French Etiquette 101: Myths, Realities, & a Bit of History

What are some of the rules, myths and realities of French etiquette? Image:  "Lyon Restaurants" by szeke is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Image: “Lyon Restaurants” by szeke is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Any cursory Google search on the rules of French etiquette can send you down a rabbit hole of exasperated forum posts on TripAdvisor or Reddit– ones with screaming topic headings like “Why are the French so friggin’ MEAN?!!” or “Why are Parisians such as%h&!es?”. (Note: I found these both recently).

There are many (too many?) articles out there that either purport to crack the secrets of supposed French rudeness, or debunk it with elaborate cultural insights. I’ve written or contributed to a few of them (notably here and here). This is not one of those pieces.

I just mention the stereotype because I know many visitors become gripped by a strange anxiety when setting foot on Gallic soil– one that’s understandable when you consider the steady, predictable stream of TV shows, films, and self-help books on “French womanhood” that depict the culture as one centered around snobbery, rigidity and sneering judgement.

How do I avoid the famous Parisian sigh, side-eye, or exasperated, pointed corrections of my constant cultural blunders? Is there any way to master the basics of etiquette, a la française, without spending months living in the country first? Can I avert feeling utterly humiliated and clueless after most interactions– escaping the cringeworthy fate of Emily in Paris et al.?

Keep reading for a few myths and realities about French etiquette rules in a globalized world– and a bit of amusing history.

First, Relax…

A vendor prepares fresh crepes in Paris. Relaxing, right?

You may not be surprised to learn that TV and films are not exactly accurate barometers of cultural norms. Not by a long-shot. What’s more, many of the old clichés about France and its culture no longer hold much water at all, if they once had more than a grain of truth.

Younger generations of French people (who often see themselves chiefly as Europeans) are generally multilingual, relaxed types who have gone a long way in making service culture (and the culture writ large) more open and flexible when it comes to interacting with visitors.

And in places like Paris, the local government and tourism board literally undertook an ambitious plan to make the city friendlier and less “intimidating” to visitors starting in 2013. From my observations since (and from feedback travelers have offered), it seems to be working.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s a good idea to sort through the realities (and myths) of the sort of etiquette you can be expected to observe as a visitor in France, hopefully allowing you to relax further during your stay. But before we do, let’s briefly look back at how the concept started, to begin with.

A (Very) Short History of Etiquette in France

French royal etiquette was devised by Louis XIV, but other forms existed prior to the Sun King's

Although social norms and polite behaviors have been a feature in virtually every society throughout human history, in France it only became a concern of everyday, non-aristocratic citizens with the rise of the modern age, and a wealthy merchant class– or bourgeoisie— that wished to demonstrate their so-called “good breeding” and manners.

Under the influence of Louis XIV the Sun King and his court at Versailles, French rules of etiquette became increasingly rigid– and in many cases, genuinely bizarre. Anyone outside of the courtly realm would not likely have learned much, if anything, about the strictures around polite dining, conversation, dress or other rules of royal conduct.

Later, Emperor Napoleon I restored the importance of etiquette in the political realm, following the French Revolution of 1789 which called anything associated with royal norms into question.

By the late 18th century and the birth of the Industrial Revolution, the bourgeoisie had gained significant power and influence, and the importance of etiquette grew outside the tight circles of the aristocracy. Knowing proper table manners, diplomatic protocol, or the strict rules for business interactions became markers of wealth, social standing, education and prestige.

Bourgeois women were instructed in the ways of maintaining proper middle-class households through manuals and finishing schools, and table manners in particular became more important to “average” French people, especially over the course of the 20th century.

Travel Etiquette 101: Polite French Greetings

Learn polite greetings in French before you enter a boulangerie or other shop. "Le Boulanger de Monge" by yisris is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“Le Boulanger de Monge” by yisris is licensed under CC BY 2.0

One of the most basic things you can do to smooth your exchanges in France is to simply greet people in a way they consider to be polite. Shocker, right?

Fact is, France remains a relatively formal culture. While in Spain, it’s now become the norm for servers to greet you with a brusque “Digame!” (literally, “tell me!”) when taking food or drink orders, you’d be hard-pressed to see French servers not open these sorts of exchanges with “Bonjour, Madame”, or “Bonjour, Monsieur”. (Never mind the fact that France remains rather conservative about rigidly “gendering” interactions, to the annoyance of many younger people who think the use of Madame, Monsieur, and even worse, Mademoiselle is hopelessly passé…)

When in France, open every interaction with a “Bonjour!”– whether you’re asking for directions, ordering a coffee, asking to see an item in a store, or checking into a hotel.

