Most people who are learning French have a dream of being able to experience a visit to France like a local. While people have many different motivations for learning French, it’s important to have the language skills necessary to navigate not only conversation, but social etiquette with French locals.
If you are working with a French tutor, or even participating in a language exchange, there are some things you can start doing now to prepare yourself for some cultural norms on a visit to France. Here are a few things that you can practice in your French-language learning journey now to prepare you for cultural etiquette in France.
Always Say Hello and Goodbye
In American shops, it’s normal to walk in and walk out without a word to the employees. However, in France, it’s common to always greet people with a hello or a goodbye. At first it can feel awkward, especially if you’re leaving a shop without buying anything, but it’s always normal to say, “Merci, au revoir” when leaving a shop.
Shopping is not the only time you’ll say hello and goodbye to everyone. It may surprise you to know that if you enter a doctor’s waiting room, or even an elevator, it’s common to give a “bonjour” upon arrival and a quick “au revoir” upon departure.
Please and Thank You
When it comes to using your manners, ‘hello and goodbye’ are not the only words that matter! “Politesse,” or good social etiquette, is extremely important to the French. A sincere, “Merci, Madame/Monsieur” is always noticed and appreciated – and the absence of such is also well noted. The other half of the simple manners to put into everyday practice in France is using “please” regularly. Get used to attaching a quick “s’il vous plaît” to the end of requests, whether you’re requesting more water from a waiter or asking someone on the metro to move their bag so you can sit.
It’s very common in France – whether you are trying to get someone’s attention, thanking them, or making a request – to attach ‘madame’ or ‘monsieur’ to phrases directly addressing an adult. Depending on how formal your encounter is, feel free to use it often.
One social norm that has changed over the last couple of decades in France is the use of the word ‘mademoiselle.’ Previously used to reference a woman of any age who was unmarried, this word has largely fallen out of fashion except for little girls and adolescent young women.
“Tu” and “Vous” Matter
Here’s a quick rule of thumb for when to use ‘tu’ and when to use ‘vous’: If you are addressing a child, a close friend, or a well-known colleague, you can use ‘tu.’ (‘Tu’ is also used in religious context to address God.) If the person you are addressing is an adult, or someone familiar who is older than you, use ‘vous.’ Err on the side of always starting with ‘vous’ unless you are meeting your friend’s drinking buddies in a bar. Pay attention in social situations to what form others are using, and that will be a clue for what you should use as well.
If you are lucky enough to score an invitation to enjoy a meal with some locals, there are a few conversation topics to stay away from. It’s considered impolite to talk about money, especially when it comes to someone’s salary, assets, or spending habits. Similar to American etiquette, it’s also best practice to avoid discussing religion (especially asking people about their religious beliefs) or sex. The French tend to be more private than Americans in general, so asking them about their love life could also lead to an awkward moment.
It may seem obvious, but if your companions ask you what you think of France or the French, it’s not an invitation for you to share all of your negative observations about the culture – keep it gracious and positive!
Keep It Down
Every culture’s social norms are different, and Americans are notorious for enjoying a loud and boisterous good time during meals and out with friends. Not only does our volume level tend to be higher than the French, our overall demeanor can seem crass and boorish to the mild-mannered French. Take your cues from the locals and try to keep your voice – and wild gestures – lower than you normally would.
Stay in Observation Mode
Navigating life in a new culture can be intimidating and anxiety-inducing. While you can find a plethora of blogs giving you advice about cultural norms and etiquette, there is no substitution for learning from observing others. When you choose to learn from those around you, rather than imposing your knowledge on them, your language skills, your cultural experience, and your perspective of the world will benefit in every way.
As you level up in your French-language skills, you’ll start to imagine yourself using your new conversation abilities in real-world contexts. When you’re armed with the information you need to navigate social situations, you’ll be that much more comfortable easing yourself into life in a French-speaking context. If you can keep these simple rules in mind, you’ll be well on your way to seamlessly enjoying daily life in France.