Cheese knives, hands and wine glasses – French table manners explained

Cheese knives, hands and wine glasses - French table manners explained
If you're ever invited for dinner at the Elysée Palace, this is how to behave. Photo: AFP
Cracking the socials codes in a new country is never easy, particularly in France where people seem intimidatingly well-mannered. So here's the lowdown (from an actual countess) on how to behave at the dinner table.

If you have felt like an elephant in a porcelain store when attending a French dinner party – don't worry, you are not alone.

Entering the world of French mannerisms can be a challenging experience if you aren't used to their social codes.

Marie de Tilly is a countess based in Paris who teaches foreigners (and French people) how to behave properly.

We called her up to ask how we should behave when we have dinner with our French friends.

Here's what she taught us.

Marie de Tilly is a countess in Paris who teaches etiquette classes for foreigners and French people. Photo: Private

1. Say Bonjour

First, the very basics. French people say hello to everyone. Even children are expected to say bonjour madame or bonjour monsieur when arriving at someone's house. 

READ ALSO Why bonjour is the most important word of all in France

Shake hands or do la bise (one kiss on each cheek is the main rule) when entering a room. If you sit down without acknowledging the others' presence, that's considered pretty rude. 

2. Don't slouch at the table

Dinner has always been a key part of the French savoir-vivre. Photo: AFP

“French people judge,” de Tilly said.

“If you don't sit correctly or if you're not holding your cutlery like you are supposed to, you will be judged.”

And with that (slightly harrowing) warning, here's how to sit when attending a French dinner party.

Be it a family gathering, a nice dinner with friends or a more formal occasion, the basic rule is to sit up straight and keep your elbows away from the table.

“Place your hands on each side of your plate, not on your lap,” de Tilly said.

While in the UK well-behaved people tend to put their hands gently on their lap during nice dinner parties, French people “keep them where you can see them.”

3. Don't say 'bon appetit'

At least not if you are at a fancy dinner party.

“It really means 'good digestion', which is a bit unflattering,” de Tilly said.

“Then again, it's a little snobbish not to say it, and if you're in a more relaxed setting you shouldn't worry about it.”

But, not waiting for the bon appetit signal to eat does not mean you should start before your host or hostess tells you to. 

“Never take the first bite. Wait for the person who invited you,” de Tilly said.

4. Don't let your mouth find your fork


Valérie Trierweiler, ex-partner of former president Francois Hollande, let the cutlery find her mouth and not the other way around. Photo: AFP

“It's always the fork that comes to the mouth, not the other way around,” de Tilly said.

The basic rule – always – is to hold your fork so that the curved side points upwards and the tips of the tines point down. 

Between each bite you should put the cutlery to rest on your plate.

“Don't keep it hanging lose in the air,” she said.

5. Don't take too big bites

It's not polite to watch TV while eating in France, but when President Charles de Gaulle was speaking, some people (and pheasants) made exceptions. Photo: AFP

“It's important not to take too big bites so that you are ready to talk to the person next to you,” de Tilly said.

Like most places, talking with your mouth full is frowned upon in France. However for French people, dinner conversation is perhaps particularly important.

“French people love to talk and joke during a meal,” she said.

“Some foreigners don't know how to keep a conversation around the dinner table going, because they usually watch TV while eating.”

4. Wait for the wine

At dinner parties, French men are supposed to refill the glasses of any females sat next to them. Photo: AFP

Wine is a core part of French culture, but it's still pretty much a man's world.

“In France, women don't help themselves to the bottle unless they're offered,” de Tilly said.

According to the countess (and we double-checked this information with two under-25 French sources), men in France are still expected to be the ones serving wine.

The rules of course differ depending on what kind of dinner party it is, but in general it's the man's duty to ensure that the women have their glasses full.

So if you're a man sitting next to a women at a dinner party, make sure to ask her if she wants a refill before pouring into your own glass.

5. Don't eat with your fingers, unless..

If you're ever served asparagus as a starter at a French dinner party, you may eat them with your hands. Photo: AFP

Bread is one of the few things French people eat with their hands – rip off a piece and put the remaining bread on your side plate. Other than that it's pretty mich cutlery all the way and in restaurants you will frequently see French people eating pizza or burgers with a knife and fork.

But the French will make an exception for asparagus.

“It's absolutely possible to eat asparagus with your hands,” she said.

“If you're feeling unsure, just look at the hostess. That's my very best tip.”

6. Never eat cheese with your fork

Britain's Prince Charles and his wife Camilla got a taste of French cheese when they visited a Lyon cheese fair in 2018. Photo: AFP

Cheese is hugely important in France. It is served after the main course, before dessert. But how do you eat it?

“You cut it with a knife, but you don't eat it with a fork,” de Tilly said.

Put the slice of cheese on a piece of bread (“don't smear it!” de Tilly said) and have a bite. 

“If you're on a bread-free diet, it's better to skip it,” she said.

And, make sure to get enough during the first serving as this is a dish where you won't be offered seconds.

7. Control your children

Are French children more well-behaved than others? Photo: AFP

Anyone who has been to a restaurant in France will know that even French children somehow sit like little well-behaved adults at the dinner table. 

“Educating children is very important in France,” de Tilly said.

“American parents are much more indulgent than French parents,” she said

“In France want our children to resemble us. If we stay at the dinner table, so do they.”

“We want them to be nicely dressed and combed, and to say 'bonjour madame'.”

Americans, on the hand, tend to adopt a more laissez-faire approach to their children's education.

“It's a huge cultural difference,” de Tilly said. “That's why French people are so shocked to see American children's behaviour during a meal.”

8. Finish what's on your plate

At least most of it. 

“You can leave a little bit if you are full, but if you leave a lot it means you didn't like the food,” de Tilly said.

 


Member comments

  1. French table etiquette seems to be very close to what is observed in Spanish cultures. One thing I do remember is that the tip of the fork is down when it is in the left hand and up when in the right. Thus, you eat rice with your right hand, but you cut the meat and bring it to your mouth with your left. Is that also the protocol in France?
    Fruits could be challenging. Does one swallow the grape seeds or carefully puts them on the side of the plate? What does one use to do that, hands?

  2. In fancy restaurants, you’ll often get a knife and a fork or a spoon (or event the three of them) if the dessert requires it.
    Otherwise, you’ll have to be creative and in last resort use your helping finger. Most of the time, you can avoid it using the curved side og the dish.

  3. Please can you explain the etiquette of eating dessert with a teaspoon? Even most everyday restaurants around here, as well as our friends, bring dessert with just a teaspoon (coffee spoon to them), which is feasible if it’s crème caramel, for example, but a crisp tart on a flat plate requires a helping finger from the opposite hand, which wouldn’t seem to comply with the countess’s advice!

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