Whether you find yourself planning a trip to France or maybe even marrying into a French family as I did; there are a multitude of cultural customs and norms that can leave you feeling like a fish out of water.
No matter how much you read up on the topic, it’s only when you are right there in the moment that you really learn what is expected of you. This often leads to some awkward moments!
So, with this in mind, take the following as a French tutorial from someone who has lived through it all. Although there are many customs and surprising cultural trends that differ from other parts of the world, the following are my top seven, which can serve you as an introduction in the French culture.
Yes, the top seven French customs that might surprise you the most! Use this information to help you navigate the beautiful country of France and all the French natives that you will meet there.
1. French Words
So yes, you will need to grab an English to French dictionary and download an app or two to help you out. It’s only polite to learn a few important words before meandering through the French countryside or walking the streets of Paris and trying to communicate with the locals. Although most French people will be able to communicate with tourists, like pretty much anywhere else in the world-it is very much appreciated if you make the effort to communicate in their language as well.
Here is a list of common words and useful phrases to know. Many of them are similar but are used in different ways. Therefore, used incorrectly or at the wrong time of day, they will be completely inappropriate.
- Bonjour/Bonsoir: Good day/good evening
- Bonne après-midi: Good afternoon
- Bonne nuit: Good nuit (as in the last thing you say before bed or if you are leaving for the night)
- Madame/Monsieur: Mrs/Mr
- Merci/Je vous en prie : Thank you/You’re welcome
- Est-ce-que vous pouvez me diriger (au musée, au cinéma etc…): Can you please direct me to…(the museum/the movie theatre etc…) This one is especially helpful for tourists !
- Bon appétit !: Said before a meal begins, meaning to please enjoy your meal.
- Santé!: Cheers!
2. How to Address Each Other. The correct salutation… Vous versus Tu
In France it is customary to address one another in a very formal way. And unless you are close friends or family, it is not common to use the words Tu or Toi. In fact, it would actually be considered rude to do so! Everyone speaks to each other with the formal address Vous. However, after some time, one person may invite the other to use the form Tu. It would be said in the following way “Tu peux me tutoyer.” However, as a foreigner, don’t take it upon yourself to do this! Simply allow enough time to pass and the local will most likely make the first move.
3. Shaking Hands and Kissing
In North America and other parts of Europe, shaking hands is very common as is a kiss on the cheek, depending on the situation. However, in France kissing is an entirely different ball game! Everyone, once they know you (not necessarily on the first meeting if you are complete strangers), expects to receive and will dish out two cheek kisses like they are going out of style.
This often seems really personal to foreigners and makes them uncomfortable so make sure to mentally prepare yourself! Yes, that’s right…a stranger will feel the need to get right up into your personal space, possibly touch your arm or shoulders and kiss you twice, once on each cheek.
One of the most awkward things about a moment like this is knowing which side to go first! The absolute worst thing is when you both go for the same side and switch back and forth like peacocks trying to kiss each other’s cheeks yet avoid laying a wet one on the other person’s lips.
When it happens to you…and it will at some point, just laugh it off and move on. However, try to remember the following…it’s not really a kiss. It’s more of a cheek to cheek touching motion and kissing noises. Which honestly sounds even stranger to explain in words! You basically offer a cheek and it goes from there!
And one more thing…two kisses are standard but in some areas of France, it could be three, four or even up to six! That’s a lot of time spent kissing! So, take your cue from the locals and maybe arrive a little earlier to get in all that kissing time 😉
The French love a good discussion and will spend hours mulling over the details of many different types of conversations. However, there are some topics that are best avoided. Generally, it is considered ruse to ask someone what they do for a living. This comes as surprise to many foreigners as it is very common in other parts of the world. In fact, in North America for example, it is often one of the very first question that people will ask upon meeting. The reason this question is avoided in France is because it inevitably leads to assumptions about money, which is generally not talked about. By asking someone what it is that they do for a living, it is possible to assume about how much they make.
Therefore, it is much safer to stick to discussions about food and wine. If, however, a conversation does get heated, it’s best to not raise your voice. This would be akin to yelling at someone (even if in your mind, you are simply engaged in a heated discussion and not yelling) it would be considered vulgar by the French.
Another interesting and often uncomfortable moment is when you are engaged in a one on one conversation. The French tend to stand rather close when conversing which can make some foreigners uncomfortable or even feel threatened. Think of this like the iconic Seinfeld episode with the “close talker”. The more you step back, the closer they get. It’s not uncommon for foreigners to feel like the French person is invading their personal space. So again knowing about this custom in advance is very helpful!
5. Dress Code
Despite the formality of the language and customs, dress code is fairly casual in France. Jeans are even acceptable to go out for dinner, providing they are designer jeans of course! Yes, the French can be somewhat judgmental about things like this but that is only due to their exceptionally high standards of what falls into good taste. They like classy and upscale but with a casual feel to it. You don’t want to look like you are trying too hard. Effortlessly simple if probably the best way to describe their most common dress code.
Let’s start with the obvious…or what the French feel should be obvious, do not give wine to your dinner hosts! By all means, expect to drink lots of wine but do not show up with a wine bottle in hand. Some French people will think that this is insulting, as if you are implying that they did not know which wine to serve.
The French know their wine very well and will have prepared the wine in advance based on the meal that they will be serving. Therefore, it is much more acceptable and appreciated to bring flowers, a plant or even a box of chocolates. The last thing you will want to do is risk insulting your hosts. After all, a dinner invitation is an extension of acceptance on their part towards you.
6. Food and Drink
Again, this one is a bit different for many foreigners. When people host a party in other countries, they will often offer their guests a drink soon after arriving. In France however, it is customary to wait until all the guests have arrived before drinking or offering anyone a drink. At times, this may mean waiting over an hour before being offered a drink!
When you do get that drink, you must still wait! Wait until your host raises their glass and says Santé. Also, you must always wait for your host to pour you another drink and if they don’t offer you another…well, then that would be your cue to leave!
The French love their cheese and one of the very different dinner customs in France, is that cheese is served before dessert. This is often a selection of local cheeses on a platter and it is served directly before the dessert course. All food portions are generally smaller than in North America but lunch and dinner are main events that take up to a few hours and have several courses. Be aware as well that meal times are pretty specific and there is generally no snacking between meals.
Children raised in France are raised with very strict expectations. They are expected to follow the same schedules for eating as the adults. Except for the afternoon Goûter, which they eat when they get out of school. Usually this is some bread (baguette) with chocolate, a yogurt or a fruit.
Parents are also the authoritarians and expect that their children listen to their directions. In North America it is more common for parents to ask their child what they wish to do or to eat. However, in France it is the parent that decides what will happen and when. French parents also believe in outdoor time for their children. So, if you are traveling with children or staying with another family, these are things to consider discussing with your child before you go.
Overall, the French like any other cultural group have their own habits, customs and ways of doing things. However, one of the things that they pride themselves on the most is balance. A healthy balance between work and the enjoyment of life. This is perhaps one of the greatest things that foreigners can learn from the French.
So, enjoy the hustle and bustle of the cities but also the laid-back approach to the enjoyment of a good meal amongst friends and family. And by all means, enjoy the wine…the French have incredible wine!
Here’s to hoping that this introduction of French customs will be useful to you as you navigate your way throughout the beautiful country of France!
What is your experience with the French and their customs? Was it very different from the customs of your country? I would be curious to learn about your experiences, so leave a message below and share it with us!