A guide to French etiquette

A guide to French etiquette

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The French have some very formal rules about manners and etiquette. Avoid embarrassment with this guide to the essentials.

Meeting people

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.

Essential formalities

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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6 Comments To This Article

  • Lily posted:

    on 29th December 2013, 02:37:59 - Reply

    I'm confused. Do you shake hands or not? How to eat a French food? What courses and how many are there? What to do when someone talks to you? It would be so awkward to just stand there stupidly when someone puts their hand out for a shake...
  • Licouaze posted:

    on 6th August 2013, 15:07:03 - Reply

    This being said, Dane, I find other forms of courtesy here I appreciate. Before I could understand enough Danish, and even when I was the only foreigner in my dance class, the teacher would speak English throughout the lesson. This I think is extremely polite and would not happen in France, or in my country. On the whole I found enough reasons to stay in Denmark :-)
  • Dane posted:

    on 6th August 2013, 11:47:52 - Reply


    I'm Danish. Are you saying danish are impolite??
    Just kidding, you got a point. Danes need to learn some manners.
  • Licouaze posted:

    on 16th September 2009, 17:27:50 - Reply

    A Belgian national living in Denmark, I find the French much more polite than the Danish, who will bump into you and not apologize or almost sit on your lap on the bus. They also seem to be completely unaware of the fact that you can hold the door for the next person to come in without having to push it too. I almost never come across such a behaviour in France. [Edited by moderator]
  • Kara posted:

    on 25th June 2009, 10:10:03 - Reply

    I have worked in France for 12 years in various French and international firms and we have never shaken hands in the morning or at night when leaving the office. We do shake hands when meeting a new business partner or contact, but even when meeting a new employee, we usually just stand up and say hello and introduce ourselves but we do not necessarily shake hands.
  • kc posted:

    on 10th September 2008, 16:19:23 - Reply

    Nice article - you forgot to mention that the French never ( eat with their fingers, almost never- peanuts