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French Social Customs: Greetings, Etiquette and more

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Tangled up in the rules of French etiquette? Look no further.

Whether it’s how to greet your new French girlfriend’s parents or the appropriate way to act at a French dinner party, we’ve broken down the most common French do’s and don’ts so you can put your best foot forward.

Greeting in France

French manners

If you don’t know anything about French social customs, you should at the very least know to be formal. The French value this above all else in terms of social interaction.

Use handshakes when greeting strangers. This includes both at the beginning and end of your conversation or meeting.

When entering a shop or restaurant, you should always greet the shopkeeper or wait staff with a bonjour or bonsoir, depending on the time of day (after 6pm is usually the time to switch over to bonsoir). When leaving, you should always say merci and bonne journée or bonne soirée. Not giving these acknowledgements is considered rude.

When speaking to someone you don’t know, use titles such as Monsieur and Madame.If the person has an additional title, add it after the first title.

Kissing as a greeting

Now you may be wondering: what about those air kisses I see French people doing all the time? Don’t get too ahead of yourself. That’s known as faire la bise (air kisses) and is usually reserved for close friends, family and children.

If you’re confused as to how you should greet strangers, watch how they greet others and gauge what they feel is appropriate when they see you (a handshake versus a kiss on each cheek) and go from there. Not every French person will want to be kissed, so by default it’s best to stick with a handshake until you're told otherwise.

Women will often give each other by doing la bise. Men will kiss women, but only men who are very close will give each other a kiss as well. Otherwise, they typically greet one another with a handshake.

The number of kisses and where to start (left cheek versus right cheek) depends on the region.Moreover, in social gatherings where kissing is accepted by everyone, you’ll need to faire la bise with everyone at the party, both when you enter and leave!

Should I use tu or vous?

Both of these words mean the word “you” in English. However, in French culture, their meanings differ depending on the circumstance.

You should always use vous unless you’re speaking to someone of whom you have a close personal relationship, or you’ve explicitly been given permission to refer to someone as tu. Otherwise, vous is the more formal way of talking to and referring to people. This includes authority figures, wait staff, or someone who is older than you.

People who live in the south of France tend to be looser with these rules, and using tu is not seen as such a big faux pas as it would be in a place such as Paris.

French conversation styles

The French tend to stand close to each other when in conversation, so don’t be alarmed if you notice a French-speaker doing so when talking to them!

They also never raise their voices as it is considered rude. Don’t shout across the room or anywhere, in fact, even in an argument.

Eating and drinking etiquette

French food is prepared with the utmost care and consideration, and it is expected that you will appreciate it the same way. That is why certain social conventions are in place when you are entering a restaurant or French home.

Eating etiquette in French restaurants

If you’re eating at a restaurant, always greet the waiter or waitress with a bonjour or bonsoir. If you're sitting outside on the terrasse, you can usually just seat yourself. Put your menu down once you’re ready to order and your waiter will be along shortly.

To dine in France is to take your time. Waiters will not repeatedly come by and check in with you like in North American restaurants. They watch their tables from afar and between serving others.

You will only be given the bill if you’ve requested it, unless you’re just having a coffee or single drink, in which case the waiter will bring the bill with your drink.

Tipping in FranceTips are included in the bill by law, so don’t worry about hastily calculating that 15% extra. But it’s customary to round up your bill with some change.

Eating etiquette in someone's home

French dinner

If you’ve been invited to a French person’s home for a meal, you should first remember to bring something with you, whether that’s a bottle of wine, some flowers, or a small dessert or cheese dish.

If the dinner party is large, send flowers in the morning so they can displayed at the evening meal. Different flowers in France have different connotations (such as chrysanthemums for graves, roses for romantic love) so if ever in doubt, it’s best to ask a florist what to send based on the circumstances. Flowers should be given in odd numbers but not 13.

