Most of us have an image or stereotype of nationalities other than our own, the French included. But let’s leave behind any misconceptions that stereotyping is negative; it’s not. It’s our innate organisational skill that helps us recognise people and things as the same or similar so that we know how best to interact with them.
With that in mind, we thought we’d highlight a few of these very French customs to help you optimise your knowledge of France and its people ahead of your visit. Hopefully these will enhance your interactions and your experience of this beautiful country and its hospitable residents.
The French are somewhat traditional to the point that even in the most informal of family situations some of the most regimented of customs are followed. As a visitor, you’ll be expected to know and follow some of these customs. So here’s our heads up…
1. ‘Tu’ vs ‘Vous’
Address people formally When meeting a French person for the first time (and really until you’re their friend or acquaintance) address them using the formal version of ‘you’, i.e. ‘vous’ rather than ‘tu’. In a typical tourist interaction, where you’re interacting with someone you don’t know and are unlikely to acquaint, always use a title to address your target, e.g. Excusé-moi Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle Whether speaking or writing to a French person who you don’t know this will stand you in good stead for receiving a pleasant response.
2. Last name first
You’ll likely be addressed as Monsieur Jones until you permit the other person to call you by your first name – though don’t do that too quickly for risk of appearing rude. Likewise, if you know the other person’s name address them similarly, e.g. Madame Duval.
3. Shake hands, judge the kiss
What you do when you greet someone depends largely on how well you know them, if at all. Let the French person take the lead and then make a call based on the formality of the situation. A handshake is imperative when meeting someone (not so when asking for directions or purchasing items in a shop). If a lady expects a kiss, she’ll likely offer her cheek, so be prepared but don’t assume.
4. Bon appétit
One of the delights of eating in France, whether in someone’s home, on a hotel barge, or in a restaurant, is the number of courses and the almost regimented approach to devouring them. Salad always comes after the main course, followed by cheese and then dessert. There will always be bread, not just to start with but throughout the meal. Wine too. And never ever start eating until your host has said “Bon appétit”.
This one’s easy. It is indoctrinated in law that the restaurant includes a tip in the bill. So there’s no time wasted figuring out how much to leave your waiter/waitress at the end of your meal. However, many people do leave a few centimes in the saucer when leaving a cafe.