{Related: How to Avoid Tourist Traps & Scams in Paris}

If the person or group you’re communicating with are over 50, I strongly recommend greeting a woman with “Bonjour Madame”, and a man with “Bonjour, Monsieur”. You’ll likely get a much warmer response if you do. These days, I’d avoid using “Mademoiselle” altogether.

(Note: In the evening, it’s customary to say “Bonsoir!” instead of Bonjour, but don’t worry too much about it if you forget the distinction. Don’t be surprised, however, if the person you’re interacting with responds with “Bonsoir”. French people see no harm in gently correcting you. After all, that’s how you improve your foreign-language skills, right?)

The bottom line? Even if you know little to no French, it’s still crucial to follow this important cultural custom. Also remember to say please and thank you when ordering or requesting any sort of service or assistance. S’il vous plaît and merci beaucoup go a long way in France.

See more on polite greetings and expressions for travelers in French here (at TripSavvy). The guide includes some helpful notes on pronouncing the key greetings and expressions you should learn before your trip.

La Bise: To Kiss or Not to Kiss?

The custom of la bise-– the exchanging of small kisses (or faux ones) on the cheeks, is one that also unnerves some travelers. The fact is, however, that you will only need to worry about this one if you meet up with friends, family members, or are introduced by them to others they know well. Outside of intimate settings like dinner parties, receptions and sometimes business meetings, strangers do not generally exchange la bise.

How to know when or whether this ritual is called for/appropriate? If in doubt, wait for the other person to lead the way. Some people may extend their hand to invite you to shake it, while others may come in for la bise. In Paris, this is generally one small kiss on both cheeks; in some regions of France it’s three– even four!

Men sometimes shake hands with other men, or exchange des bises— it depends on the social context, level of closeness and personal preferences.

Like I said, many or most travelers won’t have to worry about navigating this custom. If you do end up at a private dinner party or other event where la bise may be in play, wait for others to initiate. Someone you’ve just been introduced to might even approach you with a smile and ask “On fait la bise?” (Shall we exchange cheek kisses?)

Note: This custom is not considered even remotely flirtatious or sexual, although you may still feel uncomfortable with it. You always have the right to politely refuse, even if it may lead to a bit of awkwardness.

Simply extend your hand instead, and smile warmly (But a small warning: avoid big, flashy smiles with your teeth. French people often interpret these sorts of smiles as grotesque and borderline aggressive, outside of the context of genuine laughter or amusement.)

These may all be moot points, anyway. With the current health crisis that has made la bise a big no-no from a health and safety perspective, it may be months or even years before the custom comes back into style…

Do French men really kiss women’s hand when meeting them?

In a word, no. While some politicians still perform this gesture in public appearances (often as a dramatic show of respect (?) and “chivalry” towards women leaders), the custom is no longer widely practiced in France. The idea that this is still common practice is simply a myth.

Basic Table Etiquette and Manners in France

Train Bleu paris
Diners at Le Train Bleu restaurant in France. Image: Courtney Traub/All rights reserved

The rules of dining and table etiquette in France are rather complex, and could themselves take up a whole article. I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of how to navigate a table setting with three sets of cutlery– if interested in that level of detail, see this useful page.

Instead, keep these basic rules in mind when eating out in France or dining in a private setting, no matter the level of formality. These apply to sit-down meals, rather than casual settings such as fast-food restaurants or enjoying street food on a park bench. And obvious guidelines such as “don’t eat with your mouth open” and “don’t start eating before your fellow diners arrive” apply here, as they do pretty much everywhere…

Beginning the meal

Place your napkin in your lap only when ready to begin eating. If you’re dining in a private setting or if you’ve been invited to eat at a restaurant by someone, wait for the host to begin eating– or even to invite you to begin, often by saying “Bon Appetit!” If you feel comfortable, wish them the same.

{Related: How NOT to Plan a Trip to France}

Only take a sip from your wine glass following a proper toast (often initiated by your host). In France, it’s considered impolite to begin drinking before a toast. Look the person in the eye when raising your glass to them and toasting, and say “Santé!” (to your health).

Throughout the meal, try to keep your hands visible on the table, without placing your elbows and arms on it. It’s considered impolite to keep your hands hidden under the table during the meal.

In France, it’s generally frowned on to let children run around a restaurant, especially if they disturb other diners. Try to find family-friendly restaurants in Paris and elsewhere to avoid run-ins or cold sweats. Even in places that advertise themselves in these terms, kids are expected to stay at or around their own table.

The Bread

If bread is served before the meal itself, don’t gobble down everything in the bread basket, however hungry you may be. Save some for the courses to come– especially since many restaurants don’t refill it without charging extra.

It’s generally considered rude to butter a whole piece of bread. Instead, put some butter on your own plate, tear off pieces of a slice or roll of bread, and butter one chunk at a time.

