10 things you need to know about French etiquette
Understanding French etiquette and social norms can help you settle into life in France and avoid making an unfortunate faux-pas
Good manners are generally considered important globally – but do you know the social etiquette particular to France?
1. Saying hello
No matter who you speak to – in a shop, bar or wherever – it’s an unwritten law that you begin with the magic words “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame” or, if it’s evening, “Bonsoir”. When you are introduced to someone, the obligatory bonjour is accompanied by a handshake or, when you know them better, a mutual exchange of la bise – kissing on alternate cheeks which, depending on the region, is repeated once or twice, sometimes more. Take your lead from the other person in this situation. Of course, on taking your leave, an au revoir is statutory.
2. ‘Tu’ or ‘vous’?
It’s best to be guided by the person you’re with as to when to switch from vous to the familiar tu, unless talking to a child, an animal or God, when its use is immediate. Vous, however, remains ‘le must’ for addressing anyone in an official capacity such as police officers and bank managers.
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Although it’s customary to take a small gift when someone invites you to their home, avoid chrysanthemums as they are associated with funerals and are traditionally bought to place on loved ones’ graves at the cemetery.
It seems that it’s an act of courtesy in France to turn up 10 minutes or so after the agreed time, though the same principle cannot be applied to any other sort appointment when punctuality is essential if you don’t wish to be seen as rude.
5. In the cinema
Inconsiderate behaviour in a French cinema is also never tolerated lightly and people will loudly shush anyone who talks, even in a whisper, once a film has started. And woe betide the culprit who then dares to crunch on popcorn or crisps! Cinema-going is a serious and booming business in France (unsurprising since film-making was invented there) with viewers remaining seated until the last of the credits has rolled.
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There are locally imposed time limits for noise throughout France with the annual exception of summer solstice (the shortest night of the year), when la Fête de la Musique is celebrated countrywide. Throughout the night sounds of vastly varying styles of music, from classical and jazz to soul and rock, fill the air. Moreover, there seems to be no decibel limit.
Another exceptional day takes place on the last Friday of May each year. During the Fête des Voisins (neighbours’ day), inhabitants of houses and apartment blocks in a street are encouraged to emerge from behind closed doors to socialise and get to know each other in the spirit of the French motto Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. With traffic banned from many streets, folk gather around tables piled high with food and drink.
A normally applicable rule can be relaxed, depending on who is dealing with your request, with the single word ‘exceptionnellement’ – though it’s still rare to find an assistant in a supermarket who, if their job is ‘on the till’ or ‘not in this department’, is willing to briefly leave their specifically appointed post to deal with your enquiry.
9. Dress code
A visit to the notaire to sign the final documents for the purchase of a French property is a formal affair, so don’t dress casually.
On public transport around Paris a number of notices, including les règles du savoir voyager, inform passengers of the explicit rules of travel, such as: a ticket must be purchased for your dog, unless it’s in a basket or a bag, and carrying a package less than 10 kilos is permitted, provided it’s on your knees and not a problem for others. There is even a sign about how to settle a dispute about opening or closing windows (the one who wants it closed wins). Unlike the observance of fair play by queuing in the boulangerie or at a supermarket checkout, people cluster haphazardly at a bus stop before surging forward, seemingly with no regard for others when the bus arrives; only to resume a respectful attitude by the giving up of seats, once crammed onto it, to anyone looking desperate or old enough to need one quickly.
Written by Polly Fielding
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