France is still the most popular destination for school trips among our groups. After all, it is just a short hop across the Channel and offers a huge amount of educational opportunities.
But considering it’s a destination most of us are familiar with, do we know how to avoid causing offence?
Here’s our guide to travel etiquette in France:
Try to learn some of the lingo!
Speaking French, even just enough to excuse yourself for not speaking French, will go a long way – the assumption that everyone speaks English is not one that goes down well in France!
ALWAYS say ‘bonjour’ when you enter a shop.
Unless it’s after 6pm, when you should say ‘bonsoir’.
For extra points, add a ‘madame’ if greeting a lady, or a ‘monsieur’ in the case of a man.
And remember to say ‘merci, au revoir’ as you leave.
Just say ‘bonjour’ once.
One quirk to remember with ‘bonjour’ – never say ‘bonjour’ to someone you’ve already said ‘bonjour’ to that day, it implies that you’ve forgotten you’ve seen them. The easiest way around this is to say ‘rebonjour’.
At the table.
Keep both hands above the table at all times.
And keep elbows, mobiles and all other personal effects off the table!
Avoid talking too loudly and making wild gestures.
And don’t speak with your mouth open.
Don’t add salt before tasting your food – it implies that you don’t trust the chef.
Also, if you want to wow the French with your manners, you should fold lettuce on your fork, rather than cutting it.
And if you don’t want any more wine, leave a little bit in the glass (un fond de vin) so that your host knows you don’t want anymore.
In a restaurant, you will likely need to ask for your bill at the end of the meal – your waiter/waitress is unlikely to bring it automatically.
Coffee should be ordered after dessert. Generally only wine and water are drunk with a meal.
You don’t need to tip, although if the service is exceptional a couple of euros will be gratefully received by your server.
Observe the traditions around bread and cheese.
Bread should be broken rather than cut or bitten directly into.
And you may very well not be given a plate for your bread – that’s what the table’s for, so don’t try and balance it on the side of your dinner plate.
You can use your bread to guide food on to your fork.
Don’t butter your bread – this is only done at breakfast.
There are very specific ways to cut the many different types of cheese – make sure you stick to them!
Flowers and chocolates
If you’re invited to dinner at a French person’s home, suitable gifts include flowers, except chrysanthemums, which are usually reserved for funerals. Avoid yellow flowers too, as these are associated with infidelity.
Sweets and chocolate are usually a safe bet!
Don’t bring wine – your host will have spent time picking out a wine and it could imply you don’t trust their selection.
If staying with a host family, delicacies/gifts related to your local area are usually very well received – after all, many host families take in foreign students because they’re interested in learning more about other cultures.
4. Out and about
Asking strangers for help
When stopping a stranger in the street (to ask for directions etc.) excuse yourself by saying ‘Excusez-moi de vous déranger…’. And don’t forget your ‘bonjour’, ‘merci’ and ‘au revoir’!
Don’t plan to go shopping in the afternoon if staying outside of a touristy area – many shops and businesses close down for several hours in the afternoon to allow families and friends to get together over lunch. They will open later into the evening than in the UK.
And most shops and businesses will be closed on Sundays – with many also closed on Mondays.
5. Faire la bise
We couldn’t write about etiquette in France without addressing that one element of French culture that strikes fear into the heart of any Brit – the kissing!
Generally, if you’re meeting someone for the first time in France, they’ll go for a handshake. But if you know them (or they’re particularly friendly), they may want to faire la bise.
Don’t panic! You don’t actually need to kiss anyone, it’s more of a cheek bump accompanied by the sound effect of a kiss (‘mwah!’).
The number of ‘kisses’ varies depending on the region you’re in, but two is the standard, and you usually start on the right.
Generally though, the best advice is to just relax and take your lead from the French person. It’s actually a lovely, warm way to greet people and nothing to worry about!