make a mistake but with regards to a particular set of cultural norms. It has been adopted into the English language since the 16th century and other French words such as bon appétit, rendez-vous, and déjà vu. The faux-pas concept encapsulates the local-foreigner experience well, not only in France but all over the world. A notable example is Japan, but I will save this for another blog post.

In French culture, there is a complex web of cultural norms embedded in your life from a young age. There are countless books written on the topic because it is so detailed and intricate. One of France’s most recognizable cultural norms is the two-kiss greeting, which is popular in other European countries but is mandatory in French culture. Some are recognizable from cultural exchanges such as films, books, or just meeting a French person.

What makes faux-pas so interesting is how often it can occur (in most cases unintentionally) and how these actions can create reactions. Over time, these reactions become ingrained responses, which creates a feedback loop. This feedback loop is that tension I noted earlier between locals and foreigners, which reinforces assumptions on both sides, leading to the faux-pas by a foreigner and the ingrained (and irritated) response by a local.

You only have to think of a personal experience where you are from when tourists inundate your city or town. You are left feeling irritated by the influx, at the inability to get a table at your favourite spot, or bad manners (all of them). My hope is that recognizing some of the common faux-pas that we as visitors can make will help break this feedback loop and instead try to actively engage with locals and adapt and immerse yourself into local customs for a more authentic experience. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it reflects our combined observations and experiences.

13 Common Faux-Pas in France 

1. Eating Out and Expecting a Fast Food Timeline

When you go out for a meal in France, you cannot expect your food to be cooked and served under 30 minutes, like in North America. Nor should you devour your food without pausing to enjoy the whole experience, not just the food but also the wine, company, and conversation. If you genuinely want a fast food experience, Mc Donald’s is your best bet.

If you want to eat as the locals do in France and experience the food culture, slow down. Sitting down to dinner with friends or family is meant to be a process; you have a cocktail or a glass of wine and multiple courses to be eaten over the night. The lingering feeling of eating, talking, and spending time with your companions is the focus.

Cover illlustration and this illustration from itg.digital

In North America, it feels like we order and expect our food to be served immediately, then we speed eat our meal without savouring or taking our time. Or, if you want to linger and take your time, you’re being timed to make room for the next table. Eating is a slow experience meant to be a social engagement with friends, family, and loved ones. So, don’t complain about the length of time. 

2. Not Cleaning Your Plate

In some cultures, you leave a little behind on your plate because it is considered rude to clean your plate. Not in France cleaning the plate signals to your host or the chef that you thoroughly enjoyed your meal. However, there is one caveat; you must clean the plate with bread, not your knife! I love this one because bread truly serves a delicious purpose here. 

Baguette – a delicious way to clean your plate!

3. Say Bon Appétit Before You Eat

Say this before you eat. It’s one of those fancy French words that we’ve integrated into English (and it’s also a popular food publication). It also means you have taken the time to wait for everyone else to receive their dish, or be served, and you can expect to start the meal together. It’s not only a salutation; it’s showing respect to others at the table. In the instance, dishes come out separately, and your dinner companion has signalled to start, it’s okay.

4. Make Eye Contact When You Cheers Someone, and You Have To Cheers Every Person.

This act is a two-fold tradition, you must make eye contact when clinking glasses, and you must cheers each person individually while ensuring to never cross glasses. So, prepare yourself to take a few moments to salute everyone before you take your first sip. This may seem extraneous; however, it shows respect and acknowledges each person, which is quite a beautiful sentiment. 

5. Hugging Instead of Kissing

In North America, there is a lot more hugging between people, albeit it tends to be with people you know well. In France, greeting someone is done with two kisses (however, in some regions you kiss once or three times). Interestingly, men still offer a handshake when meeting someone new or in business, and only kiss each other if they are considered family or very close. Women, on the other hand, are expected to greet everyone with kisses.

Despite the gender differences, this is a well-engrained cultural tradition in France and hugging is considered to be strange and even invasive, catching many French people off guard. Another intriguing element about kissing-greeting, when you arrive or leave a party, event, dinner, etc. you are expected to kiss everyone before you leave. If you do not, this is considered to be quite rude. 

