8 Rules About French Etiquette From Someone Who Lived in Paris

Mind your p’s, q’s, and ooh la las when visiting the capital this summer.

A line of people waiting outside a Parisian boulangerie to buy bread

Queuing is consider polite in Paris, but don’t be afraid to assert yourself.

Photo by timsimages.uk / Shutterstock

The French get a bad rap. But following nearly a decade of living in Paris, I can confidently say they’re not rude, they’re simply . . . French. They’re not huggers. They’re not yellers. Most are subtle traditionalists who can be a bit aloof. So if you come at them with your big old American energy, they may stiffen up. In other words, it’s not them, it’s you. Or it’s you, but it’s also them. It’s all of us!

Every country and its citizens are different. Of course, based on your well-worn passport and accumulated air miles, you know that all cultures have a certain way of doing things, but during my time as a resident, I picked up a few less obvious, unspoken rules about French etiquette that may benefit you during your next trip to Paris. Abide by them and tout va bien. All will be fine.

1. Always say “Bonjour”

It seems simple enough: Say hello. But ask yourself the last time you greeted a stranger when entertaining an elevator. That’s what I thought. In France, you say hello to anyone and everyone. It’s common courtesy. The shopkeeper at the boutique? Bonjour. The barista who’s about to make your crème? Bonjour. The neighbor you passed in the stairwell? Bonsoir. (Because it’s nighttime — don’t forget to switch when the sun sets, but don’t worry if you forget. The French do, too.) Honestly, just say “bonjour/bonsoir” into the air whenever you find yourself no longer alone. Maybe it’s silly, but maybe it’s also . . . nice? Oh, and while you’re at it, merci and s’il vous plait (thank you and please) go a long way, too.

2. Ask first

In the USA, we’re accustomed to getting what we want, when we want it—or even sometimes when we don’t (like, say, the bill if we’re still swallowing dessert). In France, it’s customary to ask first. This goes for everything from a visit to the market to placing an order at a café or the check at a restaurant. You may be tempted to smell a peach or squeeze an avocado at the marché, but many vendors prefer to select individual pieces of produce for you. (If there are empty bags for the taking, you can DIY.) The same goes for taking photos—of fruit stands, artwork, and inside stores. (Your lunch is fine. They’re used to it.)

Also, while craft coffee shops like Noir and Ten Belles now offer milk alternatives (ask for avoine if you want oat) and cold brew, don’t expect to find either on the menu at any of the classic corner cafés. And consider “cold” a relative term as they only drop in two or three ice cubes. If you want actual iced coffee you need to specify how much ice—or go to Starbucks.

Finally, at restaurants you won’t get the bill until you’re ready for it. But don’t be all “Garcon!” and wave your arm or napkin around. Simple eye contact and a signing gesture or saying, “l’addition, s’il vous plaît will do the trick.

3. Avoid talking about work

Asking someone what they do for a living is standard small talk in the United States. It usually comes after “What’s your name?” and “Where do you live?” But in France, they are not concerned with your job or title. They may ask, “What do you do in life?” But they mean for fun, as in what brings you joy? Even when taking an order at a restaurant, the server will ask, “Ce qui vous fait plaisir? " (“What pleases you?”) This is true work-to-live land, so think beyond the cubicle, commute, and keyboard. Politics, on the other hand, is a more accepted topic of conversation.

4. Make eye contact

Not only should you not take a sip of your wine without first clinking glasses with your fellow dining companions, but also be prepared to stare deep into their souls while doing so. It’s considered rude to “cheers” or, in France, “santé” without looking the other person in the eye. Remember: Life is pleasure. Pleasure is wine. When you imbibe with others, there is no race to taste the tannins. Rather, consider it a time to savor and acknowledge each other or the moment even if it’s not following a significant speech or at a wedding or retirement party.

5. Chill, don’t spill

After so many years in France, it now makes me giggle when I see bachelorettes or Real Housewives open a bottle of champagne and—the horror!—spray it all over themselves and others. (Don’t even get me started on “Champère” in Emily in Paris.) The French would never. (Unless, that is, they are a skilled saberer or a descendant of Napoleon.) To open a bottle of champagne in France is to do so delicately, discreetly, and efficiently so as not to interrupt the purity of the product and make a mess. There should be a subtle hiss, not a pop. Adding orange juice to make a Mimosa is a no-no, too. Champagne stands alone.

6. Tip, but don’t overdo it

At almost all restaurants, the price of a meal includes a service charge, and staff are paid appropriately so tipping is not expected. Some people leave 10–12 percent, especially if it’s a place they frequent often or if they have exceptional service. But a few €1 or €2 coins are totally fine, while dumping your leftover change is not. Likewise, overcompensating will label you a tourist, so in both cases, it’s better to leave nothing at all. While some spots have begun to adopt the Americanism of asking for gratuity via contactless payment machines, don’t feel awkward about declining.

>> Read more about tipping in France

7. Casual is cool but put in some effort

Let’s not forget this is where Chanel and Louis Vuitton come from. No need to wear heels, let alone put on a full face of makeup for an outing to the Louvre. But as with food, fashion is also considered a pleasure, and the French honor it by putting thought and effort into their appearance. While athleisure as an outfit has become more tolerated and people now wear gym clothes to and from their workouts (and just work out more, in general), it isn’t necessarily going to get you a front-row seat at fashion week.

During the day, jeans, a nice tee, and les baskets (sneakers) work, whereas for the evening changing to a button-down, skirt, or blazer will elevate the look. As does a red lip for women (though, it is also accepted during the day) and a scarf for men (which is also accepted year-round). But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a French adult in shorts and a baseball cap.

8. Wait your turn, but also get in there

Queuing is considered more of a courtesy in France, by which I mean you should always look around to be sure you haven’t accidentally skipped ahead of someone—at the bakery, outside a WC, or au comptoir (at the bar)—but the French are also not afraid to be assertive and have little patience for anything other than waiting for a freshly baked baguette. So long as you’re polite and within reason, get after yours, too.

Sara Lieberman is a New York–born journalist who lived in Paris for the better part of the last decade. Her writing also appears in Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Hemispheres, and the Infatuation.
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