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French Etiquette Guide

French Etiquette Guide

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

By Dean Foster Monster Contributing Writer

Americans and the French have had a complex relationship that began when contemporary American and French revolutionaries fueled each other’s revolutions. Like an old married couple, they have influenced each other, lived with each other and complained about each other for years.

The French are not an unfriendly, cold or arrogant people. This complaint is a misperception of a behavior found most often in Paris and not necessarily the rest of the country. In fact, Parisians have certainly heard the same complaints from their visiting French colleagues from Provence.

Individualistic and critical of America, while at the same time in love with things American – from jazz to jeans to rock ‘n’ roll – the French relish contradiction and debate. Having overthrown Europe’s greatest aristocracy, today’s French struggle with a crippling bureaucracy and ingrained social structures (35-hour workweeks and a wide-ranging social welfare network, for example).

So how do you get along as an American in this great country? Check out this guide.

When in France, Try to Speak French

Perhaps no other culture so highly regards its language as a cultural symbol. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the French have difficulty with individuals who do not at least attempt to use French when in France. It’s logical, non? In most cases, the French appreciate any effort you make to use their language, and they will reward you with lessons in correct pronunciation. Take it as a compliment that they are interested enough in you to help you get it right.

Doing things correctly, or being bien élève (well-brought up), requires discipline and serious work. French schooling is a demanding and rigorous experience. Learn at least the basic phrases in French, and use them whenever you can. Sticking with English will only take you so far.

Some other considerations to help you get things right: When addressing people for the first time, always use the family (last) name, plus the correct French honorific, Monsieur or Madame. Mademoiselle is rarely used these days, unless you are clearly speaking with a child or very young, single female adult. Shake hands – one brisk, firm shake is enough – with everyone individually in a group when introduced and before departing. The American group wave is not appreciated. Le bis (or the kiss) is a common greeting once there is a relationship between women and men; usually, there is a kiss on two cheeks, actually an “air kiss” first on the left side, and then the right.

Let’s Argue, Mon Ami

The French generally love debate and may seek to involve you in discussions that require you to take a position. This is not for the faint of heart, but it is done in a spirit of camaraderie and in an effort to build a relationship based on your intellectual prowess and élan. Enjoy the banter and the passion with which it is delivered – the emotion can be fleeting.

Ways to Say Merci

While not necessary in business, gifts are expected for social events, especially to thank the host of private dinner parties. The best gift in this case is flowers, and you should have them sent ahead of time on the day of the dinner. Do not send chrysanthemums (they are used primarily as funeral flowers) or red roses (they’re associated with romance), and always be sure the bouquet is in odd numbers (an old European tradition). If you bring flowers to the dinner party, be sure to unwrap them before presenting. Other good gifts would be fine chocolates. Avoid bringing wine, because your host has probably already selected the wine for the meal.

Le Joie de Vivre

Above all, demonstrate yourself in all your complexity. The French want to see the real you, not just the working you. Work to live, not live to work, is perhaps the most French of all attitudes. One always has time for a coffee and a croissant, a sip of wine and a moment to enjoy the best that life can offer.

This article originally appeared on

Back to other countries in our Country-by-Country Etiquette Guide.

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