There are some difficult lessons to be learned when it comes to life in France.
From French dining etiquette to the conversational conventions, here's a look at a few of the highlights, in the hope that the uncomfortable silences and condescending looks suffered by others may spare you from the same fate.
Several of our readers told us about bad experiences they had had after forgetting to begin a social interaction without a clearly pronounced bonjour, including Gregg Kasner, who recently received a stern reminder of how crucial this little word really is in France.
“We were in a rush to get to the theatre, and when I put my last subway ticket into the turnstile, it wouldn’t accept it. Upset, I went to the attendant in the booth and said in French, “I don’t know what is wrong, but the turnstile would not accept my subway ticket.
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“She gave me the most caustic look possible and sarcastically replied, 'Bonjour . . . ' Completely embarrassed that I had not greeted her, I said, 'Bonjour' and repeated my sentence. Without a word she checked my ticket and then clicked open the adjacent gate for me to enter.
“I never forget the 'bonjour' rule. This time I did, and I was embarrassed.”
The importance of beginning conversations with this greeting is such that the Canadian authors Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow chose to call their book about French conversational codes The Bonjour Effect. They explain that the word bonjour serves a ‘phatic’ function, meaning that it does not convey information, but rather serves to open the channels of communication.
“[What] French people mean when they say bonjour is 'we’re going to communicate', or 'I am going to talk.' This also might seem self-evident when you are already talking, but not to the French.
Even those who are familiar with the rule sometimes forget. When in doubt, just keep in mind this piece of advice from Nadeau and Barlow:
“Of all France’s phatic expressions, bonjour is by far the most important. It is a universal greeting and the key to any exchange… You can never say too many bonjours. Our rule of thumb is to say bonjour in all contexts and all circumstances. When it seems like overkill, you are probably right on.”
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Bisous, bisous, bisous (and repeat)
Bonjour isn't the only problematic aspect of greeting people in France.
The complex nature of the bisous is well documented and you can read more on how it became such an integral part of French culture here.
However one reader pointed to one of the many potential pitfalls you could make in this area.
“Do the bisous to everyone at the party when you arrive AND when you leave,” he said.
And while there will no doubt be times you will be expected to just that, not everyone will expect you to do it the first time you meet.
While la bise is a staple of French manners, sometimes it's just a handshake, especially with the older generations.
Just remember, 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.
Readers also mentioned the pitfall of using the informal 'tu' form of the verb when speaking to someone older, such as your French partner's grandmother, or an authority figure.
“Not cool,”said Svein Håkansson. “Tthey will let you know about it also or just not listen cause you can’t possibly be talking to them.”
Everyone's done it so there's no need to worry too much if you let 'tu' slip but when in doubt it's best to use vous and you'll be told when/if it's okay to switch to the informal version.
In an eating and drinking culture with as prestigious as France’s, there are bound to be a few rules, notably with respect to their much- vaunted cheeses.
“There is a serious protocol when slicing and serving cheese,” Kyle Smith says. “I’ve made the mistake of innocently deforming a wedge of cheese with a knife and faced the wrath of my Parisian in-laws.”
In this case, there is actually a pretty clear logic behind all the indignation.
“It was explained to me after my faux pas that in a wheel of cheese, especially soft cheeses, there are different textures and flavors as you move from the circumference to the center. By cutting off the “nose” of a wedge, I was seen as a greedy glutton for taking the best piece. Also, the aesthetics of changing the shape were brutish and notably American.’
Those who don’t want to be seen as greedy gluttons would do well to cut cheese wedges from the center of the wheel to the edge, thereby fairly distributing the more flavorful center among all the diners. More on this – along with some other vital cheese advice – can be found here.
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And if you find yourself eating cheese, there’s a good chance you’ll be accompanying it with wine, which brings a few rules of its own.
When you’re at a table and wine is being poured, it is important to “wait for everyone to have their drink, and to have a 'santé' before you can drink,” points out Paris resident Svein Håkansson.
And when it’s time for that ‘santé’, make sure to look your fellow imbimbers in the eye when you clink glasses – otherwise you're risking seven bad years in the sack, according to the French at least.
As for the wine itself, it is a sacred product which shall not be adulterated, several readers remind us.
Really enjoyed tinto de verano or kalimotxo when you were in Spain? You’re not in Spain anymore. Neither Sprite nor lemonade nor Coca Cola should be added to wine, no matter how hot it is.
Different wines shouldn’t even be mixed in the same glass, and most servers will balk should you ask for more wine from a different bottle when you still have a previous variety in your glass. The notable exception being the Kir apéritif, composed of white wine (or champagne for a Kir royale) with crème de cassis.
Wine etiquette is also easily a subject unto itself, click here to read more.
If you are accompanying your wine and cheese with good conversation, there is one topic you might want to be careful about broaching.
“Across France, money is taboo,” says Kim Loan. “People don’t tell you their salaries or even how much they bought their house for. We actually see how they feel awkward, not replying to you.”
So when looking for things to talk about, feel free to discuss the food, the wine, art, culture, history, or current events – all of which will be more interesting to the French than work or money.
by Edward O'Reilly