In many places in France, it’s considered gauche to place bread on your dinner plate. Either use a separate bread plate (if provided) or put it on the tablecloth next to your plate. Seems counterintuitive, I know…

The Main Event

Whether you have one course or six during your meal, it’s important to take your time and allow space for conversation. Don’t pester the servers incessantly for the next courses; in France, things generally take a bit more time, and the idea is to allow for digestion and conversation between courses. Never, and I mean never, yell out “Garçon!” to gain a server’s attention– unless you wish to earn their eternal ire. “Excusez moi?” is the correct way to flag a server down.

While eating, it’s traditional to hold the knife in the right hand and the fork in the left, and keep them there at all times– but don’t worry too much if you’re not used to this. While some etiquette enthusiasts admonish visitors to adhere to the European way of using cutlery, in reality France isn’t such a snobby place that waiters and fellow diners will stare you down or frown if you do things a bit differently.

However, one practice is essential for letting the server or host know that you’re done with a particular course: place the knife and fork with the tines facing up, parallel to each other on the right side of the plate. The server may come by and ask “C’est terminé?” (Have you finished?). The polite response is “Oui, merci“.

Dessert is generally only ordered following the main meal, although sometimes with set menus the server will ask you for your choice during the initial order. Cheese comes before dessert, or is sometimes listed as a dessert itself.

Coffee is generally enjoyed following the meal, during or after dessert. It’s considered odd or gauche in France to order coffee or sweet soda drinks during or before a meal, at least in sit-down restaurants. (Fast-food joints are exceptions). In more traditional restaurants, stick with sparkling or still water, and/or wine.

Remember that most servers will wait for you to ask for the bill, even long after you’ve finished dessert– this is considered polite in France.

You can say “Excusez-moi, l’addition, síl vous plaît?” (Excuse me, can I please have the bill?). In busy, more informal dining rooms, it’s generally ok to gesture to the server from across the room with a “scribbling pen on paper” gesture, but I’d avoid doing this in more formal restaurants.

Should you Leave a Cash Tip at Restaurants in France?

If the service is good to excellent, you may choose to tip servers around 5-10 % of the total bill. The automatic service charge of 15% added to your bill rarely ends up as tips for servers, who instead receive a monthly salary that’s typically more generous than the earnings of counterparts in North America. While cash tips are not an obligation in France, many to most diners would leave an additional 5 to 10% for good to exceptional service.

Some argue that the 15% service charge is enough, and it’s true that leaving a pourboire (tip in French) is not an obligation as it is in the US and elsewhere. Still, I would argue that leaving at least 5% for good service is the right thing to do, especially since, contrary to popular belief, servers rarely receive the 15% service charge as additional earnings.

If you only have a cup of coffee or glass of wine at a cafe/brasserie, however, tips are not generally necessary. Feel free to leave some pocket change, or round up to the next Euro. Tips are also not generally offered in fast food or take-away restaurants.

Square Meals, Snacking, & Street Eating

All-butter croissants at La Maison d'Isabelle, a Latin Quarter bakery serving some of the best "croissants au beurre" in Paris. Image: Courtney Traub/All rights reserved.
The all-butter croissants at La Maison d’Isabelle won the top prize for the best croissants in Paris and the surrounding region in 2018. Image: Courtney Traub/All rights reserved.

While dining etiquette in France has become more casual over the past years– and street food in particular has become increasingly popular-– one point that hasn’t budged much has to do with eating and snacking too much between mealtimes. In short, it’s often still frowned on.

In France, snacking between meals is generally seen as something that only children *need* to do, and even this is an activity that is tightly bound around social norms: children enjoy an after-school gouter (snack) that generally consists of fruit, a hunk of baguette, or a bit of pastry. Parents may sneak a bit of whatever their kids are eating, but adults are usually expected to stick to three square meals.

This may shape your experience of eating out in a couple of ways. For one, most restaurants– and especially those outside of Paris– offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner during tightly constrained hours (12 to 2 or 230 pm for lunch, and 7-9 or 10 for dinner).

brunch
Brunch at Cafe Breizh/ in Paris/courtesy of same

While some restaurants offer “service continu” (all-day service), most adhere to what are considered “normal” mealtimes in France. You should plan your day accordingly, and not expect restaurants to serve you, say, a breakfast dish outside of their stated hours for breakfast. You will likely be told “Ce n’est pas possible” (It’s impossible) if you insist otherwise.

Secondly, while it’s entirely possible to procure snacks or meals outside of the “normal” hours, notably from bakeries, supermarkets and street food vendors, be aware that you may be regaled with comments from passers-by, especially if you commit the cardinal French sin of walking and eating.

