French politeness is predicated on the use of formulations. You don’t need to talk extensively (in fact, you shouldn’t unless you know the person), but you must always say “Bonjour”. When you walk into a tiny boutique and you are only interested in looking; when you arrive at the office with a hangover and no desire to speak to anyone; when you ask for directions on the street; when you buy a bus ticket; and yes, when you walk into the waiting room at the dentist’s office.
In fact, nearly every conversation should start with “Bonjour” or “Salut, ça va?” if you don’t want to develop a reputation for being antisocial and mal élevé.
2. Ask for ketchup or ice.
Did your mom ever get really irritated when you squirted ketchup all over her homemade meatloaf? Imagine that, only ten times worse and that’s what French people think of slathering good ol’ Heinz 57 on everything from saucisse de Toulouse to frites. While the rise to celebrity status of the American-style hamburger has somewhat attenuated this distrust of transatlantic condiments, la moutarde remains a more culturally appropriate choice.
3. Speak loudly in public places.
France’s metropolitan centers are more open and welcoming to international influence than ever. But while the French are happy to find foreign accents in their plates, they are not so enthused about having to endure them at maximum volume while trying to enjoy a tête à tête in a bistro. Unless you’re in a small, crowded bar where everyone is shouting across tables at one another, take it down a notch. If you need to talk to someone across the room, just get up and walk over to them already.
4. Drink too much.
The French like to drink. A lot. Not just wine, either. They’re the world’s top consumers of whisky. What they do not like to do is binge drink. You might encounter bottle after bottle at a party, but more often than not, each pop of the cork is accompanied by a shared moment following the collective “Santé!” when glasses twirl, lips smack, and someone declares it plutôt fruité or plutôt sec.
Accidents happen and there’s always that friend who has le vin aigre and ends up crying in the bathroom, but these things take place with discretion and are not flaunted as achievements.
5. Cut the cheese inappropriately.
No, this is not scatalogical humor. There is a correct method to cutting each shape of cheese. For example, a tranche of Roquefort should be cut in wedges emanating from the center of the thin edge, so what you get is essentially a core sample of a round of cheese. If you cut straight down the inside edge where the creamiest, most pungent bit is, your French boyfriend will confiscate the Opinel and reconsider your relationship.
6. Take the bait.
“T’es américaine? T’as un flingue aussi?” Don’t fall for it. Whether or not your questioner has ever been to the United States or has any clue about federal arms regulations, he doesn’t really care if you personally own a gun. When discussions veer into politico-religious-philosophical realms that often get non-French blood boiling, remember le second degré, the irony that underlies much of French humor. Also, many French people simply enjoy the debate — and teasing you. After all, qui aime bien, châtie bien.
7. Order your steak “well done”.
If you think French waiters are cold and unpleasant, try asking for your steak à point. It’s insulting on so many levels they may ask you why you’re even bothering with the entrecôte.
8. Ask personal questions.
Being friendly and chatty in France can sometimes come across as invasive. Many Americans, for example, show interest in others by asking complete strangers a slew of personal questions, in addition to sharing their own life story, including details of their recent divorce and the neighbor’s daughter’s drug problem. Unless you’ve taken the time to develop meaningful relationships with French people, don’t pry into their personal lives and avoid over-sharing yours. And whatever you do, don’t ask how much money they make.
9. Leave the house in your pajamas.
Wasn’t it cool how in college you could walk around town in your sweats and flip-flops? Well, you’re not in college anymore, you’re in France, where people tend to avoid inflicting their unwashed hair, baggy pants, and yellow toenails on the rest of the world.
You don’t have to wear Louboutins or slather yourself in makeup (in fact, that’s another great way to embarrass yourself), just be respectful of others—they have to look at you, too.
10. Eat in public.
Sometimes you just can’t avoid being late, and those baguettes poulet-crudités are so practical for scarfing down while running to the metro. That’s fine; just try to finish before you actually get into the metro, unless you want to attract sideways glares from your seat mate.
Eating is part of the personal sphere; if you decide to chow down in certain public contexts, be prepared for unsolicited attention.“Quelle belle tarte”: was that old man referring to you or your tarte aux framboises?
It isn’t true that the French don’t snack, they just don’t make a day-long habit of it. 11am and 4pm are the officially acceptable snack times. Diverge from the norm and depending on where you work, be
prepared to laugh off a few soi-disant jokes about your gourmandise.