The French have some very formal rules about manners and etiquette. Avoid embarrassment with this guide to French etiquette and French manners.
We owe the word etiquette to the French, so it’s no wonder that etiquette and manners play a vital role when socialising in France – ‘la politesse‘ reigns supreme in French culture. Misunderstanding the social etiquette in France or not adopting French manners can easily lead to some awkward social situations or send a disrespectful message, so it’s helpful to learn a little French etiquette before you end up the centre of attention – and not in a good way.
It’s important to understand the importance of French manners and French etiquette even in casual social situations, which to some foreigners can appear very uptight and reserved to what they’re used to. Even if greetings appear overly formal, however, it is a sign of courtesy in France and thus an important part of French etiquette to follow. That’s not to say the French don’t let loose with close friends and family, but not everyone in France is a close friend or family and thus conversations stay mostly formal on the street, though more so in Paris than rural villages.
This guide explains some basic French etiquette rules.
French etiquette tips for French greetings
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 not uncommon to greet colleagues with a handshake and to shake hands again when leaving. Read more about French business culture and French business etiquette tips.
Greeting anyone familiar — like a favourite restaurant waiter or a next-door neighbour — is also usually begun with a crisp handshake.
However, 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 what comes.
The choice of whether to use the formal vous and informal tu to say ‘you’ in French can be confusing, and sometimes very subtle. But a simple rule is that the more intimate tu is only employed among family and friends. It is common for work colleagues to say tu, but wait until someone else does it first.
If addressing a stranger, you should always greet them formally before asking anything; whenever meeting someone new, address them with either Monsieur, Madame or Mademoiselle; typically use the latter for under 18s, and address most adult women as Madame, except in some situations, such as restaurants. It is also polite not to assume everyone speaks English, so ask first: ‘Bonjour, est-ce que vous parlez l’anglais?’ (Hello, do you speak English?)
You should also greet store clerks when you enter and leave a shop, such as bonjour (or bonsoir after 6pm) and au revoir or merci when you leave, plus sir or madam if you wish.
Naturally, you should use ‘please’ (s’il vous plait), ‘thank you’ (merci) and ‘ you’re welcome’ (je vous en prie or casually ‘it’s nothing’, i’ll n’y a pas de quoi) when appropriate.
Some foreigners complain that the French are rude or snobbish, but this is often misinterpreted; not adhering to French etiquette can be seen as offensive or an insult, even in ways you might not even realise. For example, in Paris, dressing formally on the street is seen as respectful to others, whereas eating while walking or grooming in public is frowned upon and could be taken as a personal affront.
Among close acquaintances French etiquette is naturally more casual, as well as among youths and students, for example, who might start using first names straight away.
Friends and family also kiss (la bise or bisous) to greet each other, which can range from the typical two (common in Paris) up to four kisses in other parts of France. It’s not usually a real kiss but rather a brush of the check with a kiss sound, or sometimes without any contact or noise at all, typically starting from the left (or right cheek). Hugging is much less common, however, and generally uncomfortable for the French; there isn’t even a French word for hug.
To kiss or not to kiss is often the question for foreigners in France. Above, Tim Conway with French actress Claudine Longet from ‘McHale’s Navy’.
Social etiquette France
A common way of getting to know someone is to have a drink together. But the French are not into bar binges as a way of socialising – instead an aperitif is usually sipped and stops at two. Wine accompanies dinner and never replaces it, and a glass is filled to three-quarters or less but never to the brim.
If invited to a home, a common French etiquette rule is that 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. You should typically use Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle if you have just met someone, plus their last name if you know it, until being invited to use their first name. Arriving punctually, but never early, is also vital in most aspects of etiquette in France.
At the dinner table, French manners dictate that the French keep their arms above the table, not in their lap. It’s also not typical French etiquette to yell across a room, and you should approach the person you want to talk to before speaking.
French manners and etiquette
While people in France can sometimes appear to behave impolitely, the use of polite form in language is sacrosanct in French manners and etiquette. When addressing a stranger, always add Monsieur or Madame, as in Excusez-moi, madame if asking directions or for help in a store.
A typical gesture of French manners and 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 using titles are still a beloved part of etiquette in France. All sorts of people, and especially politicians, expect their position to be recognised. As a courtesy under typical French manners, when addressing the local mayor it is usual to say Monsieur (or Madame) le maire. A policeman is Monsieur l’agent. Academic titles and degrees are also important, and you should know and use them where possible (such as a doctor).
Another common etiquette in France is that when writing any formal letter, even to the phone company, it is usual to end it with a declaration of respect, a longer version of ‘Yours sincerely’, before signing. A common phrase which can be used in most situations is: Veuillez accepter, madame (or monsieur), mes salutations distinguées.