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CULTURE

The six unwritten rules that explain life in France

Feeling confused about social etiquette and expectations in France? These unwritten 'rules' might help you make a little more sense of things.

The six unwritten rules that explain life in France
A sign at an RER station in Paris shows an information board reading "The station is closed due to a social movement" during a public transport strike. (Photo by Philippe LOPEZ / AFP)

It takes time for any foreigner to adjust to life in a new country. There are always unwritten rules for how social and professional situations should work, and some are easier to learn than others.

However, once you learn and master the unwritten rules to life in France, you might notice life moving more smoothly.

To help you integrate into France, here are six of the most important social customs.

Always remember that greetings are crucial

For foreigners – especially those of the anglophone variety – greetings are an unwritten rule to life in France that take some time to get used to. When walking into a grocery store or clothing shop in the United States or United Kingdom, one is not expected to say hello. The same goes for sharing an elevator – the ride would likely remain silent when heading upstairs with a stranger.

It might even feel bizarre to greet someone you do not know in such a situation, and it can be particularly tricky for those who are naturally more introverted. 

In France, though, it is assumed that a person should say “Bonjour” (or ‘bonsoir‘ – depending on the time of day) when entering a space, and to say bonne journée (have a nice day) when departing. 

READ MORE: Explained: When should you greet a French person

When arriving at a party, the rule is the same – even if everyone is already in the midst of conversations. It might be perceived as rude if you do not announce yourself by saying salut when arriving. The next step is often going up to people and giving bisous (cheek kisses). This is seen as the opportunity to introduce yourself if you are not yet acquainted, so people will often say their name in between cheek kisses. 

For many anglophones, the typical greeting might be a hug. In France, hugs are seen as more intimate than the bise, so keep that in mind when greeting people. 

Keep in mind that communication styles are different

For English-speakers, this can be a bit of a challenge when first arriving in France.

French people tend to be more comfortable correcting foreigners’ mistakes when speaking the language. English-speakers, on the other hand, might see this as offensive. For many anglophones, it is difficult to imagine correcting someone’s accent in spoken English or reminding them of how to conjugate a verb, but in France it’s taken as a friendly or helpful gesture. 

In the Anglophone world this type of behaviour would be reserved for close friends or situations where the non-native English speaker has expressly asked to be corrected, but in France you could be corrected by a shop-owner you’ve never met before.

Correcting a non-native speaker’s language shows that in terms of communication, sometimes the French can be more blunt. Sugar-coating is less common, and if you ask someone’s opinion on a topic (even something personal, like a haircut for example) then you can expect their honest response (even if it might hurt your feelings). 

READ MORE: OPINION: Who are really the rudest – the French, tourists or Parisians?

Forward or blunt-speaking extends into other scenarios too. In the UK, you might run into someone on the street and suggest “grabbing a coffee” sometime soon as a pleasantry. While you might genuinely like to have coffee with this person, more often than not, suggestions like that are forgotten. For the French, suggesting to get coffee or dinner is a true invitation that should be respected, and empty offers like this do not really make sense to French people. 

The same goes for “friends.” In anglophone countries, particularly in the US, you might describe anyone you have a passing acquaintanceship with as a friend. In France, however, a friend (or ami) is someone you have a very close relationship with, so everyone is not your ami. If you want to refer to someone as more of an acquaintance, you might use the word pote or collègue (for someone you work with). 

Blunt communication does have its benefits though – in a work setting, if you receive positive commentary, you can be sure that it is genuine and from-the-heart. 

Plan for things to move more slowly than you might have expected

This unwritten rule goes for many aspects of French life, whether that be waiting to be seated and served at a restaurant or trying to make an appointment with a French administrative body.

Patience is a virtue in France, and sometimes processes are not as efficient as anglophones might be used to in their home countries. If you are getting work done on your French home, for example.

The Local spoke with readers who had home renovations done, and one of the most common responses was that projects people expected to take only six months wound up taking years to complete.

READ MORE: Tips for renovating French property: ‘Double your budget and make friends with the mayor’

This same advice goes for almost all administrative processes in France. Cancelling a phone plan, for instance, typically involves sending a physical letter in the post and waiting to receive confirmation. Creating a French bank account will likely involve more than two separate in-person meetings, and updating your residency status will always be a long procedure.

Always have your dossier fully prepared and don’t throw away documents

France is slowly becoming a more tech-friendly society, but many things are still done via the post or with printed out forms and papers. 

