The Living France guide to... French etiquette

Kate McNally aids safe passage through the tricky waters of social interaction in France

France may be a mere hop and skip across the sea, and we may all feel that we know our French cousins fairly well having been introduced to the Bertin family in school books and, more recently, through watching the Arsenal football team every week on television, but you only have to spend a few hours on the other side of La Manche to appreciate that our differences go way beyond the linguistic.

So, for anyone planning to spend most of their time living in this strange Gallic land, it’s a good idea to get to grips with the basics of what we call ‘French etiquette’ – a mixed bag of social rules and regulations that fly in the face of the rude, phlegmatic French caricature – before plunging headfirst into what is a potential minefield of social gaffes! Indeed, a tip-toe approach is recommended...

First things first

One fundamental rule of politesse that all French children are taught from a young age and never forget is the all-important ‘bonjour’, addressed to pretty much anyone and everyone you meet.

You walk into a shop, you say it; someone else walks into the shop, you say it; go into work, pick the children up from school, get on the bus, go to the swimming pool, you say it. And if you want to be that little bit more polite, particularly for older generations or in more formal situations, add madame or monsieur. Addressing someone as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ in England is rare these days (apart from formal letter-writing) and considered somewhat subservient, but in the France it is a simple mark of respect for the other person.

Greeting

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When French people meet someone they know or are introduced to them, the hello is accompanied either by a handshake (usually between men) or they ‘faire les bises’ (usually between women or between a man and a woman).

The kisses are more a cheek-to-cheek touch, as opposed to an actual kiss, and are carried out without undue ceremony or arm-holding. As a guide, plant the feet for balance, lean in and briefly touch your cheek to theirs, generally starting with the left cheek though there is no hard and fast rule on this. Avoid a wet kiss at all costs and don’t make a ‘mwah’ noise that typically accompanies air kisses in the UK. It is most common to give two kisses, one on each cheek, but it can be three or four depending on what part of France you are in. For small children, one kiss suffices.

Male acquaintances nearly always shake hands on meeting, and often when saying goodbye as well. Only very close male friends or male family members will greet each other with les bises. On the other hand, men and women may shake hands in a more formal business setting, even if they know each other or when meeting for the first time, although it is also quite acceptable in a more informal environment for a man to greet a woman with two kisses on the first meeting. There is a level of nuance, depending on context and character, so be ready to go with the flow, and if in doubt wait for the other person to make the first move.

If you meet a large group of people you know, it is acceptable to say something or make a gesture to indicate that you are greeting everyone rather than making a long round of kisses. For a smaller grouping, however, it is best to make the usual effort greeting everyone individually and appropriately.

If people meet each other several times in one day, they only greet with kisses or a handshake on the first occasion.

Tu or vous?

This is where it starts to get tricky for us Brits. There are so many hidden implications – age, class, seniority, position, friendliness – in the choice.

Basic rules: the principal understanding is that vous (as well as applying, of course, to all use of the plural ‘you’) indicates a level of respect, and so is used when addressing:

• People you meet for the first time or don’t know very well;

• Older generations, for example your wife’s grandparents, even when you know them well unless they have invited you to ‘tutoyer’ them (ie use the tu address);

• Work colleagues, at least initially, and work bosses or seniors;

• People in respected positions in society, such as the mayor, doctors – where appropriate, the French also use the title that goes with these positions, eg bonjour Madame le maire, bonjour Maître Brun (maître is the official title for lawyers, male and female).

In contrast, ‘tu’ indicates a level of familiarity and/or fondness, and is used principally for addressing:

• Family members;

• Friends;

• Children;

• People of a similar age and social position (one or other person will rapidly suggest the use of tu);

• Close work colleagues.

When in doubt, wait to see how your interlocutor addresses you first and do the same, though as a foreigner you will automatically be given greater leeway in case of incorrect usage.

Advanced usage

Once you’ve grasped the basics, then the fun begins. Some examples:

• If you want to keep your distance from someone or indicate that you are pulling back from a previously accepted friendship or closer working relationship, you can decline an offer to se tutoyer or reinstate the use of vous. In this case, using vous is not so much a mark of respect as a sign that you don’t wish, or no longer wish, to allow the person into your personal arena. The French have a much clearer delineation between their private and ‘public’ lives, especially in a work context. This latter is reflected in the common use of Mr and Mrs plus the surname at work. It can also be a way of indicating that you expect a greater level of respect from the other person, notably from a superior at work.

• If you want to put someone down or indicate your contempt, then a purposeful inappropriate use of tu does the trick.

• In courtship, a progression from vous to tu indicates a desire to move the relationship on a step, although this is less obvious among younger generations as they tend increasingly to call each other tu from the outset, whether courting or not. At the other end of the spectrum, among older generations, usually in a more bourgeois milieu, it is not unknown for some couples to address each other as vous all their married lives!

Punctuality

In general, the French put a lot of store by being on time. Arriving late is considered impolite and disrespectful towards the person left waiting. For more formal appointments, or for business, it is always best to arrive 10 to 15 minutes early, not only to ensure you are not late but also as a mark of respect which will be noted.

There is, however, one great exception to this rule. If you have been invited for dinner at someone’s house, don’t whatever you do arrive on time. It is an unwritten rule among the French that guests should arrive at least 10 to 15 minutes later than the time agreed, basically to afford a little flexibility for the hosts. That said, arriving any more than 30 minutes late is not acceptable and you should ring ahead to alert your hosts if you are running this late.

Gifts

Another thing to remember when invited for dinner is to take a gift. The choice is similar to that in the UK, namely wine, flowers, chocolates or, on less formal occasions, you might offer to bring the dessert, either one you’ve made yourself (if you are confident it will look and taste good) or a cake from the boulangerie/pâtisserie.

Be careful, however, as there is a certain etiquette when giving these gifts. First, whether large or small, it needs to be of good quality and nicely presented (this goes for birthday presents too). Most shops will wrap or ‘dress’ a purchase free of charge if they know it is a gift.

If you opt for flowers, in some parts of France, notably Paris, it is expected that you send them earlier in the day so the host is not waylaid putting them in a vase as guests arrive. I suspect this is more a rule among the upper echelons of society. Alternatively, take along a plant instead.

Should you decide on the wine option, go for champagne or a quality cru wine and don’t be disappointed if your hosts don’t open it. They have probably already selected the wine to go with the meal. As for chocolates, most French towns boast a salivating chocolaterie, while in villages many boulangeries offer a selection of posh chocs. Just don’t take along a tin of Celebrations or similar. We may love them but in France, they are viewed more as chocolates for children.

And lastly...

While it is safe to say our French cousins consider the British rather prudish when it comes to sexual mores, they themselves are far more prudish regarding other physical functions.

Blowing your nose in public, for example, should be avoided and, if unavoidable, whatever you do don’t empty the old hooter with noisy fanfare – delicate dabs only, please. Similarly, when sneezing, aim for minimal noise as opposed to the theatrical ‘achoo’ favoured by many this side of the Channel.

As for the expelling of air, either end; as in most civilised society this is taboo in public. The French, however, are equally disapproving in the privacy of their own homes – so if you hook up romantically with a French person, don’t expect to get away with the ‘better out than in’ maxim. Small children only are excused.