6. Bad Manners

A simple hello/goodbye/thank you can go a long way, this seems intuitive; however, it appears that when tourists ask for help, they tend to be a bit too direct and miss the subtle greetings and go straight to the question. This seems to be a repetitive issue in high tourist areas, and it’s no wonder that tourists may receive curt responses. So, it is advisable, and also just a nice thing to do, to insert a greeting before a question. 

Illustration from itg.digital

7. No Tipping at Restaurants

Although tipping is prevalent in North America, in fact, expected in many places, it is not necessary for France. In North America, the wages tend to be lower, and servers make their money through tips, so the customer service level is higher to earn said tips. However, in France, this is the opposite; the wages are higher for servers, and because tips are not mandatory, the level of customer service can be a bit lower, albeit, depending on where you are. There is also an 18% service tax that is included on every bill. 

8. Avoid Small Talk

Don’t use small talk as a crutch. It’s okay to start a conversation with some starter topics (try to avoid the weather, professions, and politics). Still, it’s essential to evolve the conversation into more engaging issues such as travel, the local context, films, or non-political news items.  

9. Avoid Talking About Money or Flaunt Wealth

It is best to avoid discussions about wealth, particularly inquiring about the financial status or salary of a French person unless you are close friends. It seems like common sense; however, I’ve noticed that more and more people speak about wages and the money they earn. For some, this is normal; in France, talking about money is a no-no. 

10. Tu/Vous

Vous is the formal pronoun for ‘you’ only use ‘tu’ if it’s family or friends. If you’ve been invited to say ‘tu’ by a French person, you can use the informal pronoun otherwise use vous to show respect. 

11. Puncationality is Essential, but Never Show Up Early to a Party

Arrive 15min later than the set time, this ensures that the host has ample time for preparation. Additionally, always bring a bottle, or two, to share, which you never take it back. In France, you bring food and drink to share with everyone at the party. BYOB doesn’t exist. I think this is a great way to host a party because you know your guests will pay it forward when they host, and it also makes sharing and enjoying the party much less complicated, allowing you to focus on enjoying yourself.

12. Entrée is a Starter, Not the Main Dish

This is followed by the main and dessert. This is a funny one because an entrée has always been a main for me, which I think is the case throughout most of North America. It’s an interesting cultural appropriation of the word entrée but used in the completely wrong context. The next time you are in France and want to order an entrée, remember this is your starter and not your main dish.

When you are in a restaurant, you will be asked to place your order for an aperitif to start and entrée should you want it, your main dish, and a bottle of wine to be paired with your principal. The aperitif will be served with snacks (offered by the restaurant). The aperitif is very popular and not something to skip. After the aperitif, your entrée will arrive, followed by the main dish. This course is eaten in a slow progressive manner, as noted earlier. I appreciate the slow dinner process.

*Cultural side note if you attend a dinner party, the setup is slightly different. It follows a similar sequence as noted above, but after your main make room for a cheese platter and then finally dessert. The cheese platter seems to be less prevalent in restaurants.

13. Chivalry Isn’t Dead

Illustration from  itg.digital

Dating already has a complex set of rules you have to abide by but now throw on the added layer of dating a foreigner or in a foreign country. Although this may be a contentious point, according to my friend, if you go on a date with a French guy, he will usually offer to buy the dinner the first time. This may not seem that far off from North American experiences. However, France is known to be one of the most romantic countries, so embrace the chivalry and any romance that comes your way, just don’t take it for granted. If you are out for drinks, offer to purchase the first one, it’s a nice gesture to offer; however, it’s the nice thing to do to buy the next round. It may seem like another intuitive point, but I wouldn’t have anything to write if it was. So, appreciate the gesture of someone offering to take you to dinner or to buy you a drink and return the favour. 

Conclusion

So, now that you’ve been briefed on some essential French customs, this should help you avoid any gaffs on your next trip to France, ensuring that you have a pleasant experience along with all the people you encounter.

One Comment

  1. Matthew Long

    Well written Meg. Some of those I didn’t know actually, I haven’t been to France yet. Keep upthe good work.🤙

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