When doing any administrative process, there will likely be a dossier required. This is the file of papers or documents needed for the procedure. If you leave out one of the forms requested, then you will likely find yourself having to make another appointment and elongate the process even further. For apartment searching in big cities, an incomplete dossier can be the difference in getting a visit and not hearing back from any landlords.

Additionally, the physical copies of forms are important, as sometimes they might not be made available online. Always make scans of papers that have some value, and invest in a file folder to organise your French documents. This will save you time in the long-run the next time you need to make a dossier

READ MORE: From dossier to Notaire: French bureaucracy explained

Get used to strikes

One of the most important implicit rules about life in France is getting used to strikes. Industrial action is less common in the United Kingdom than in France, and certainly much less frequent in the United States. 

Interestingly enough, while the French are known internationally for striking, it really depends which data you are looking at to determine which country comes out at the top for strikes. For example, a study from the European Trade Union Institute placed Cyprus ahead of France and another OECD study suggested that Danes and Costa Ricans went on strike more.

But nevertheless – strikes are a part of life in France, and they are something foreigners must adjust to, particularly because strikes in France often impact day-to-day life. Your train might be delayed, your flight might get cancelled, the opening hours for the place you want to visit might be adjusted.

While it can be frustrating to have to walk to work when your train or bus is cancelled, it helps to look on the bright side. Workers in France enjoy strong employment protections, and residents across the country benefit from a strong social support system and many state services.

READ MORE: How to stop worrying and learn to love French strikes

Learn the (other) unwritten rules about food, meals and eating in France

Finally, food etiquette and manners are important in France…because food is important in France. The value assigned to these unwritten rules will depend on which French people you are eating with and the part of the country you are visiting, but overall, there are some implicit expectations around meal-times that take time for foreigners to learn.

Dinner, for example, usually consists of specific courses: the starter, the main meal, the cheese (or dairy product), the dessert and the after-meal coffee or digestif. Usually, you will drink wine with dinner, but the type of wine will depend on the dish. 

READ MORE: How to order the perfect steak in France

Wine also has its own set of rules (like not drinking red wine outside of a meal) which you can find HERE.

Eating and drinking in France has its own set of unwritten rules that would take longer than six key points to explain, but the rule of thumb is to be open and willing to try foods you might not be familiar with and to generally be a gracious guest. Don’t worry too much – it is always okay to ask questions and excuse yourself if you do not know how something works. 

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Where does the ‘romantic, sexy French’ stereotype come from?

One of the most enduring stereotypes about the French is that they are romantic, charming, seductive and just downright sexy. We know this label can't possibly apply to an entire nation - but where does the image come from? And how do the French themselves feel about it?

Where does the 'romantic, sexy French' stereotype come from?

Let’s get one thing clear – some French people are very, very sexy. Others are about as appealing as completing your French tax declaration. And the same can be said for all nations – so how did the anglophone world come to believe that all French people are innately stylish, beautiful and seductive?

The stereotype

In the anglophone world, the cliché about the French is that they are uniquely stylish and beautiful, sexually liberated and very interested in the world of love and romance.

In the case of French women they are alluring but aloof while Frenchmen – we are led to believe – are charming but faithless, always on the lookout for the next potential conquest and, of course, superb in bed.

While people like this probably exist, it’s far from the norm and yet this stereotype is remarkably enduring. 

We asked Emile Chabal, a Reader in History at the University of Edinburgh and a specialist in European political and intellectual life of the 20th century, to explain more.

He told us: “Traditionally, and I think certainly in the 20th century, the dominant ideal of romance and style that has come out of France has involved beautifully cut clothes, elegant interactions between very eloquent people and a society that is very free in terms of interactions between men and women. 

“And all of these stereotypes come together to form an image of the French as a particularly romantic people and France as the home of love.

“And I think these stereotypes in many ways are wrong – France in the 20th century is a very conservative society, gender roles are really quite strictly policed and France is of course a Catholic country, so that has imposed strict roles on men and women and how they can interact.

“But I think a combination of French cinema, French music and prominent women in French intellectual life, such as Simone de Beauvoir, all add up to create an idea of France as a country that is particularly open and free, especially in the domain of love and sex.” 

The history 

So when did the anglophone world start to believe that the French have a hotline to love?

Emile said: “From at least the 15th and 16th century the French are known in Europe for being stylish and fashionable in terms of clothing. But to my mind it’s not until the 20th century that the association with France and sexiness is really cemented.

“What happens is that the French succeed in packaging and selling a certain type of ‘Frenchness’ to foreigners, and this works particularly on Americans, and a major source of this stereotype comes from America.”

Yes, anyone who believes that this is purely to do with self-evident French sexiness might be disappointed – the ‘French style’ stereotype was deliberately packaged and sold by marketing companies, artists and even the French government.

