French Etiquette

France can be a treasure trove for the intrigued expat or the curious traveler trying to meet new people.

But should you say "tu" or "vous" upon greeting?

Should you shake hands or not?

When should you kiss cheeks? And how many times?

In an attempt to answer, I have interviewed a French native. His name is Gerard and he is from Paris.

Gerard, French etiquette is rather complex. Can you explain why?

French people like sophisticated things: cuisine is complicated and très difficile, and the language- it is full of complexities. When it' s not complicated, the French don't like it. It's too easy. The fun isn't there. For example, when you are in France, it' s not really what you say, it' s how you say it: if you use sophisticated grammar and fancy terms, you'll have an audience. If you try to relay a very simple idea, using basic language, you will be regarded as "base", maybe even vulgar sometimes.

Moreover, France is a very old nation. There is a particular social etiquette throughout Europe- one that is its own special breed in France.

Also your etiquette can show your social status.

"French people always say: "Knowledge is like jam on a toast, the less you have the more you spread it."

So would you prefer to have bare toast, or toast with jam?

Even if you have never learned etiquette, you can start today- and elevate your presumed status.

What are your tips for somebody who has never been to France?

Try to speak the language, even if you are a beginner. There is nothing that irritates the French more than an effort that is not really there. As long as you are trying, the French will appreciate your effort. And once your effort is apparent, you will be applauded!

They might even speak back to you in English because they want to practice their broken English. And the French speak with a heavy accent so hang in there and be patient too.

You may find it annoying that they reply in English when you are trying to speak French, but the occasion for them to practice with a native English speaker is just to good to miss. Take it as a compliment.

"The French might seem intimidating, but they are lovely people when you know how to communicate."Gerard

When living in France as an expat, how can I delve more deeply into relationships? How can I share my love for the French and respect for their culture?

Well, as you are in France already, you've taken the first step. AND, you've even gone farther and established friendships. We get it already- you're here, and you LOVE us!

But if you want to get more involved your relationship, you can first observe, and then copy French habits.

You can note, for example, how many times they kiss the cheeks of acquaintances ( which varies from 2 to 4 times depending on your region- and that it is never only one time, which is considered rude). Than you can try it out, practice with friends, and observe so more to make sure you got it right.

French people also like to shake hands (specially around business arrangements, agreements, or plans). But when you do so, be sure to look them in the eye. Not doing so can is considered offensive.

This same rule applies to cheers. Not looking somebody in the eye at the apéro cheers, by French standards, means 7 years of bad luck in love. In other words, don't do it!

Observe, observe and reproduce.

I have a friend, Andre. We are pretty close now. At what point can I change from using "vous" to the "tu" form of my greeting with him?

The best way is to ask.

If you build a relationship with someone and you feel comfortable enough to ask me this question, simply ask your friend, " can I call you by 'tu'"?

He might also invite you to say "tu" in a very casual way, during a discussion or interaction. Something like: " How is the food? Hmm, by the way, you can call me 'tu'".

If you have any doubts, simply continue using "vous" until you are invited to do otherwise. It' s better to be too formal than not formal enough.

"The French will always appreciate and respect your use of too much etiquette rather than not enough."

Etiquette is a very very vast subject. One could easily write a book on it.

Practice is key!

Thank you Gerard. This has been very informative.

My pleasure, I hope it helps.


Yann H.

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