French Etiquette:
(How not to Act Like Such a Tourist).

The most important details of French etiquette in everyday Parisian life.

“La politesse" reigns supreme!

Good manners are of primary importance in French culture, particularly in Paris. And what you consider to be good manners and proper etiquette at home might not be the same as what Parisians do, so read on to pick up some very important tips on interacting with the locals in Paris to present good manners, French etiquette and social grace....

Formality is particularly important in Paris. In the ways you act, talk, dress, greet others, eat…… everything is just a little bit formal in Paris.

To American standards, being polite and formal can sometimes be considered uptight, prudish, reserved.....but please realise that, in Paris, this isn't the case at all; being polite, formal and proper is the most socially acceptable way to be. It's considered common courtesy. Learning how to present this aspect of French etiquette is part of a successful Paris 'integration'.

Of course Parisians still can and do let loose with friends and family, but that's are not friend or family to every Parisian.

You will be generally more accepted and appreciated in social and business settings in Paris if you are able to present the traditional courtesies of French etiquette that they are expecting. It's not so much a matter of being judged as 'uncouth' or anything, but more a matter of 'comfort zone': Parisians are more used to socialising or dealing with people with the same social custom/cultural background as theirs, is all.

Sacre-Coeur steps and sky and crowd in Montmartre in Paris, France.

The kind of formality I am referring to is shown in how they greet one another, how they dress, how they present themselves at the dinner table and how they speak to one another. The formality in these situations are a sign of respect for one another, so any negative reaction you may ever sense for not being formal or polite is most likely because they will think you are disrespecting them. Don’t interpret it as snobbery. Remember that, for them, the formalities are such a part of everyday life that on a moment by moment basis, they won't assume you don't understand their culture, they will assume that you are purposely being rude to them. Face it, we are a self-conscious species, and people will always take things personally on the fly if given the chance. That’s pretty much human nature.

Here's an example of a common French etiquette-related misunderstanding for North Americans:

Parisians dress up to at least a business casual whenever they go out in public. So if you show up at the post office wearing sweats, white sneakers, and a hoody, the person behind the counter may feel slighted because you are basically saying that, to you, they are not worth making yourself look presentable.

This is just the general attitude to wearing sportswear out and about...unless, of course, you are actually doing a sport... is just more appropriate, for the sake of first impressions and proper presentation of you, to also dress at least business casual in Paris at all times. The added bonus of doing this is that you will not stick out like a sore tourist thumb and pickpockets and other sorts who prey on the naïveté of tourists will not be able to pick you out of a crowd so easily. So it is also a safer way to travel.

Here's another example of a common French etiquette-related misunderstanding:

If you were to walk into a small shop and not greet the store clerk, that store clerk will think you are purposely being rude. They won’t know that you just don’t have the habit of talking to strangers and don’t mean anything by it; they will see the situation through the lens of their own culture and think that you are purposely snubbing them. Then you ask a question point blank, without first greeting them politely in the French way, and again they may think you are purposely disrespecting them.

From their perspective, you are telling them they are not worth greeting, so chances are, they won’t be that nice to you, because they now think you have purposely insulted them twice....when really, you just had no clue how and when they expected to be greeted and you totally didn’t realise that you were being rude by omission.

Parisians have the stereotype of being rude or at least unfriendly. Ironically, courtesy and being polite are actually very important to French social customs. SO... much of this stereotype can be explained by misunderstandings such as in the example above. In a year of living there and various stays since, I have found that Parisians are no ruder than citizens of any other big city; in fact, I do find them overall very polite compared to many.

Streetscape and buildings in Paris, France.

I suppose another possible reason Americans sometimes describe Parisians as arrogant or rude is that they are misinterpreting the Parisians' attempt to be reserved and polite as aloof snobbery.... (But then others, perhaps, consider it characteristic of a Parisian social elegance.) In turn, Parisians are often shocked or just uncomfortable with people who have a lack of reserve. I am definitely not suggesting that you turn down your personality or stop expressing your individuality (I am a very big fan of big personalities, myself), I am just pointing out that there are certain tiny details you can attend to that would be better received by the people you come across in any given day in Paris.

Here are a several essential tips to French etiquette and the Parisian social graces:

  1. What to wear in Paris? Dress no more casual than business casual when you are out and about.

  2. Always greet the store clerk cheerfully when you enter a shop. Then say goodbye when you leave. Simple French greetings are “bonjour” or “bonsoir” if it is after 6pm, and “au revoir” or “merci” when you leave. Even better, is to accompany those with “Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle”. It is also best to ask first if you are going to handle clothing in a clothes shop.

  3. When addressing a stranger with a question, greet them first, and then ask your question. It is an important rule of French etiquette to always greet someone officially first before speaking to them.

  4. Don’t just assume everyone speaks English. If you don't speak French, ask politely if they speak English before continuing. This can be done in English or, better yet, in French. You can ask "Hello...Do you speak English?" by saying "Bonjour...Est-ce que vous parlez l'anglais?" A French phrase book can take you far in Parisian-tourist relations...make sure you have one if you are not already fluent in French.

  5. Always use Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle if you don't know someone, if you have just met them, or if they are someone important.

  6. Always wait to be invited to use first names. Until then, use Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle and last name. It’s different between youths, however...if you are a young student talking to another young student, first names are fine.

  7. Don’t yell from across the room. Wait until you are close to start talking. In Paris, yelling is for anger and that’s about it.

  8. ‘La bise’ is how Parisians who know each other greet each other. This is the name for the cheek-kissing you see everywhere. In Paris, it’s two kisses. (Although when I lived there, it was you may still encounter this on occasion). ‘La bise’ is more of a brushing of cheeks with kissy noises than actual kisses. Often no facial contact is made at all. Generally, in Paris, start heading towards the left, or in other words, kiss right cheeks first.

  9. French people don't really hug. They are even a bit uncomfortable with hugs. There isn't even a French word for hug.

  10. I guess with all this talk about politeness, it is obvious that please, thank you and you’re welcome are used whenever given the chance. 'Please' and 'thank you' are 's’il vous plait' and 'merci', as you likely know. It’s the 'you’re welcome' that sometimes gets bungled up a little by English-speakers. The proper French etiquette way to say 'you’re welcome' is to say 'Je vous en prie.' If you want to say it more casually, as in 'it was nothing', say 'I’ll n’y a pas de quoi.' Many English-speakers have been told to say 'mon plaisir', but this is actually a bit flirtatious, the cheesy kind of flirtatious, so it is usually best to avoid it...!

  11. Eating while walking down the street is generally frowned upon...but less now than it used to be. I still think it technically falls under rules of French etiquette as a 'what not to do'....but do what you gotta do.
A Typical Paris Apartment Block, Paris, France.

The idea behind brushing up on rules of French etiquette before going to Paris is that, if you want your stay in Paris to be all it can be, you have to learn how to endear yourself to Parisians.

Making good first impressions can go a long way in opening you up to positive experiences with the people you encounter in Paris... And obviously, a positive interaction is always so much more pleasant than a negative one.

By paying attention to just a few small details about Parisian etiquette, you will easily integrate into the Paris way of life, whether you are planning to be in town for a week, ....or a decade.