A guide to French etiquette
The French have some very formal rules about manners and etiquette. Avoid embarrassment with this guide to the essentials.
The French shake hands almost whenever they meet, and always when meeting someone for the first time or for business. Arriving at work in the morning, it is quite common to greet colleagues with a handshake, and to shake hands again when leaving.
Greeting anyone familiar — like a favourite restaurant waiter or a next-door neighbour — is also usually begun with a crisp handshake.
When colleagues know each other well, and in situations between friends, women will often greet each other, and male colleagues or friends, with a kiss on the cheek. Beware - don't take the first step if you are uncertain, but be ready to embrace!
The choice of vous and tu to say "you" in French is confusing, and sometimes very subtle. But a simple rule is that the more intimate tu is only employed amongst family and friends. It is common for work colleagues to say tu, but wait until someone else does it first.
A common way of getting to know someone is to have a drink together. But the French are not into bar binges, and an aperitif is usually sipped and stops at two.
Wine accompanies dinner and never replaces it, and a glass is filled to three-quarters, never to the brim.
Dinner guests are expected to bring a gift, however modest, and this is usually a bottle of wine, flowers, or a pre-agreed desert or cheese dish. The French keep their arms above the table, not in their lap.
While people in France can sometimes appear to behave impolitely, the use of polite form in language is sacrosanct. When addressing a stranger, always add Monsieur or Madame, as in Excusez-moi, madame if asking directions.
A typical gesture of politeness, which becomes the opposite if you don't apply it, is to let another person pass through a door first, and a man always gives way to a woman. If someone gives way to you, it is common to thank them or say pardon. Asking pardon is often a devalued term, and can be used in restrained anger, as when you move someone out of your way.
The French may be proud of being republicans, but they still love titles! All sorts of people, and especially politicians, expect their position to be recognised. When addressing the local mayor, it is usual to say Monsieur (or Madame) le maire. A policeman is Monsieur l'agent.
When writing any formal letter, even to the phone company, it is usual to end it, before signing, with a declaration of respect, a longer version of “Yours sincerely”. A common phrase which can be used in most situations is: Veuillez accepter, madame (or monsieur), mes salutations distinguées.
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