Xenophobe's® Guides: French gestures and greetings

Xenophobe's® Guides: French gestures and greetings

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Are your hands being rude? Hand gestures add as much meaning to a conversation as speech, which is why you'd be impolite if yours were jammed in your pockets.

Xenophobe's® Guides: A book series that highlights the unique character and behaviour of different nations with insight and humour.


The French invented body language. In conversation, French hands are never still. They give shape, form and size to ideas. They display the state of the mind, heart and soul of the parties involved.

They kiss the tips of their fingers to show they approve strongly of something or someone. They pull the hand across the forehead when they are fed up. They purse their lips and exhale when they are exasperated. They have gestures for disapproval, incredulity, superiority, apology, amazement, surprise, bewilderment and frustration. Which is why it is considered grossly impolite to talk with one's hands in one's pockets.


Foreigners often fail to appreciate the formal code of greeting in France. The French shake hands with everyone (family, children, strangers), at home, on the way to work, at work, on leaving work, on the way home from work, and so on.

However, it is important to remember with whom one has shaken hands on any one day. The French regard it as extremely bad manners to shake hands twice in one day, as though one had not taken adequate notice the first time.

It is still the custom to say bonjour and au revoir to one and all when entering or leaving a shop or bar. This is not out of politeness. It is because the French view acknowledging the existence of others as a way of avoiding being rude. Manners 'maketh' civilisation to them. Without rigid formalities, the primitive in them would assuredly assert itself.

This is why the structure is so carefully graded. There are those shopkeepers to whom one should say, "Bonjour, monsieur," and those to whom one should say, "Bonjour, monsieur. Çava?" And those to whom one should say "Bonjour, monsieur. Çava?... " and ask after his wife, and a whole lot more.

For more, read The Xenophobe's Guide to the French.

Reproduced from Xenophobe's Guide to the French by kind permission of Xenophobe's® Guides.

Photo credit: denise carbonell


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2 Comments To This Article

  • living in Paris posted:

    on 5th September 2014, 11:13:19 - Reply

    Having lived in France since 1991, I formally disagree that the French shake hands with everybody. Americans shake hands, the French adapt according to circumstances. Business dealings: handshakes all around. Acquaintances: formak or less formal verbal salutes or handshake (I shake my doctor's hand but not that of my pharmacist), close friends and family: kisses all around. Two, three or four depending on which region you're from. Paris is two, if they kiss beyond two they warn you with the first kiss ("chez moi c'est trois bises"), afterwards you're expected to remember. Also, I agree with the previous comment: "Bonjour Monsieur ça va" would be considered a faux pas. If you walk into a shop/waiting room filled with people, you generally say "Mesdames, Messieurs" without adding the "Bonjour", as that goes unsaid.If you go into a room filled with friends and you don't want to kiss everyone, it's acceptable to call out "je vous fais un bisous collectif" with a big smile, they won't be offended.
  • Franc Bell posted:

    on 3rd September 2014, 15:55:16 - Reply

    I wouldn't say - Bonjour Monsieur ça va? - in my sleep. The beginning of your phrase is definitely formal and the second part informal. The correct thing to do following - Bonjour Monsieur - is first of all, wait for the reply (c'est le moindre des choses!) and then according to the circumstances, ie if you have already met them or you already know them reasonably well, you would say - Comment allez-vous? Slightly less formal would be - Vous allez bien? (with a rising intonation)