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31 mistakes foreigners make when they arrive in France

The Local France
The Local France - [email protected]
31 mistakes foreigners make when they arrive in France
(Photo by PATRICK HERTZOG / AFP)

Moving to France (or any new country) and trying to learn a new way of doing things can be daunting. Here are 31 of the most common mistakes that virtually every newcomer in France (including The Local's editor) makes when first arriving in France.

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1. Tipping every time you go out to eat or grab a coffee. For Americans, it’s ingrained in their heads to tip 20 percent for basically everything, but by and large the French don’t tip. You can leave a few coins if you'd like, but this is not expected.

2. Giving bisous to everyone, all the time. Although la bise is a staple of French manners, actually you don’t always faire la bise the first time you meet someone. Sometimes it’s just a handshake, especially with the older generations. La bise etiquette is one of the hardest things to learn for all foreigners in France, so don’t give yourself a hard time if you don't get it right away — give yourself at least a few years of living here. 

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READ MORE: La bise: Who to kiss in France, how many times and on which cheek

3. Mixing up tu and vous. Everyone’s done it — accidentally saying tu to a your French partner’s grandmother you’ve just met, or accidentally saying vous to a child… When in doubt though, best to use vous and you’ll be told when/if it’s okay to switch to tu.

4. Misplacing your most recent metro ticket. This rookie mistake can lead to hefty fines, and RATP personnel aren’t usually sympathetic to pleas of “I’m new here, I didn't know!”

5. Wandering onto the bike lane in Paris. That path is strictly for bicycles, and if you stray onto it, you’re likely to become the cause of a painful accident or at the very least an encounter with a very angry French person. Keep a look out, because several French cities are adding more bike lanes.

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6. Forgetting that motorway speed signs are for kilometres per hour and not miles per hour. Yes driving at 130 mph on a French autoroute is going to get you in trouble. Think.

7. Showing up early to a dinner party. It’s the height of rudeness in France to catch your host unawares by showing up early. It’s much better to give them a bit of wiggle room and get there a respectable 15 minutes late.

8. Calling someone you’ve just met by their first name. Anglos tend to be a bit more casual when it comes to things like this, but unless a French person introduces themselves to you by only their first name, stick with Madame or Monsieur _______ until they give you the go-ahead to be on a first-name basis. And the same goes for tu and vous, as mentioned above. This tends to be more observed by people in the older generation, but its best-practice to be as polite as possible.

9. Not having multiple copies of your birth certificate, passport, university diploma, 10 metre swimming certificate etc… all organized neatly in a file and ready to be whipped out for any administrative task you might need to get done. And all translated into French, of course.

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10. Driving on the left. Don't scoff. The Brits do it, time and time again.

11. Offering your French friends red wine for an apéro. Vin rouge is meant to be drunk with food. For pre-dinner drinks, the French often go for a kir (a white wine/blackcurrant liqueur cocktail), a glass of Champagne, rosé, or a white wine.

12. Calling an office at 9am or at lunch time. Don't be silly, of course it won't be open. Try between 10 and 12pm and then 2pm and 4pm to be safe. Forget calling in August.

13. Leaving a polite space between you and the person in front of you while waiting in a queue. A French person will take advantage of it and cut right in there, so just get cozy with the person in front of you if you want to keep your spot.

14. Going to the cinema and expecting film to be in the original language. You might be in for a surprise if you didn’t check the cinema’s film details and you find yourself watching an American movie dubbed in French. Be sure to check the codes on the cinema’s website: if you’re seeing an English-Language film, VOSTF means Original Version with French subtitles. Otherwise, it will most likely be dubbed into French.

15. Stepping out on to a pedestrian crossing as soon as the green man appears. Don't be so reckless. At least three cars are likely to have gone through the red light and won't expect you to stick to the rules. So hold back from until it's safe.

16. Putting the washing machine on at night in Paris. You’re not living in a house anymore, and apartment walls in the capital tend to be paper thin. Neighbours can hear everything, so save yourself their wrath and do your washing during normal waking hours.

17. Trying do your grocery shopping on a Sunday afternoon. Grocery stores in many parts of the country close after about noon on Sundays, particularly in rural areas, but McDonald's is always open.

18. Saying "excusez-moi" and not “bonjour” when you are trying to get attention. Bonjour is the most important word in French, in case you haven’t heard and that goes for when you're trying to get someone's attention. Even saying excusez-moi (without a bonjour attached) could appear rude to some locals.

19. Saying “Bonjour” twice to the same person in the same day. Okay, turns out you can overuse it. Saying “Bonjour” to the same person more than once in the same day is seen as rude, like you’ve forgotten you already greeted them. Instead, you can give them a nod and just say, “Ca va?” or even “Re-bonjour”.

20. Getting in a huff when there’s no ice in your drink. This can be a tough one for Americans who expect ice in their water or soda even on the most frigid winter’s day. But the French really don’t understand this tendency, so if you want ice you’ll have to specifically ask for it, and even then, don’t get your hopes up. 

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21. Thinking World War Three has broken out in your office. When really it's a just your French colleagues having what to them is a perfectly normal, if a little heated, discussion. Don't panic. They'll go for lunch together and carry on as normal until the next perfectly normal row.

22. Thinking you can use your bank card to pay for a baguette. This might work in some places, as more shops modernise and accept contactless payment options, but there are still a decent amount of shops that have minimum card charges. To be on the safe side, you could always buy ten baguettes.

23. Petting Parisians’ dogs on the street. In some places such as the US, it’s often expected that if you have a cute dog people are going to pet it. In France, you’ll get a weird look and possibly an offended Frenchie if you don’t ask first. “Bonjour. Je peux faire une carresse, s’il vous plait?” should do the trick.

24. Telling someone off for smoking on a covered terrace. Remarkably French cafés and brasseries are basically allowed to build indoor terraces where smoking is allowed. So you will just have to put up with it.

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25. Not greeting everyone individually at a dinner party. As a foreigner, you might get away with an awkward wave to the whole group for a while, but if you really want to integrate, just suck it up and go round each person kissing, unless they are of the older generation in which case a handshake might do. 

26. Trying to eat at a restaurant between 2pm and 6pm. Missed lunch? Don’t expect to find an open restaurant between these hours in most places in France, apart from Paris. You’ll just have to wait until dinnertime.

READ MORE: Reader question: What time do the French eat dinner?

27. Saying an English word with a French accent. Yes it works about 16.8 percent of the time, but there are so many pesky false friends out there you will end up really confusing someone and probably embarrassing yourself if you opt for this oft-used tactic.

28. Calling a waiter “Garçon”. Nobody says that, despite what your French text book says and it’s actually quite rude as it literally means “boy”. Instead you can just call the server “Monsieur” or “Madame” if it’s a woman of course.

29. Not having your passport on you at all times. You never know when you might need to hand it over for someone to make a copy of it. Or to prove you are who you are. Like in a bank, when you need money. A Driving licence is not ID, we have been told many times, it is a certificate apparently.

30. Expecting air conditioning and elevators. Many French buildings, especially the older ones, do not have elevators. This comes as a surprise to many visitors who would expect a building with six floors to have one. If you have mobile impairments, it is best to clarify this before booking your next trip. Aircon is also not commonplace in France, even though summers are getting hotter. If you visit in August, expect to be pretty sweaty a lot of the time.

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31. Not realizing you can get a cheaper pint... if you stand at the bar. OK barman watching is crap compared to people watching on the terrace, but you will save a few euros.

By Katie Warren/Ben McPartland

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Anonymous 2018/07/21 16:10
Doctors fees have gone up to €25

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