France is the most visited country in the world and it is home to tens of thousands of international residents but cultural differences can still cause tensions between the locals and foreigners. Here are some tips to make sure you stay on good terms with the locals.
Do say bonjour
It might sound obvious to say the word hello when you meet someone, but the French do it much more often than English speakers.
When you get on a bus, go into a shop or a doctor’s waiting room, even pass someone in a corridor, it’s polite to say ‘bonjour’, even if you’ll never speak to the person again.
Similarly, if you’re looking for something in the supermarket, you should say ‘bonjour’ (hello) when you approach the assistant looking for help, rather than just excusez-moi, which might seem more natural. You could even add the word ‘Madame’ or ‘Monsieur’ after bonjour to be extra polite.
And do say bonjour to everyone!
When meeting a group of people you might be used to just giving everyone a general wave and shouting “hi”.
But in France the locals prefer to get a bit more personal so you’ll be expected to go around the whole group and give “les bises” (greeting kisses) or shake hands depending on what is appropriate and introduce yourself individually to everyone.
Do be public transport savvy
Things can get crowded on trains in France and in particular the Paris Metro, especially at rush hour.
Help your fellow French passengers by standing up from your folding seat and taking off your backpack to create more space (this is advisable anyway to avoid pickpockets). Moving down carriages on packed trains is also advisable.
Blocking train doors with suitcases and taking three minutes to get through the Metro turnstile because you can’t figure out which way to put your ticket in are another ways to get the locals’ eyes rolling.
In Paris especially, everyone always seems to be in a rush, so don’t take it personally. Oh, and being drunk on public transport will most definitely be frowned upon.
Don’t presume everyone speaks English
You don’t need to be fluent in French, but learning a few basic phrases will give a good impression, even if it’s just ‘parlez-vous anglais?’ Just walking up to people and speaking English is a no-no or a non-non we should say. And as we have already said, always start with bonjour.
And if they make the effort to make your life easier by speaking English then remember to say merci (thanks).
Knowing the difference between ‘bonjour’ (good day) and ‘bonsoir’ (good evening) also shows you’re making an effort.
The general consensus is that you say ‘bonsoir’ from about 6pm, when the working day finishes, but even the French can get mixed up on this one.
But remember they might want to speak English to you, so let them
However, if a French person just starts speaking to you in English then it’s probably best to carry on the conversation in the language of Shakespeare rather than Molière.
The French have a reputation for being quite shy about speaking English, but younger people at least feel more confident and will often want to try out their English on you.
So unless they are really struggling, it might be nice to let them. Some people feel insulted when French people immediately speak English to them. Don’t be, just go with the flow. You’ll have plenty of time to practice your French with non-English speakers.
Don’t go on comparing your own country to France (unless its worse)
One thing not to do with the locals is complain too much about how things are in France and then go onto say how wonderful things are in your home country, even if you’re right.
EG: “Aghh the smoking on the café terraces drives me mad here in Paris, hardly anyone smokes back home.”
However if you are comparing your own country unfavourably with France, then your local audience will love that.
Do get used to the smoke on café terraces
While the French are apparently giving up smoking in huge numbers, the terraces of cafés are often overrun by them, meaning if you want to eat a meal without smoke wafting in your face you’ll have to go inside.
And even when you think you are on an inside terrace, where in theory smoking should be banned, people are still lighting up because the rules are pretty lax.
But basically you are just going to have to get used to it. OK feel free to ask people to stop smoking if you are eating and the smoke is wafting over your steak tartare but you are likely to get bemused looks in return. Their cigarette is just as important as your meal.
Do remember Tu and vous
If you are a visitor and you are making an effort to speak French then the locals will forgive you getting your informal tu and formal vous mixed up. But if saying tu to certain French people instead of the more respectful vous is the easiest way of offending someone in France. So if in doubt stick with vous until someone gives you the green light for tu.
Do keep to your right
On escalators, like on the roads, the left is for overtaking. Stand to your right and keep the ‘left-hand lane’ free.
Standing next to your friend and obliviously blocking the escalator could land you with an angry Frenchman or woman breathing down your neck. Paris’ public transport service RATP even put posters in the metro in 2013 asking lovebirds not to stand together on the escalator.
Do mind your restaurant etiquette
Eating out culture in France can sometimes seem like a minefield for foreigners.
There are some pretty strict codes of conduct.
The French waiter is a mysterious creature to the foreign eye. Greet them with a friendly ‘bonjour/bonsoir’ and wait to be seated rather than sitting down yourself.
It’s considered odd to go into a restaurant and sit down yourself, as is moving tables around without asking. Let your waiter sort it all out.
If you need anything, a simple ‘excusez-moi’ or ‘s’il vous plaît’ should attract the waiter’s attention. Servers generally won’t come over to ask if everything is OK with the meal, preferring to leave you in peace.
Service in France is generally pretty good. But don’t forget to put your menus on the table or close them so your waiter know you are ready to order. And don’t take too long to order either.
Tipping is not custom in France, but you can, of course, leave a tip if the service was particularly excellent.
The phrase ‘service compris’ (service included) will usually be written on the menu, so you shouldn’t be charged for anything other than food and drink. Tap water is free by law if you’re having a meal, so don’t hesitate to ask for une carafe d’eau.
Do keep your voices down
The image of American and British visitors as loud and obnoxious may be a stereotype, but many of us who live here have stories of being asked to quieted down by French people on the table next to us.
Talking loudly in a restaurant, where tables are packed tightly together, will earn you some disgruntled looks from those around you and maybe a request to turn the volume down.
The same applies for making phone calls, especially on trains. It’s simply a cultural difference, but can create tensions with the locals, who tend to be more discrete.
Do remember your neighbours
You’ll be OK if you are living out in rural France but if you are living in a city centre apartment in France whether it’s Paris, Lyon or Bordeaux, you’ll have to remember to respect your neighbours, who will be living above, below and to the side of you.
So no drilling on an evening to put those shelves up. Put the washing machine on during the day too and basically no late night parties. Although you can get away with it once in a while as long as you put a notice up to warn all the neighbours in the block.
Don’t use selfie sticks
If taking photos every five minutes wasn’t ridicule enough for the French, imagine their horror at the dreaded selfie stick.
A common sight at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, the perche à selfie has become somewhat of a safety hazard at some attractions.
Apart from the risk of poking someone’s eye out, some museums argue selfie sticks risk causing damage to artworks. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Palace of Versailles are so fed up with selfie sticks that they’ve banned them altogether.
Do drive carefully
Plenty of foreign visitors to France have had reason to complain about the way the French drive. And often with good reason, given their love of driving right up behind you on a motorway at 130km/h until you pull over.
But it might be a good and safe idea to try no to incur their wrath. Stick to slower lanes, move back to the right once you have overtaken, indicate always, even if they don’t and don’t be slow at traffic lights. You can expect to be beeped at if you don’t move off straight away or are too sow so the French driver behind you can’t get through before it turns red.
And remember to give way to the right on French towns (for more on driving laws click here) otherwise you’ll end up not just angering a Frenchman but potentially leaving them in hospital.