Image credit: Courtney Traub

I’m only halfway kidding. I’ve often had people sarcastically wish me “bon appetit, Madame!” as a I scarfed down a sandwich while running to my next appointment (Read: how vulgar to be eating and walking, Madame!)

And recently, when I settled onto a park bench to taste what had been judged the best baguette in Paris, passers-by gave me slightly surprised looks (Read: it’s 4pm, so hardly the time to be eating!).

My advice? If you’re hankering for street food (something I highly recommend), try to find a quiet park bench, square or river quay where you can enjoy it in peace (save the pestering of pigeons). Walking and eating is still seen as surprising or even vulgar by many people. And if you eat in public outside of appointed meal times, just be aware– you may get pointed looks.

Polite Conversation in France

Cannibale Cafe in Paris/Courtesy of the official Facebook page
Cannibale Cafe in Paris

The concept of polite conversation in France is fairly straightforward, once you get the greetings, requests, and good-byes down (see section above on greetings).

In a nutshell, you can talk about pretty much anything with someone you’ve just met– with the strict exception of money, religious beliefs, familial or ethnic background, and political affiliations or preferences.

It’s considered very impolite to ask someone how many properties they own, how much money they make, or even how much they paid for a coat (note that younger people may be a bit more relaxed about that last point, as long as you don’t pry into their personal earnings or financial situation).

You also may well be considered clueless, if not garishly rude, for asking someone where they’re “really from”, what their religious beliefs are, or what candidate they voted for in the last election.

Yet it’s perfectly fine to discuss things (in a general, non-personal way) that in North America are more taboo– French people are generally much less squeamish about the topic of sexually provocative art, films, or the scandalous extramarital affairs of public figures, for example.

That comes with a strong caveat, of course. When discussing with a stranger one-on-one, be careful about broaching the topic of sex or sexuality, as it can be misconstrued as flirtation or even a come-on (whether welcome or unwelcome).

As an outsider to the culture, it’s always a good idea to let the person or group you’re interacting with guide the topic/s of conversation. But if you avoid the four non-nons of money, personal political beliefs, ethnicity, and personal religious beliefs, you’ll generally be fine.

I don’t think I should even have to add this, but will anyway: As you hopefully would anywhere else, also refrain from making sexist, racist, homophobic, antisemitic, Islamophobic, or otherwise potentially hurtful and offensive comments that target vulnerable or oppressed groups. It doesn’t matter whether the person you’re addressing is a member of one of them, or not. Just don’t.

Finally, please don’t *regale* those you meet with jokes about French people that are little more than cheap, hollow stereotypes. It won’t generally go very far in making you friends.

More Etiquette Tips for Travelers

restaurant in france Learning how to banter with servers or bakers was a hard-earned accomplishment– not something that came easily to me. Image: Zdenko Zivkovic/ Some rights reserved under the Creative Commons 2.0 license.
Image credit: Zdenko Zivkovic/Creative Commons 2.0 license

If you’re interested in learning evening more about the fine points of etiquette in France– especially if you have a private event on the horizon that will involve mingling, dining, or otherwise exchanging with one or several strangers, you may want to see this page (at Expatica) and this one.

Also see my whimsical look at the ins and outs of French humor, and learn how I eventually cracked some of its codes.

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Guide to polite phrases and behaviors in France/Pinterest image by Paris Unlocked

3 thoughts on “French Etiquette 101: Myths, Realities, & a Bit of History

  1. Hi, Courtney,
    This is really a very helpful primer for visitors, and I love your photo of the men dining at Le Train Bleu.
    Your comment about tipping mystified me though. As 15% is automatically added to the bill in any place with table service, people may be confused about your advice to add a tip of 10 to 15% to the bill. That could mean a 30% tip! Can you clarify?

    1. Hi Ellen,

      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment! From what I understand, servers typically do NOT receive service charges as tips; instead, restaurant owners often cover servers’ fixed salaries using the proceeds from the automatic service charge. While it’s true that servers earn higher monthly paychecks than North American counterparts, I still like to leave a tip of around 10% for good service, or even 15% for outstanding service. Having worked briefly as a server myself (and learned that I don’t have the stamina for it), I really appreciate how difficult it can be. And after learning that the automatic service charge rarely or never makes it into the pockets of servers as tips, I tend to still tip when service is good. Admittedly, though 15% is rare in France, and most would leave between 5 to 10% maximum. I will edit the article to reflect this. Thank you again for flagging, and for reading.

  2. Most restaurants and businesses have “service-compris,” the tip is included. You don’t need to tip 10% – 15%. If the service is good, round the check to the next ten: if the bill is 8.50, round it to ten. Only Americans and people who don’t know any better tip in France!

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