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Cultural Faux Pas France

Paris Postcard

'Faux pas' is a French term, literally meaning 'false step', and it has been said that the French 'are the masters of what not to do'. Here are some tips to make sure you don't slip up next time you're visiting this romantic country.

First Impressions

  • Hello! In polite French society a simple 'hello' is not always enough. It is considered good etiquette to address your greeting to someone in particular by adding their name or title. For example, 'Bonjour, Madam!' or 'Bonjour Pierre!'
  • Tu or Vous? The use of the French pronouns 'tu' and 'vous' (both meaning 'you') has always been complicated. As a rule, only use 'tu' when addressing someone you know well. Always use 'vous' in formal situations or when in conversation with people you are meeting for the first time. But be warned: there are many nuances to these rules and it can be all too easy to cause offense by appearing overly familiar or too reserved. To be safe, use the 'vous' form until your conversation partner switches to 'tu', and then follow suit.
  • R.S.V.P. The French enjoy sending calling cards. If you move to France, you may get a few welcoming you to your new neighbourhood. It is considered quite rude not to respond to these with a calling card of your own to say thank you. This custom has given rise to the use of R.S.V.P. requests on cards all over the world - 'répondez s'il vous plaît' means 'please respond'.
  • Flowers. Never buy a French person chrysanthemums. They are a traditional cemetary flower used to decorate graves on All Saints Day (Toussaint) and are not appropriate gifts for the living!
  • Tea. The French don't usually follow the English custom of taking afternoon tea. If you invite a French person to your home, don't be offended if they decline your offer of a brew.
  • Shhhh! In general, when speaking to French people try to be soft spoken. Loudness is usually associated with aggression and can be frowned upon.
  • Queuing. It's often said that only the British know how to queue, and line etiquette is certainly not something strictly adhered to over the Channel. Don't be surprised or offended, therefore, if someone jumps the queue.
  • Clothing. The French have great fashion sense and love to dress elegantly. When out  and about in France, avoid overly casual clothing such as tracksuits,  trainers and jogging bottoms.

Soirees and Dining

  • Gifts. If you are invited to dinner it is customary to take with you a small token gift. However, if you are invited to a black tie event or a large  party, bothering the busy host/hostess with your gift is considered bad  form. Instead, send it on to them the day before.
  • Tardiness. Be fashionably late. Turning up to parties bang on time is generally not appreciated. You may even find that your host is not ready to receive you, and this will cause some embarrassment on both sides. Instead, arriving a little late is considered proper etiquette and will stand you in good stead with your host.
  • Food. The French take great pride in their food, and rightly so - it is among the finest cuisines in the world. It is very important that you set aside your personal tastes if they contradict the French way of doing things. For example, if you are told the steak is best served rare, you should eat it rare. French chefs know what they're doing, after all!
  • Food 'to go' in France is not so casual an affair as it is in the UK. If you are spotted walking along the street eating a sandwich you may notice some disapproving glances. Takeaway food is meant to be appreciated and savoured as much as any other food in France, and should therefore be enjoyed sitting down on a park bench or other suitable location.
  • Garcon! Contrary to popular opinion, a French waiter should not be called 'garçon'. This literally translates to 'boy' and is very offensive to the individuals who train hard to become good waiters in fine French restaurants.
  • Cutlery. If you decide to throw a dinner party of your own, setting the table is very important. The forks should always be placed with their prongs pointing downwards on the table - this differs from the British custom of laying them with prongs pointing up. The reason for this is that historically French families had their coat of arms embossed on the back of their forks, while British coat of arms traditionally went on the front.