Living France - - The Essentials -

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:


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!


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!

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