French Etiquette: How to Behave in France

By OptiLingo

How to Fit into French Society

Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. France is an old country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your French language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, how you behave in a social setting will affect your overall interactions with other French people. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll be making a great first impression with your new French friends and collogues.

Showing Respect in Greetings

A common perception of French people is that they are informal, but their day-to-day greetings prove otherwise. Whether just greeting a passerby in an elevator, shopping, communicating in an office, or asking a stranger for assistance, each setting requires quite a formal level of greeting. For instance, when addressing someone, you shouldn’t just say “Bonjour;” you should add a gendered title, such as “Monsieur” or “Madame” every time you want to say hello to someone. Consumers in a small shop or hotel breakfast room may use “Bonne journée” (“Have a good day”) or “Bonne soirée” (“Have a good evening”). Even more, a reply, such as “Merci” or “Je vous remercie” (“Thank you”) is expected when someone wishes you a nice day. In offices, people might say “Goodbye” with “Bonne journée” and “Bonne soirée,” and this is true even when you split at the elevators. Lastly, you most likely won’t wear out “thank you,” or “merci,” so don’t be afraid to say these magic words. The French consider it an important indication of respect to say “s’il vous plaît,” which translates to “please” or “if it pleases you.”

If you meet a person who has a distinguished title, such as a retired ambassador, be sure to address him or her appropriately. “Monsieur l’Ambassadeur” will suffice. Additionally, the head of a company should be addressed with “Monsieur le Président” or “Madame la Présidente.”

Asking for assistance is fine in France, as long as you remember proper etiquette when you ask. It’s important not to interrupt a stranger without saying “Excusez-moi de vous déranger” (“Excuse me for interrupting you”). Also, add “j’ai un petit problème” (“I have a small problem”). For help or support, you should ask “Est-ce que vous pourriez m’aider?” (Could you help me?”).

Rules of Social Engagement

While you won’t find it written down in a handy pamphlet, there are rules of conduct for getting along in French society. While these might be things that the French tend to do subconsciously, visitors will be frowned upon for not knowing to do them. In fact, the word “Étiquette” is drawn from the French word “estique,” which was initially used to describe the daily code of conduct for men in the French military.

There are few things more important to the French than being correct, so count on the community in which you now live to point out any errors you’re making. Whether you display poor table manners or lack social graces in a more formal setting, your French neighbors won’t hesitate to correct you.

As the word etiquette evolved, so did its definition, and before long people began using the word to describe rules for social behavior. Today, “etiquette” is used to set out rules for social interaction in international cultures around the world. While the rules may change from society to society, the fact that we establish these norms is due in large part to the French and their dedication to good manners.

The French BottinMondain contains a list of French society’s elite, but also contains an extensive list of rules that govern social conduct. It might be called the Emily Post for French manners. In any case, it offers rules and recommendations for behaving in any social situation.

The Epitome of Proper Etiquette

A common French critique is, “Ce n’est pas correct” or, “That’s not the right way to behave.” Etiquette is essential; for example, you wouldn’t say just “Bonjour,” you would say “Bonjour Monsieur” or “Bonjour Madame.” Omitting the proper form of address is incorrect, and can be considered borderline vulgar.

The French consider American dress and manners careless and unsophisticated, and mock the British for their poor dress and lack of savoir-vivre (knowing proper behavior). Behaving correctly doesn’t necessarily mean being polite. It can also mean showing cool indifference, refusing to admit you’re wrong, and understanding social cues and disses.

The French Revolution did not create complete equality, rather it transferred power from the monarch and the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, which was really the original intention.

In today’s France the haute bourgeoisie, the upper middle class, is as much a caste as its aristocratic predecessors. Currently, it leads the country in business and government, and members of the baute bourgeoisie attend the top universities and training schools, as show the election of French énarque and banker Emmanuel Macron to the presidency in 2017. Having family connections eases a lot your path into these elite circles.

The bonne bourgeoisie, or professional middle classes, are young people from “good” families who are rising in business and politics. Nicknamed “bon chic bon genre,’ or “BCBG,” these are the people who will rise quickly by behaving correctly.

The petite bourgeoisie are the trading classes, often kept at a social distance. One reason may be that there is a close relationship between traders and manual or factory workers. It is generally expected that one should keep to one’s own group.

Politeness Opens More Doors

Politeness goes a long way. We teach our children to say please, thank you, and hello, and, for the most part, we abide by these same rules in adult life. However, the extent to which etiquette is carried out is not uniform throughout the world. The French are known for their relaxed formality. Although it may seem restrictive, decorum is of utmost importance in French culture. For example, a French man stands when a lady walks into a room for the first time and will open the door for her. Furthermore, French women stand to greet one another. The above actions are not typically considered important in the United States.

When having a meal, it’s important to keep your hands on the table, not your elbows, and your hands should never be in your lap. One French woman visited her daughter, who was living in England. She noticed that her daughter’s hands were in her lap as she sat at a table and asserted, “Chérie, you have lost your manners!”

Although some rules may seem to be too restraining, the French follow this formality at home, entertaining, or out on the town. The higher the social level, the more emphasis that is placed on “la politesse.” The above protocols may seem characteristic of an early 1950s Audrey Hepburn film or for those born with a silver spoon having brunch at Le Meurice, but their prevalence, whatever the social level, shows the importance of politeness and formality in French culture.