Over the decades this French ideal has been used to sell everything from fashion and perfume to holidays and mid-range family cars (such as Papa and Nicole in the below advert).

Emile said: “The domain of fashion is really important – haute couture is a very conscious branding of Frenchness. The way that fashion houses like Dior and Yves Saint Laurent – which were subsidised by the State – become global is really tied up with French attempts to develop this as a soft power – at a time when France’s ‘hard power’ – that is, military power – is under question after World War II, decolonisation, the formation of the European union. 

“From 1960s onwards the French state starts to subsidise culture in a very direct way, whether that’s subsidies for film, fashion events etc. It’s not an accident that certain people are being given a global platform to market an idea of French style.”

And perhaps the art form that created the most enduring images of the French of moody, romantic and sexually liberated was the cinema of the French New Wave. 

“I think the French New Wave cinema has a lot to answer for – fashion and style becomes embedded in the way that foreigners see French intellectual life – they see a way of being cultured in France that also involves style – smoking cigarettes wearing fashionable shoes and clothes etc.

“A lot of New Wave cinema is trying to bring a certain French philosophical topics into the conversation, but one that is heavily influenced by an American aesthetic. So actually what people think of as a very French style is heavily influenced by America.” 

The Americans

Speaking of Americans, it was in the US that the ‘romantic Frenchie’ stereotype first really took off in the period after World War II.  

The US remains a huge market for France, particularly in the realm of tourism. 

Emile said: “The British relationship with the French is of course much much older, but it’s a complicated relationship with a lot of history of conflict. Even in the period after World War II British politics tend to define itself in opposition to the French – we are not a land of revolution, of protest we are a land of consensus, parliamentary politics and this is important in terms of how the British see themselves as a global power. 

“The American view is more about individual exchanges and there were two groups who were really influential here.

“The first is the well-off white American women – WASPS – who came to France on holidays or cultural exchanges or to study – think Jackie Kennedy.

“They’re looking for something from France, they believe it to be the land of romance, the land of fashion, the land of style. For the most part these well-off, well-educated women returned to the US after their time in France and became housewives, so they tended to see their time in France as a ‘last fling’. Even if they didn’t actually have a romance there was still this sense of France as a place of freedom and glamour.

“And although these type of women were really tiny in number they went on to become extremely influential in setting a certain romantic image of the French.

“The second group were African-Americans who came to France, particularly in the period after World War II, in search of a society that was more open to them, and then reported back that France was a sort of paradise of freedom – I’m thinking people like Miles Davies touring in France and then saying “They respect me for who I am”. 

Tourism

The most obvious success of France’s marketing of itself is in tourism where France is consistently the most visited tourist destination in the world, and Paris was in 2022 named the world’s ‘most powerful tourist destination’

“People came and continue to come in their millions to experience ‘Frenchness’,” said Emile.

“The packaging of France to the outside world leans very heavily on Paris – in contrast to marketing within France which centres on going to the mountains, the coast, the countryside and discovering new parts of the country. Paris is marketed to tourists, especially tourists from South Asia, China and the Gulf, as the home of luxury, fashion and romance.”

And if you want proof, check out this promotional video made by Paris City Hall in 2016 with the intention of luring tourists back to the city when visitor numbers fell after the 2015 terror attacks. The film begins, of course, with two attractive people in bed – the tagline isn’t quite ‘come to Paris and get laid’ but it’s not far off.

The future?

The classic stereotype still stands, but there has been a sustained backlash a lot of which has emanated from the French themselves – especially Frenchwomen who resent the narrow, restrictive stereotypes of the ‘French woman’, which really only ever encompassed a small group of wealthy, white, Parisian women.

Emile said: “There have been a number of high profile scandals among the intellectual elite involving paedophilia and incest, feminist groups are questioning this image of the ‘French woman’ and the gender roles that implies and there is an increasing focus on Black beauty as the ‘beautiful French woman’ stereotypes especially are overwhelmingly white.

“There’s also an evolution of style so that it encompasses more groups – it used to be that the French were stylish and the British eccentric so that if you didn’t want to dress in the traditional way in France you would go to Britain where people would tolerate you wearing weird things and that was great.

“That has affected this ability to market ‘French style ‘as universal. France has a long and contested history of trying to find a place for Black people and the questions are now being asked about whether these traditional styles work with Black bodies or Black hair and I think those have challenged the hegemony of French style.” 

But the stereotype is powerful and even though it is being questioned in France, it might take a long time to change preconceptions outside the country. 

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