When in France….


France is the most visited country in the world so you would think that we would be familiar with French cultural idiosyncrasies but many of us still struggle to do ‘the right thing’ when in France. So here’s some pointers:

Christmas – Let’s start with seasonal differences as it’s that time of year. The main Christmas meal in France is usually served on Christmas Eve and presents are opened at midnight rather than on Christmas day itself. The meal traditionally consists of oysters followed by a capon (a large castrated cockerel!) and a Bûche de Noël for pudding. All washed down with some rather decent wines of course.

Happy, happy, happy new year – Sometimes for weeks (or longer) after the New Year you’ll be expected to wish “Bonne Année” (Happy New Year) to anyone you meet who you are seeing for the first time that year. But don’t say it to the same person twice, that’s not good form…!

‘Cheers’ – It is customary not to serve drinks at a gathering until all the guests have arrived. When it is time, glass in hand, to say “santé” (cheers), be sure to make eye contact as you clink glasses. Failure to do so condemns you, in French lore and in true French fashion, to seven years of bad sex.

Man kisses – A French man kissing a French man on the cheek usually means nothing more than ‘hello’. French men often kiss their male relatives or close friends instead of shaking hands.

Bonjour – Every interaction in public must begin with a clear “bonjour”, even if you are just entering a shop, asking directions or looking for something in a store. Failure to do so is seen as very rude.

French formality – In many countries, it is nowadays acceptable for salesmen to address you by your first name. In France, things are still much more formal and it is almost unheard of for someone you don’t know to use your first name. Monsieur or Madame are the only acceptable address.

Chit chat – Starting to chat with someone you don’t know in a queue or in a shop is usually best avoided. The French are generally not very comfortable about talking to random strangers or making small talk.

Tu or vous – In French, it is necessary to negotiate a minefield when deciding whether to use the informal “tu” or the formal “vous”. The golden rule is to err on the side of caution and go for “vous” if in doubt. And develop sneaky techniques to get the other person to say “you” first so you know how to reply. Once you have agreed to ‘tu’ each other, however, it is then the height of rudeness to use the ‘vous’ form. Like I said, a minefield!

Jobs and income – While it is changing for the younger generations, the French really don’t feel comfortable talking about the job they do, how much they earn or how much they spent on their car/house etc. Showing wealth is generally frowned on in French society (well country French society, Paris and Nice could be different). The taboo may partly stem from the ideal of social equality in French culture (although in reality there is as much class division here as in many other countries).

Service – The French are not renowned for their service so you will wait a long time if you expect someone to help you pack your shopping in the supermarket or for an extra till to be opened just because the two out of ten tills that are staffed have endless queues. The French generally don’t mean to be rude or unhelpful when serving but they have a horror of servility – back to the social equality thing. It’s easiest just to accept this.

Coffee-to-go – Eating and drinking in the street and on the go is still frowned on in France and is rarely seen. The French do not tend to snack and nearly all will stop for a sit-down lunch.

There are many more idiosyncrasies to be negotiated when living in France but don’t worry too much, French people tend to be very forgiving about a foreigner’s faux pas, especially if you at least make some effort to respect their traditions and culture.

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