French social life can be very easygoing, but it can also be quite structured. After years of being bien élevés (well brought up), French people are quick to spot any examples of bad manners or social uncouthness. Much of the protocol surrounds food and hospitality.
Food is important
The first thing to remember is that food is of paramount importance in French society: the appreciation of food, its aesthetic qualities, its presentation, taste and, above all, the surroundings in which it is served.
In big cities people invite guests to restaurants, partly for reasons of space, partly for reasons of time, and invitations to a private house are infrequent. Outside the cities the home is much more a place for entertainment, but the pressure of producing and hosting a big meal means that people are unwilling to invite you to their house unless they can get things exactly right.
The 'drop-in' culture is uncommon in France. But in the south of France, because of the climate, open house is much more common.
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What's an apéritif?
So what is the alternative? It's the apéritif. People will often invite you for an apéro or aperitif to give them a chance to get to know you for an hour or two over a drink. An apéro might take place at lunch time or early in the evening, and is reasonably informal.
You'll notice on arrival that you are invited into the main room, but are unlikely to be shown around the house. The French like to keep their houses private, so don't expect a 'grand tour.' You certainly shouldn't go into the kitchen uninvited. One French colleague said that for 25 years he never entered his grandmother's kitchen until she became too arthritic to carry the dishes for herself and had to ask for help.
Sunday is the big occasion. If you are invited for noon or 1pm, don't plan anything else for the rest of the day. Lunch is served in a relaxed, leisurely fashion, followed by a nap or a walk, or perhaps both, and the whole occasion can easily stretch out over five or six hours.
Manners and etiquette
If you're invited into a French house you should always take a small gift - flowers, a plant or chocolates.
If you take flowers they should be odd numbers (seven is fine, but never thirteen) and be sure to unwrap them before presenting them. Once again, different flowers have different connotations. Do not give carnations, which can mean bad luck to some people, or chrysanthemums, which are the flowers placed on the graves of loved ones at Toussaint (All Saints), and signify death. Roses signify love or socialist politics. Yellow roses are association with cuckoldry, as is the colour yellow in general.
The French are an artistic nation. They will appreciate a book, a CD, or a picture that appeals to their aesthetic sense.
The French culinary and wine tradition means that items of foreign food and drink are not necessarily well received - unless it's something like Scotch whiskey. Do not take wine unless it is very special, and, of course, is French.
* Extracted from Culture Smart! A Quick Guide To The Customs & Etiquette of France by kind permission of Kuperard Publishers.
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