Social customs in France

Traditions and habits

All countries have peculiar social customs and France is no exception. As a foreigner you will probably be excused if you accidentally insult your hosts, but it’s better to be aware of accepted taboos and courtesies, especially as the French are much more formal than most foreigners (especially Americans and Britons) imagine.

When you’re introduced to a French person, you should say ‘good day, Sir/Madam’ ( bonjour madame/ monsieur) and shake hands (a single pump is enough – neither limp nor knuckle-crushing). Salut (hi or hello) is used only among close friends and young people. When saying goodbye, it’s a formal custom to shake hands again. In an office, everyone shakes hands with everyone else on arrival at work and when they depart.

It’s also customary to say good day or good evening ( bonsoir) on entering a small shop and goodbye ( au revoir madame/monsieur) on leaving. Bonjour becomes bonsoir around 18.00 or after dark, although if you choose bonsoir (or bonjour), don’t be surprised if the response isn’t the same. Bonne nuit (good night) is used when going to bed or leaving a house in the evening.

On leaving a shop you may be wished bonne journée (have a nice day) or variations such as bon après-midi, bonne fin d’après-midi, bon dimanche or bon week-end, to which you may reply vous aussi, vous de même or et vous. The standard and automatic reply to merci is je vous en prie (‘you’re welcome’).

Titles should generally be used when addressing or writing to people, particularly when the holder is elderly. The president of a company or institution should be addressed as monsieur ( madame) le président ( la présidente), a courtesy title usually retained in retirement. The mayor must be addressed as Monsieur/Madame le Maire (even female mayors are le Maire!).

Kissing in France

To kiss or not to kiss, that is the question. It’s best to take it slowly when negotiating this social minefield and to take your cue from the French. You shouldn’t kiss ( faire la bise) when first introduced to an adult, although young children will expect to be kissed. If a woman expects you to kiss her, she will offer her cheek. (Note that men kiss women and women kiss women but men don’t kiss men, unless they’re relatives or very close friends.) The ‘kiss’ is deposited high up on the cheek; it isn’t usually a proper kiss, more a delicate brushing of the cheeks accompanied by kissing noises, although some extroverts will plant a great wet smacker on each side of your face.

The next question is which cheek to kiss first. Again, take your cue from the natives, as the custom varies from region to region (and even the natives aren’t always sure where to start).

Finally, you must decide how many kisses to give. Two is the standard number, although many people kiss three or four or even six times. It depends partly on where you are in France. The British travel agent Thomas Cook recently published a French Kissing Guide, according to which four kisses are the norm in northern France, three in the mid-west and southern central areas and two in the west, east and extreme south, a single kiss being acceptable only in the department of Charente-Maritime! However, much also depends on how well you know the person concerned: acquaintances might kiss twice, friends four times and old friends six!

Kissing usually takes place when you take your leave, as well as when you greet someone. (It’s also customary to kiss everyone in sight – including the men if you’re a man – at midnight on New Year’s Eve!)

Vous & Tu

When talking to a stranger, use the formal form of address ( vous). Don’t use the familiar form ( tu/toi) or call someone by his Christian name until you’re invited to do so. Generally the older, more important or simply local person will invite the other to use the familiar tu form of address (called tutoiement) and first names; in fact, the switch will suddenly happen and you should pick up on it immediately or you will forever be stuck with the vous form. The familiar form is used with children, animals and God, but almost never with your elders or work superiors.

However, the French are becoming less formal and the under 50s often use tu and first names with work colleagues (unless they’re of the opposite sex, when tu may imply a special intimacy!), and will quickly switch from vous to tu with new social acquaintances, although older people may be reluctant to make the change. Some people always remain vous, such as figures of authority (the local mayor) or those with whom you have a business relationship, e.g. your bank manager, tax officials and policemen.

Gifts in France

If you’re invited to dinner by a French person (which is a sign that you’ve been accepted into the community), take along a small present of flowers, a plant or chocolates. Gifts of foreign food or drink aren’t generally well received unless they’re highly prized in France such as scotch whisky; foreign wine, however good the quality, isn’t recommended!

