French people take their etiquette and customs quite seriously. Get them right and you’ll earn instant respect plus a beatific smile or two. Get them wrong and you risk being ostracised or laughed at, or very probably both! Here are a few key social niceties to be aware (or should be wary) of:
TU OR VOUS?
A veritable minefield for Brits! In French, age, class, seniority, affection, position and plural use all come into the equation, and there are so many nuances that it’s almost impossible not to make an error at some time or other, even after a long time living in France. For starters, focus on the essentials:
In general, ‘ vous’ (as well as applying to all use of the plural ‘you’) indicates a level of respect when used in the singular, and so is used when addressing: people you meet for the first time or don’t know very well older generations work bosses or superiors, and colleagues until invited to use the ‘ tu’ form people in respected positions in society, such as mayors, doctors, lawyers
In contrast, ‘ tu’ indicates a level of familiarity and/or fondness, and is used principally for addressing: family members friends children people of similar age and social position close work colleagues
When you meet someone, or bump into them at the bank, or see them across the road, always say ‘ bonjour’. This is a very simple, but very important, act of ‘ politesse’.
With the bonjour, comes either a handshake (between men, when introduced to someone for the first time, or in a business setting), or ‘ les bises’ – a series of cheek touches rather than actual kisses which could be two, three or four depending on the region ( bises are given between friends, family members, close male friends, long-standing acquaintances or a first meeting in very informal settings, and often just one bise will suffice for small children). In larger groups, it’s up to you if you want to faire la bise with everyone or give a big general greeting. As they say in France, à vous de jouer!
DON’T BE LATE
The French are not very forgiving if you keep them waiting. Being late is considered impolite and disrespectful. To be on the safe side, aim to arrive 10 to 15 minutes in advance, and if you get held up, ring ahead to let the person know. The only exception is when invited to dinner – the hosts like to have a little leeway if running late, so don’t turn up early!
If you’re invited to someone’s house to dine, don’t forget to take a little gift – often a good bottle of wine, a bouquet of flowers or posh chocolates is all that’s needed. Just bear in mind that it’s quality, not quantity that counts!