French Culture 101
New to France? While it may not provide everyone with a massive cultural shock, depending on where you are from, there are some very French ways and traditions that you may not be familiar with, and becoming aware of them before you settle will help your get accustomed to living in France a lot quicker.
Here is your guide to French culture, from greetings to food to public holidays.
The French greetings
You'll probably soon get into performing la bise every time you meet a friend - both male and female. This French greeting generally translates into a kiss on both cheeks, but in some regions it is only one, while elsewhere it goes up to 3, 4 - or even 5 in some places! This guide helps you find out which is the bise number most practised in the region you're living in.
In some situations though, a handshake is more appropriate - in business settings especially.
If you're ever in doubt, let the French person take the lead and follow suit!
Vous or Tu?
This is a headache for many - French people included!
Both pronouns are used to designate the person you are interacting with, but you'll use one of the other depending on the level of intimacy, familiarity and hierarchy involved in the relationship you two entertain. While tu involves proximity and familiarity, vous involves distance, politeness and formality.
As a rule of thumb:
- You can tutoie children, teenagers, close friends of any age and colleagues of the same hierarchical rank,
- Unless instructed otherwise, should vouvoie adults you are meeting for the first time or don't know on a personal level, and any person in a business or formal situation (doctors, teachers, cashiers, your boss...).
If you're ever in doubt when it comes to tu or vous, start by using vous, or follow whatever the person you are talking to is using for you (except if you are significantly younger than the person, or in a non-balanced hierarchical situation - e.g, a teacher may tutoie you but you should vouvoie them, likewise with your manager, a friend's parents, etc).
The rules above apply to when talking face-to-face, in letters and emails alike.
Politeness is highly valued in France, and not respecting some basic etiquette baselines may earn you frowns. Here are just some rules of French etiquette that we advise anyone to follow, to avoid you being seen as ill-mannered:
- Say Bonjour as you enter a shop, a waiting room or meet someone (you can use Salut for friends).
- Use Pardon if you bump into someone, need to squeeze passed someone, etc
- Say Merci to thank someone;
- Use the conditional tense to ask for something, e.g “je voudrais” (I would like) instead of “je veux” (I want)
- Don’t ask someone their age, especially women, as this is considered impolite
- Avoid openly discussing things related to money and salaries, as this is quite a taboo topic in France
Not yet completely fluent in French? Our guide on how to learn French can help you start things off!
Food, drinks and eating out
French meals at home
French people tend to enjoy 3 to 4 meals a day - the petit-déjeuner (breakfast), the déjeuner (lunch) and the dîner (dinner), plus sometimes a goûter, which is an afternoon snack especially common amongst children and teens and enjoyed when they come home from school.
- The typical French breakfast is sweet and carb-focused. It will normally comprise of a bowl of cereal with milk and an orange juice or fruit, or coffee with jam/honey on toast. On weekends, croissants, pains au chocolat, and other pastries may be involved.
- Lunch is anything from a salad to a sandwich and tends to take place around 12 pm or 1 pm.
- Dinner is most commonly eaten around 8 pm. It will often be home-cooked and be a rice or pasta dish with meat and vegetables, served at times with a glass of wine.
The French value their meals and it is not uncommon for them to sit down for an hour to eat, and sometimes even a few hours during big family events.
When invited to a French person's home for a meal, expect to be served an apéritif (generally comprised of alcohol and chips or other savoury snacks), followed by a starter (entrée), a main meal (plat principal) and a dessert (dessert), followed by coffee. Bread will usually be served with the main course and sometimes cheese will be served between the main course and dessert. Plan your day accordingly to work yourself up an appetite!
You can also check out this other article about French dishes you need to try while you're there!
Eating out in France
When eating out in France, you'll generally spend a couple of hours at the table if you go out for a meal with French people, as this is considered an experience in itself, during which people can make conversation and debate for a while.
Depending on the type of restaurant and time of day, you'll find people order either 2 or 3 courses.
To tip or not to tipWhile in some countries, such as the US, tipping is the expected norm, in France not tipping is, actually, the norm. It is more of an optional appreciated extra touch, which French people tend to reserve for meals where they felt especially well taken care of, or when they go out as a large party and the restaurant was very accommodating. You won't ever be judged if you don't tip.
Holidays and celebrations
France has a fair share of bank holidays, which you'll soon learn to enjoy and get used to!
Find out everything you need to know about French school and bank holidays in this dedicated article.
French locals celebrate all main Christian holidays including Christmas, All Saints Day and Easter Monday. They also observe more French-specific events, such as Labour Day on May 1st, as well as days that commemorate historic events such as Armistice Day on November 11th, Victory Day on May 8th, or Bastille Day on July 14th.
You will find most shops and businesses to be closed on these days, so plan accordingly.
Below are the main French public holidays you can add to your calendar:
Date or time of year
Name of the occasion
|January 1st||New Year's Day (Jour de l'An)|
|March / April||Good Friday (Vendredi Saint)|
|March / April||Easter Monday (Lundi de Pâques)|
|May 1st||Labour Day (Fête du Travail)|
|May 8th||Victory Day (Victoire 1945)|
|End of May||Ascension Day (Ascension)|
|End of May||Mother's Day (Fête des Mères)||Celebrated, but not a day off|
Father's Day (Fête des Pères)
Celebrated, but not a day off
|End of June||Whit Monday (Lundi de Pentecôte)||
May be a work "solidarity" day in some places
|July 14th||Bastille Day (Fête Nationale)||
A highly anticipated parade takes place in Paris,
along the Champs Élysées
|August 15th||Assumption Day (Assomption)|
|November 1st||All Saints Day (Toussaint)|
|November 11th||Armistice (Armistice)|
|December 25th||Christmas Day (Noël)|
|December 26th||Boxing Day (2e Jour de Noël)||
Observed only in the regions
of Moselle and Alsace