Sunday, August 7, 2022

Traditions & Customs in France

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In the restaurant

In French restaurants, as in other parts of Europe, it is considered rude to put your elbows on the table, but it is also considered rude to leave food on your plate or to put your hand on your lap while eating. When consuming drinks such as Coca-Cola, it is almost considered extravagant to drink directly from the bottle. In fact, even some museum cafeterias provide a plastic cup for you to drink in. If you are given a glass or cup with your drink, use it.

Avoid asking for ketchup or barbecue sauce for your food. The French are very proud of their cuisine and since ketchup masks the taste of good food, it is considered rude to ask for it and pour it on your fries.

In the metro

The metro is a great way to get around Paris (or Lyon, Marseille, etc.), which is obvious to the many people who use it to get to work, school, etc. If you don’t take the train at home or come from a place where there is no metro, there are some points of etiquette that you may not be aware of:

  • If you are boarding at the station, let the alighting passengers get off on the platform before boarding and move to the middle of the carriage after boarding.
  • If you have luggage, keep it as far away from other people’s paths as possible.
  • Some stations have moving walkways to bridge the distances between platforms – go left and stand right!
  • Finally, it should be noted that the doors of French metro cars do not usually open automatically when the train has stopped at the station; rather, most cars have a small button or lever on the doors that opens them. If you are standing near the door in a crowded carriage, you may hear someone behind you say “the door, please”, which means that they want to get off and are asking you to open the door for them. Open the door and stand to the side (or on the platform) while this person leaves the train – the driver will wait for you to get back on.


It is considered very rude to be loud in a crowded place, such as an underground car or a restaurant. Remember that even if you are enjoying your holiday, most people around you in the metro or other places are probably going about their daily business and may be tired and therefore react very coldly to tourists talking loudly.

Shopping etiquette

In many shops in France, you have to ask the salesperson to take items from the shelf instead of choosing them yourself. This is the case in wine and liquor shops, some clothing shops, etc. Failure to comply with this policy can lead to confusion and/or annoyance on the part of the shopkeeper.

Dress code

Dress codes disappear quickly, but if you want to avoid looking like a tourist, avoid white trainers, baseball caps, sweatpants, shorts and flip-flops (except on the beach). In general, the casual dress code of business people in cities and for all but the most formal occasions is sufficient.

Common courtesy applies when entering a church. Although you will not be asked to leave the church, you should avoid shorts and bib shorts. Men should remove all head coverings when entering a church, unlike in a synagogue or mosque where you may be given a hat or headscarf to wear.

Some restaurants will frown on you coming in hiking clothes, but very few will insist on a jacket and tie. You’ll be surprised how many French people in their twenties show up at a grunge bar wearing a jacket and tie, even if they’re obviously from a second-hand shop.

Beaches and swimming pools (in hotels) are used for sunbathing. Taking off your bra does not usually cause a fuss if you are not afraid of being tanned by a gang of gawkers. Removal of the lower part is reserved for designated naturist beaches. Beachgoers are generally not offended if a boy or girl is unclothed. Most resorts insist that you wear a shirt when you leave the beach. Many pools do not allow loose-fitting or “board” swimming costumes and insist that Speedo swimming costumes are tight-fitting.

Breastfeeding in public is very rare, but it will not bother anyone.

How to address people (“Tu and vous”)

L’anglais et les Français
Although most French people have learned English, they often cannot or will not use it. This is not necessarily linguistic snobbery, and politeness is much appreciated by visitors. You will find that generous use of the phrases Excuse me (“excuse me”), S’il vous plaît (“please”) and Merci (“thank you”) will go a long way. You should always politely ask the person if they speak English – “Do you speak English?