Arrive on time and never more than ten minutes late. Don’t drink until everyone has arrived and the host has toasted everyone with a santé. You should never pour your own drink except for water, and if you don’t want any more wine, leave your glass partly full.

Don’t eat until the host says bon appétit. Keep your elbows off the table but keep your arms and hands visible above the table (as in, not in your lap). You should finish everything on your plate.

Send a thank-you note to your host a day or so after the meal.

French dress code

The French tend to dress casually for almost every occasion. You’ll even find doctors in clinics wearing their white medical jackets unbuttoned, with a nice pair of jeans and top underneath.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t care about what they wear. The French like to look presentable, and will frown upon those who look unkempt, even just walking down the street.

If you’re lucky enough to be invited to a black tie soiree, don’t skimp on style and dress to impress.

French business Etiquette

French business

In French business culture, courtesy is key. Shake hands, make eye contact and show your French colleagues that you respect them by being polite.

If you don’t speak much French, learn some key phrases to show that you’re interested in learning and pursuing French business relationships further. More about how to get started with learning French in this other article.

Meetings are booked at least two weeks in advance by appointment, usually set up by the secretary. However, avoid booking meetings in July and August as most people will be on vacation at that time. All written communication is conducted in a formal tone.

Don’t be caught off-guard if someone is very direct when asking you a question. This is commonplace in French business culture.

When negotiating, be patient with the process -- the French like to go over every detail. Do not use over-the-top aggressive negotiation tactics as these will not work and you will look unprofessional. Lean towards a more thought-out, logical presentation that explains your position.

French businesses are hierarchical, and higher-ups in the company are highly respected. They also make all the decisions. Negotiations are settled with a long, highly-detailed contract.

Relationship Etiquette

Family is very important to the French. Each family member has certain responsibilities; parents are serious about their duty to protect and guide their children. Extended family members are also important, and are looked upon for additional emotional and financial support.

The French are relatively private when it comes to their relationships, romantic or otherwise. They are polite to those outside of their social circles, but can be themselves around close friends. Being a good friend to a French person means loyalty; you should be able to help your French friend out with a problem or situation when you’re available.

French traditions

There are many different types of traditions in France, some going all the way back to the Middle Ages!

There are also a number of state holidays, such as Christmas, Easter and Bastille Day, that are much loved and celebrated throughout the entire country. You can find out more about French state holidays in this list.

Here are three ways of celebrating common traditions in France.

Celebrating birthdays

French families

The French will sing joyeux anniversaire to each other just like in other Western countries. Flowers are also given as a gift, more often to women than men.

Birthday cakes typically do not have the person’s name written on them; tarts can be presented as a type of cake as well. Instead of lots of icing, fruit and nuts tend to decorate the pastry.

Gifts are given, but are usually wrapped by the store they were bought from, instead of by the person giving the present.

There is a French tradition of naming your child after the saint whose day it is on the child’s birthday. Modern families have distanced themselves a bit from this practice and have named their children what they want, but have kept the saint’s name as the child’s middle name.

But because of this tradition, French families celebrate both the child’s birthday and their “name day,” after the saint they were named after. A “name day” celebration is not as big as a birthday celebration and does not require gifts, but it is still a special day for the child.

Celebrating weddings

Traditional French weddings cakes are called croquembouche, which translates to a tower of pastries or macarons glazed with sugar and caramel.

It is also traditional to break off the top of a champagne bottle with a saber, a custom which harks back to the age of Napoleon. When the army was celebrating a victory, soldiers would ride their horses towards ladies holding champagne bottles and smash the top off with their sabers.

Celebrating a new baby

French maternity

Baby showers before the baby’s birth are not common like in other Western countries.

Expecting parents often receive wine as a gift. When received, the bottle represents the baby’s year of birth, and the parents can let the wine mature until their child is 21 years old. They also receive practical gifts from family and friends after the baby is born.

Another French tradition is for the new father to give a piece of diamond jewelry to the new mother to celebrate the birth of their child.