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How not to get in a Knot over French Etiquette
Every country has their own code of what constitutes good manners; what is accepted in one country, even one region, may not be so in another. There is nothing like ‘fitting in’ to make you feel at home, and this can partly be accomplished by knowing how the French do things differently. The French are proud of their etiquette, and we want to ensure that when you move to France you feel confident in the customs, rather than getting into a knot of confusion.
Hand or cheek greeting
Across Europe a kiss on the cheek is used as a greeting rather than our more reserved handshake. If you are meeting someone for the first time it is fine to stick with a handshake but for someone you have met before, or are even being introduced to, a kiss on each cheek is appropriate. Bear in mind there are regional differences; in some areas it is customary to kiss four times on alternate cheeks, some areas will two and others three, so it’s best to observe what is the norm.
Madame or Mademoiselle. Tradition dictates that gentlemen are always called Monsieur or Messieurs if more than one gent, but a married woman was referred to as Madame, and an unmarried woman Mademoiselle. Although this might have worked in a different time, in today’s world, it doesn’t really work, as how do you know if a woman is married? As a guide, if you feel the woman looks young, using Mademoiselle is probably best, and anyone who looks over 25, use Madame.
Tu or Vous
One of the most common mistakes people make is confusing tu and vous; get this wrong, and you could come across as rude. Tu is the singular and informal word for ‘you’, whereas vous is both the formal singular and the plural formal and informal.
Arriving for dinner
One of the best ways to get to know your new neighbours quicker is to enjoy their company over dinner. In the UK we would consider it rude to arrive late, but in France it is expected and polite to do so. There is an unspoken rule that you should delay your arrival by 15 minutes; this way, if the host is behind schedule getting everything ready you won’t arrive and embarrass them. However, if you are having dinner at a restaurant you must never arrive late.
Giving a gift
Just like in the UK, when you are invited to someone's home it is nice to take a small gift. Where we may take a bottle of wine, some of your French neighbours may consider this rude, as it suggests you are judging their wine cellar. Unless you are a wine connoisseur and you already know your neighbours taste and wine cellar! A bottle of chilled champagne is fine, as is a bouquet of flowers, although you should avoid lilies and chrysanthemums as they are used for funerals and therefore considered bad luck.
It is not polite to wear a hat at the table, and always allow your host to eat first. Be aware of your bread; if bread is presented on the table or your side plate, never return it upside down as this is considered unlucky. This superstition dates back to Medieval times, when one of the most feared men would be the executioner, and the baker, to ensure that he didn’t get hungry or upset, would reserve his baguette to make sure no one else took it, by placing it upside down.
To show your host you have enjoyed their meal, it is customary to use your bread to mop up all the jus (sauce). However, rules such as this are not followed if you are eating at a restaurant.
The French take fashion and appearance very seriously, and any business or formal situations require you to look smart; this includes, for example, meeting your notaire to sign the final documents on your new home. An invite with an ‘informal’ dress code doesn’t necessarily mean you can get your jeans out, but a ‘formal’ dress code tends to mean evening wear is required.
Now you know the etiquette, all you need is a new home and new neighbours with whom to put these customs into practice. New properties come onto the market all the time, so what are you waiting for?