We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in France
On the Métro
The Métro subway system is a great way to get around Paris (or Lyon, Marseille, et al.), which is readily apparent in the throngs of people that use it to go to work, school, and the like. If you do not ride the train at home, or if you come from a place that doesn’t have a subway system, there are certain points of etiquette that you may not be aware of. When boarding at the station, let those exiting the train step off onto the platform before boarding, and once aboard move to the centre of the car.
If you have luggage, move it as far out of the path of others as possible (on the RER B to Charles de Gaulle airport, use the luggage racks above the seats instead). Certain stations have moving sidewalks to cover the distances between platforms – walk on the left and stand on the right! Finally, do note that the doors on French subway cars don’t generally open automatically once the train has stopped at the station; rather, most cars have a small button or lever on the doors that opens them. If you should happen to be standing near the door in a crowded car you might hear someone behind you say “la porte, s’il vous plait,” which means that person would like to get off the train and is asking you to open the door for him/her. Pop the door open and step aside (or down onto the platform) while that person exits the train – the driver will wait for you to get back on.
It is considered very rude to be loud in a crowded place, such as a subway car or restaurant. Keep in mind that, though you may be enjoying your holiday, most people around you in the métro or other places are probably going to or back from work and may be tired and thus will react very coldly to tourists babbling at the top of their lungs. If you listen to the locals talk, you will notice that they talk rather softly.
In many shops/stores in France, you should ask the shopkeeper to take items from the shelf; as opposed to picking it up yourself. This applies in liquor or wine stores, clothing stores, etc. Failure to respect this policy might result in confused and/or angered reactions from the shopkeeper.
Dress codes are fast disappearing, but if you want to avoid looking like a tourist, then avoid white sneakers, baseball caps, tracksuit pants, shorts and flip-flops (except at the beach). Generally speaking, business casual dress code is sufficient in cities and in all but the most formal occasions. When it comes to women’s urban wear, very short skirts, largely open cleavage, or ostensibly sexy clothing in general, is considered poor taste in France, especially in the colder climates of northern France (including Paris).
Women dressing this way taking public transportation or walking in the street to a club, may be heckled on the way, or get looks of disapproval. Usual courtesy applies when entering churches, and although you may not be asked to leave, it is better to avoid short pants and halter tops. Some restaurants will frown if you come in dressed for trekking but very few will insist upon a jacket and tie. You may be surprised by the number of French twenty-somethings who show up at a grungy bar in jacket and tie, even if obviously from a thrift-shop.
Beaches and swimming pools (in hotels) are used for getting a tan. Taking off your bra will not usually create a stir if you don’t mind a bevy of oglers. Taking off the bottom part is reserved to designated nude beaches. People on beaches are usually not offended by a young boy or girl undressed. Most resort cities insist on your wearing a shirt when leaving the beach area. Many pools will not allow baggy or “board” swim trunks, insisting on snug fitting speedo type trunks. Breastfeeding in public is very rare but nobody will mind if you do.
Talking to people
The French language has two different forms of the pronoun “you” that are used when addressing someone in the second person. “Tu” is the second-person singular and “Vous” is nominally the second-person plural. However, in some situations, French speakers will use “Vous” for the second-person singular. While one will use “Vous” to address a group of people no matter what the circumstances, non-native speakers will invariably have some difficulty when trying to determine whether to address a person with the informal and friendly “tu” or the formal and respectful “vous.” The language even has two special verbs reflecting this difference: “tutoyer” (to address a person using “tu”), and “vouvoyer” (to address a person using “vous”), each of them carrying their own connotations and implications.
Unfortunately, the rules as to when to use which form can sometimes seem maddeningly opaque to the non-native French speaker. Generally speaking, one will only use the “tu” form to address someone in an informal situation where there is familiarity or intimacy between the two parties. For example, “tu” is used when addressing a close friend or spouse, or when an adult child is addressing a parent. “Tu” is also used in situations where the other party is very young, such as a parent speaking to a child or a schoolteacher to a student. In contrast, “vous” is used in situations where the parties are not familiar, or where it is appropriate to convey respect and/or deference.
For example, an office worker might use “tu” to address co-workers that he works closely with, but he would probably use “vous” when speaking to the receptionist he rarely talks to. He certainly wouldn’t use “tu” when speaking with his boss. In that same vein, police officers and other authorities should always be addressed with “vous.” If that’s confusing (or not confusing enough) the key thing to remember is that it’s all about distance. For example, a bartender is vous up until the moment that he or she gives you a complementary drink, at which point tu becomes more appropriate, and the use of vous would be a bit ungrateful and off-putting. For foreigners, the best way to deal with the “tu” and “vous” problem is to address people using “vous” until invited to say “tu”, or until addressed by the first name. Doing so will look perhaps a shade old fashioned, but always respectful. In most cases, if French is not your native language most French people will overlook any such overly formal and polite language without thinking much about it anyway. Doing the opposite can be pretty rude and embarrassing in some situations, so it’s probably best to err on the side of caution. Simplified: Use vous unless: the person is genuinely your friend; the person is under 16; or you’ve been explicitly told to use “tu” Sensitive topics
As a general rule, debates, discussions, and friendly arguments are something that the French enjoy, but there are certain topics that should be treated more delicately or indirectly than others: Politics: French people have a wide variety of opinions about many subjects. Unless you really follow French news closely, you should probably steer clear of discussing internal French politics, especially sensitive issues such as immigration – you may come across as judgmental and uninformed.
Reading French newspapers to get a feel for the wide spectrum of political opinions in France from the revolutionary left to the nationalistic right may help. That said, don’t be discouraged from engaging in political discussions with French people, just be aware of the position that being a foreigner puts you in. Also, it is considered to be quite rude to ask a person point-blank about which candidate he/she voted for in the last election (or will vote for in the next); instead, talk about the issues and take it from there. Religion: The French seldom advertise their religious feelings, however, and expect you to avoid doing so as well. Doing so might make people feel uneasy. It is also generally considered impolite to inquire about religious or other personal issues. While France has barred religious symbols from public places including Sikh turban, Islamic hijab and Jewish kippah on grounds of secularism, this controversial topic is best avoided in polite conversations. People practicing those faiths need to be aware of the unfriendly attitudes that some in France hold to expression of religion in public places. Money: You should also avoid presenting yourself through what you own (house, car, etc.).
It is also considered to be quite crass to discuss your salary, or to ask someone else directly about theirs. Instead express your enthusiasm about how great are the responsibilities, or how lucky you were to get there, etc. City/Rural Differences: While it is true that roughly 1/6th of the country’s population lives in the Paris region, don’t make the mistake of reducing France to Paris or assuming that all French people act like Parisians. Life in Paris can be closer to life in London or New York City than in the rest of France; just as New Yorkers or Londoners might act and feel differently than people from, say, Oklahoma or Herefordshire, so might Parisian customs and opinions differ from those found “en province.”
With this, you had the primer on key facts about France, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on France food and drinks: Local food you should try in France and No miss drinks in France.
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in France? Please comment below.