The French language has two different forms of the pronoun “vous” that are used when addressing someone in the second person. “Tu” is the second person singular and “vous” is nominally the second person plural. However, in many situations, Francophones use “vous” in the second person singular. While “vous” is used in all circumstances to address a group of people, non-native speakers will always have difficulty deciding whether to address a person with the informal and friendly “tu” or the formal and respectful “vous”. The language even has two specific verbs that reflect this difference: “tutoyer” (to address a person with “tu”) and “vouvoyer” (to address a person with “du”), each with its own connotations and implications. Unfortunately, the rules for when to use which form can sometimes seem incredibly opaque to non-French speakers.

Generally, the “tu” form is only used to address a person in an informal situation where there is familiarity or intimacy between the two parties. For example, ‘you’ is used when speaking to a close friend or spouse, or when an adult child is speaking to a parent. You” is also used in situations where the other party is very young, for example when a parent is talking to a child or a teacher is talking to a student.

On the other hand, the “you” is used in situations where the parties do not know each other or where it is appropriate to show respect and/or deference. For example, a clerk may use ‘you’ to address colleagues with whom he works closely, but is likely to use ‘you’ when speaking to the receptionist with whom he rarely speaks. He would certainly not use the “you” when speaking to his boss. Similarly, police and other authorities should always use the “Sie”.

If this is confusing, it is important to remember that it is all a matter of distance. For example, a bartender is you until he gives you an extra drink, at which point you become more appropriate and using you would be a little ungrateful and dismissive.

For foreigners, the best way to deal with the “Du”/”Vous” problem is to address people as “Du” until they are asked to say “Sie” or until they are addressed by their first name. This approach may seem a little old-fashioned, but it is still respectful. If French is not your mother tongue, most French people will neglect this overly formal and polite language anyway without thinking about it. Doing the opposite can be quite rude and embarrassing in some situations, so it’s probably best to play it safe.

Simplified: Use it only when:

  • the person is really your friend;
  • the person is under 16 years of age; or
  • You have been explicitly asked to use the “you”.

When speaking to someone you don’t know well enough to use tu, you should always address them as Mr. (for a man) or Mrs. / Miss (for a woman) first – the problem doesn’t arise with children who are always tu. Hello Sir (e.g. when entering a shop with a male shopkeeper) is much more polite than a simple hello, but this creates additional complications when speaking to women. Traditionally, madame is addressed to married women and mademoiselle to younger and/or single women. However, many find this practice sexist, and unless you know that someone prefers to be addressed as Miss, it is best to use Madam. Addressing a waiter as a boy is very rude (despite what you may have seen in the movies).

Sensitive topics

As a rule, the French appreciate debate, discussion and friendly disagreement, but there are certain topics that should be dealt with more delicately or indirectly than others:

Politics: The French have very different opinions on many subjects. Unless you follow French news really closely, you should avoid discussing French domestic politics, especially sensitive issues such as immigration – you risk giving the impression of being judgmental and misinformed. Reading French newspapers can help you get an idea of the wide range of political views in France – from the revolutionary left to the nationalist right. So don’t be put off by political discussions with French people, just be aware of the position you are in as a foreigner. Also, it is considered very rude to bluntly ask a person which candidate they voted for in the last election (or who they will vote for in the next one); instead, talk about the issues and take matters into your own hands.

Religion: The French are not very religious, and expect you to be too. Expressing your religious feelings can make people uncomfortable. It is also generally considered rude to ask someone about their religion or other personal matters.

The money: You must also avoid going through your property (house, car, etc.). It is considered rather rude to talk about your salary or to ask someone else directly about their salary. Instead, express your enthusiasm about the importance of your tasks, or how lucky you were to be able to do this, etc.

Differences between urban and rural areas: While it is true that about 1/6 of the country’s population lives in the Paris region, do not make the mistake of reducing France to Paris or assuming that all French people behave like Parisians. Life in Paris may be closer to life in London or New York than in the rest of France; just as New Yorkers or Londoners act and feel differently from people in Oklahoma or Herefordshire, Parisian customs and opinions may differ from those “outside the city“.

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