Some people say you must never take wine, as this implies that your hosts don’t know what wine to buy, although this obviously depends on your hosts and how well you know them. If you do take wine, however, don’t be surprised if your hosts put it to one side for a future occasion; they will already have planned the wine for the meal and know that a wine needs to settle before it can be drunk.

Flowers can be tricky, as to some people carnations mean bad luck, chrysanthemums are for cemeteries (they’re placed on graves on All Saints’ Day), red roses signify love and are associated with the Socialists and yellow roses have something to do with adultery, and marigolds ( soucis) simply aren’t de rigueur. If in doubt, ask a florist for advice.

Eating & Drinking in France

You shouldn’t serve any drinks (or expect to be served one) before all guests have arrived – even if some are an hour or more late! If you’re offered a drink, wait until your host has toasted everyone’s health ( santé) before taking a drink. Never pour your own drinks (except water) when invited to dinner. If you aren’t offered a(nother) drink, it’s time to go home. Always go easy on the wine and other alcohol; if you drink to excess you’re unlikely to be invited back! The French say bon appétit before starting a meal and you shouldn’t start eating until your hosts do. It’s polite to eat everything that’s put on your plate. Cheese is served before dessert.

Conversation

The French love detailed and often heated discussions, but there are certain topics of conversation that need handling with care. These include money, which is generally avoided by the French; it’s a major faux pas to ask a new acquaintance what he does for a living, as his job title will often give an indication of his salary. Far safer to stick to discussions of food and drink. When conversing, even in the midst of a heated debate, avoid raising your voice, which is considered vulgar. Note also that the French often stand close when engaging in conversation, which you may find uncomfortable or even threatening at first.

Gesticulating

Like the Italians, the French talk with their hands – often more than with their tongues – but the art of gesticulation can be as difficult to master (and as full of pitfalls for the unwary) as the spoken language. Here are a few tips that could help you avoid a faux pas: never point with your index finger, which is considered rude, but use an open hand (which should also be used when ‘thumbing’ a lift); similarly, beckon with your four fingers, palm down; the thumb is used to mean ‘one’ when counting, not the index finger; to indicate boredom, rub your knuckles against your cheek, to show surprise, shake your hand up and down, and to convey disbelief pull down your lower eyelid; tapping your fingers on the opposite forearm while raising the forearm slightly indicates an impending or actual departure – usually as a result of boredom! The classic French shrug is perhaps best left to the natives!

Cards

The sending of cards, other than birthday cards, isn’t as common in France as in some other countries. It isn’t, for example, usual to send someone a card following a bereavement or after passing a driving test. Instead of Christmas cards, the French send New Year cards, but only to people they don’t normally see during the year.

Dress code in France

Although the French are often formal in their relationships, their dress habits, even in the office, are often extremely casual. Note, however, that the French tend to judge people by their dress, the style and quality being as important as the correctness for the occasion (people often wear ‘designer’ jeans to dinner). You aren’t usually expected to dress for dinner, depending of course on the sort of circles you move in. On invitations, formal dress (black tie) is smoking exigé/tenue de soirée and informal dress is tenue de ville.

Phone Calls

Always introduce yourself before asking to speak to someone on the telephone. Surprisingly it’s common to telephone at meal times, e.g. 12.00 to 14.00 and around 20.00, when you can usually be assured of finding someone at home. If you call at these times, you should apologise for disturbing the household. It isn’t always advisable to make calls after 14.00 in the provinces, when many people have a siesta.

Noise

It’s common for there to be noise restrictions in French towns and villages, particularly with regard to the use of lawnmowers and other mechanical tools. Restrictions are imposed locally and therefore vary, but in general, noisy activities are prohibited before around 08.00 or 09.00 every day, after 19.00 on weekdays and Saturdays and after 12.00 on Sundays, and additionally at lunchtime on Saturdays.

This article is an extract from Living and working in France. Click here to get a copy now.

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