French social customs are an important key to understanding French culture. Knowledge and practice of these customs can spell the difference between a beautiful experience or being branded a boorish visitor.
French Social Customs You Must Know
In general the French value formality. While some foreigners see this attention to formal detail as "rudeness", the French see this as a necessary part of daily life and consider it rude to not be formal. This is especially true in Paris but you will find the further south in the country you go, the less formal the people are. However, most Americans will still find French culture substantially more formal than their own.
French Speaking Customs
Perhaps the most import French social custom to remember is to use vous for instead of tu whenever addressing a stranger, someone who is older than you, or someone who is an authority (like an officer). Amongst peers in informal situations (like going out to a club at night), tu is acceptable although as a foreigner you should wait to hear it before you engage likewise in using it. You will find that the younger the generation and the furth south you are of Paris, the less this is true. While the culture in Paris remains quite formal, the South of France is much more laid back.
It is also essential to use Monseiur, Madame or Mademoiselle if you are speaking to someone you do not know. If you are addressing someone important add a title, such Madame Présidente.Remember also that the French stand close to each other when they converse and do not raise their voices. It would be considered extremely rude to yell across a room at someone, or to yell for anything, except in an argument.
More Information on French Social Speaking Customs
For more information on greetings and other speaking customs in French see:
Shaking Hands, Kissing and Other Formalities
It is customary in business situations to shake hands upon meeting someone and when leaving. Kissing is generally reserved for friends and relatives or children, although you shouldn't be shocked to get a kiss on the cheek on occasion. As a foreigner, if you're not sure what to do, it's a good idea to watch the person to whom you're being introduced or meeting for the first time:
- Men will almost exclusively shake hands with each other unless related. Sometimes older men will hug and kiss.
- A man may kiss a woman's cheek.
- Women will often kiss each other on the cheek.
- If a woman expects to be kissed, she may offer her cheek to a man.
- Small children almost always expect to be kissed.
In general, if you watch what is going on around you, and take cues from others, you can avoid offending someone. However, never assume that every French person wants to be hugged and kissed. You should note as well that customs for kissing on the cheek vary from region to region. You'll find that while Paris is very formal with rather strict social customs, the south of France is not. (This is one reason why watching for cues is so important as a foreigner!)
French Eating Customs
A long French tradition of fine cuisine means that the French take their food very seriously, and you can be assured that anything you eat will be prepared with meticulous attention to detail. Since the cook has undoubtedly prepared the food with such care, it is wise to do likewise and be very mindful of manners at the table--whether you're dining out or eating at someone's house.
Always begin by greeting your waiter. After you have decided what you would like to eat and are ready to order, close your menu and place it on your table. Your waiter should arrive shortly thereafter.
Waiters will not hover but will glance from afar to check on customers. They will always let customers dine at their own pace. Your waiter will bring your check only when you ask for it, unless you are having a coffee in a café, where they will immediately put l'addition (the check) under your cup.
Don't worry about tipping as in France it is law to include the tip in the bill. However, it is customary to round up your bill with some change. Not to do so would be considered rude, unless of course, you were very unhappy with the service.
The French Meal
Traditional French meals, whether at home or in a restaurant, will always include several courses:
- Hors d'oevres- Literally translates into "out of works" and is your traditional appetizer. This occassionally is served with a small cocktail called an aperitif.
- Fish Course- You will often find that fish is served between the appetizer and the main meal. If it is served, it will be served with lemon or lime sherbert to cleanse the pallet.
- Main Course- You can expect to see meat served already carved. Sometimes cooked vegetables will be on the side or served immediately after as a small course.
- Salad-Salads are served after the main course with a simple vinaigrette.
- Cheese Plate- An assortment of cheese will be served along with some cut fruit. This would signal the end of a casual meal.
- Dessert- Dessert is considered optional in France, however in a formal restaurant, you'll always be offered a selection of desserts à la carte. Desserts are decadently rich and generally served with coffee.
Bread will be on the table throughout the meal as it is considered a staple. Wine is also a staple and you'll find that even children are allowed to have it at meals. If the dinner is very formal, a wine will be chosen for each course although generally you can expect to just see one wine that complements all the courses.
Dining At Home
A casual family style meal in France is much more formal than you might expect. There will undoubtedly be several courses, wine and freshly baked baguettes. Since the French are so attentive to detail in their meal preparation, it is important to be equally attentive to detail as a guest.
- Bring a small plant or chocolates if invited to dinner but never foreign wine.
- If the dinner is formal, send a flower arrangement the morning of the big event so that it may be displayed that evening.
- Never eat before the host says bon appétit.
- Never pour your own drink.
- Make sure to always send a thank you note in the next day or so following the dinner party.
There are many more French social customs, but knowing the basics is a very good start. If you do slip up and make a faux pas, it's okay to simply apologize and show a willingness to learn. In general, you will find that if you show yourself to be teachable, the French are very gracious.