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French culture and etiquette – what to expect

Hannah Jolliffe / 30 May 2022

The French are notorious for liking things to be done in a particular way, so if you’re visiting France, make sure you know these basic dos and don’ts.

Plate of food al fresco
If you are visiting a French home expect plenty of good food and wine

Meeting and greeting

When you first meet someone, go for a simple handshake. After that, it’s usually two bisous – or ‘air kisses’ as they’re known to us.

The French like polite greetings: bonjour madame/monsieur (or bonsoir in the evening). Always apply the same treatment with waiting staff, sales assistants, tour guides, hotel staff etc and you’ll be likely to get the same treatment in return.

French people appreciate it when you attempt to speak in French, even if it’s only a little. Learn a few basic phrases that you’re likely to use a lot in everyday situations. Often, they will happily switch to English if they can see you’ve made an effort. You can always politely request this using Parlez-vous Anglais?

Eating and drinking

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,” says Culture Smart! “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.”

For this reason, people will often invite you for an apéro or aperitif instead, to give them a chance to get to know you for an hour or two over a drink.

Manners and etiquette

If you're invited into a French house you should always take a small gift – flowers, a plant or chocolates. You’ll be invited into the main room, but don’t expect to be shown around the house. The French like to keep their houses private, so it’s unlikely that you’ll be given a grand tour.

If you take flowers, there are a few things to be aware of according to Culture Smart! “They should be odd numbers (seven is fine, but never thirteen) and be sure to unwrap them before presenting them. Different flowers have different connotations, so 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.”

The French culinary and wine tradition means that items of foreign food and drink are not always well received – unless it's something specialist like Scotch whiskey. Do not take wine unless it is very special, and, of course, is French.

Holidays and festivities

One of France’s biggest national celebrations is Bastille Day (or la Fête nationale) on July 14th. A hugely important part of French history, Bastille Day marks the day in 1789 when Bastille was attacked by military troops and became a turning point in the French Revolution.

The French celebrate Bastille Day with parades, dancing, music and communal meals, and a big military parade in Paris.

Another day that brings out the parades all around France is VE Day on May 8th. This is the day that celebrates France’s freedom from the Nazis in 1945. Many people use the day to remember loved ones lost in the war too.

If you’re visiting France during Christmas, you’ll experience many of the same traditions – advent calendars, presents, decorations and Father Christmas all play a role. One big difference is that the big family celebration takes place on the evening of Christmas Eve, with a long dinner that might include goose or turkey, smoked salmon and oysters.

Extracts from Culture Smart! A Quick Guide To The Customs & Etiquette of France by kind permission of Kuperard Publishers.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.