Manners. Manners. Manners. It is impossible to stress how important etiquette is to the French. Simply said, the French are formal and you should fall into their rhythm. Use bonjour, bonne journee, bonsoir, bonne soiree, merci, s’il vous plait and excusez-moi until the words spill out of your mouth effortlessly. When in doubt, when you feel a bit uncomfortable, or insulted, or helpless, pour on the ‘politesse’ and you have a better chance of being heard.
Try to make friends with your neighbors, your colleagues, with the locals who hang out at the neighborhood café. Again, be polite, but be open. Just not too open. Take their lead and you may find yourself breaking down their reserve little by little. It is worth the effort, because once you make friends with the French, they are friends forever.
That’s what to do…
Now, what not to do! Never…
- Bring wine as a gift to dinner. As a rule, avoid bringing wines to a French home if you’ve been invited for dinner, unless it is chilled Champagne. The hosts have probably selected wines to go with dinner and may feel obliged to open yours. Also avoid giving homemade goodies until you know the hosts well. Instead, a plant, fresh flowers or chocolates are suitable hostess gifts.
- Give chrysanthemums, which are used at funerals.
- Arrive on time to dinner. Generally, most French hosts expect their guests to arrive about twenty minutes later than the appointed time. If you will be more than 30 minutes late, it is polite to call. That said, it is a uniquely Parisian habit to show up late for dinner, often as much as an hour, without calling ahead. If you are hosting…keep your meal simple in case of late arrivals.
- Cut salad with a knife. If a leaf of lettuce is too big, you must fold it on your fork until it fits nicely in your mouth.
- Place bread on your plate, its place is on the table next to your place.
- Put your hands in your lap during a meal. Both hands are expected to remain on the table, at the wrists, when not in use.
- Change the shape of a cheese. When you cut yourself a portion of cheese, be careful to cut it so that the original shape is maintained.
- Shy away from a friendly discussion. The French enjoy intelligent, lively discussions. Religion, employment and politics are all acceptable topics. Be ready for disagreements. Good friends often argue vigorously over a topic, not in anger, but in the spirit of a challenging discussion.
- Avoid the question of “what do you do?” as it is considered rude and too personal. Also avoid commenting on specific “French” things unless you are an expert on the topic.
- Use the word “inviter” when inviting someone to dinner, unless you plan on picking up the bill.
- Visit anyone, friends included, unannounced. Period.
- Use the first name of someone you have just met. Even if you are being introduced to a peer, use the formal (vous) form of speech and address him/her by monsieur/madame. Only begin using the informal tense and first names when it is instigated by your French acquaintance.
- Kiss those you do not know! It is customary to shake hands with someone that you have just met. Also, if you walk into a room, you should shake everyone’s hand, usually beginning with the most senior down to the children. Take the lead from your French acquaintances with regard to the traditional French bise (kiss). The kiss is actually a touching of each cheek with the kiss in the air.
- Think you have it all figured out! Paris will continue to mystify, and delight, you…if you stay for one year or for ten.