French culture values good manners, 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 how to interact with the locals in Paris to present good manners the French way.
1. The French are rude. This is a stereotype and cannot be applied to every French person. Parisians may always be in a rush whether they are at a restaurant, at a bank or getting off the Metro. I experience the same when I leave the bus at Port Authority in New York in the morning. People step on you to just get one escalator step ahead of you. They even step on your belongings. Very few wait politely until I am able to safely step on the escalator with my little suitcase.
If any person (not only the French) is behaving rude towards you, they’re probably reacting to your rude behavior. Etiquette differs from culture to culture. What is considered polite in the U.K. or the U.S. may not be the same in France or vice versa. Here are some guidelines of how to make the best out of your stay in France and encounter “friendly” French people.
2. Parisians dress up to at least a business casual when they are in public. If you go to the post office wearing sweat pants, white sneakers, and a hooded sweatshirt, the postal clerk may feel irritated because you are basically communicating that he/she is not worth making yourself look presentable. French don’t wear sports clothes in public, unless, they actually do a sport...
As a rule, the French are fashionable people, especially the Parisians. But this is less about being fashionable; it’s more about being "proper." The French are actually very conservative people, and there are certain situations where the locals expect you to dress appropriately. Jeans, shorts, sneakers and short-sleeved shirts (on men) are fine for sightseeing, but they are NOT acceptable when you go to a nice restaurant. Some restaurants may even require suit and tie. Not even to mention most theatre or opera shows and the churches. The French consider a night on the town as an opportunity to dress up; they make an effort and expect everyone else to do the same. If you are not sure, wear black. It's hard to overdress in Paris!
3. Eating in public transportation. The French believe that food should be eaten at a table, not while walking, not at the office, not in front of the TV, and not on the Métro/train/bus or during class time. Consuming your sandwich or crêpe in a crowded public place will usually get you a few sarcastic "Bon appetit" comments. And although Starbucks has invaded France, they still find it strange to walk around drinking coffee from a paper cup (or, quelle horreur) not even to mention sucking your big gulp Coke from a straw as you walk around.
4. Taking up too much space. Space is a luxury in Europe, and you will have to share it. Don't spread yourself out over two seats on the Métro or bus. You may get away with this in NJ Transit buses; however, the French consider this absolutely rude. And I have to agree with them. Don't expect to get a table for four when you're only two (no matter how impossibly small those bistro tables can be).
5. Talking loudly. When the French talk, they are not accustomed to sharing with everyone around them. So lower your volume in a way that only the party you are talking to can hear it. The Metro or the train are not good places to discuss your cablevision invoice with a customer service representative and scream at the individual for not having received what you ought to get.
6. Putting your hands on the lap while eating. Americans are taught to keep our hands on our laps while eating, but in France (or in other European countries) that is considered absolutely rude. I remember my parents getting annoyed if my hands didn’t rest on the table next to the plate.
7. Not greeting the shop assistant. Whenever we walk into a store in the U.S., we try not to get the attention of the shop assistant immediately. Most people want to look at the merchandise and then approach the shop assistant when they are actually ready to buy. In France, when someone walks into a small boutique, bakery, pharmacy, or whatever, and doesn't say the magic words -- Bonjour Madame/Monsieur -- they will instantly be considered a rude customer, and the sales assistant will ignore them or be extremely rude to them.
In France you must always -- ALWAYS -- greet the shop assistant unless it's such a big store that they don't notice you walking in (like department stores), and don't forget to say goodbye, even if you didn't buy anything: "Merci, au revoir Madame/Monsieur". Contrary to Americans, the French will not tolerate rude behavior in order to make a sale. Here it’s dignity over money, not "the customer is always right." Remember this, and you will always get good service in France.
8. Not asking questions politely. Whenever you ask questions to the French, better know the second most important phrase in French etiquette, "Excusez-moi de vous déranger." If you really don’t like speaking French, at least say "Excusez-moi, Madame/Monsieur". If you're extra ambitious, then try: Bonjour Madame/Monsieur, excusez-moi de vous déranger, mais j'ai un question/problème. The words "question" and "problème" are practically the same in both languages. With that, you've shown the French person you're polite and worthy of their assistance. Don't forget to use a lot of s'il vous plâit's.
9. Touching things you shouldn’t touch. Unlike in the U.S. where you can even test sleep a bed in a store, in France you better don’t touch the merchandise, no matter what it is. Anything in the window display of a store is not to be removed, so ask if you see something you can't find inside the store.
10. Smiling at strangers. While not "rude", this can cause big misunderstandings. It isn't really done in France, especially not on the street. If a woman smiles at a man on the street, he will think she is interested in him and start following her. So if you're a man and you smile at a woman on the street, she will either ignore you or smile back (thinking that you're going to invite her to visit a restaurant). Smiling at someone of the same sex on the street (unless you are in the gay district) could be interpreted by the French person as insult. So just don't. Save the smiles for the people you actually interact with, like hotel staff, sales help in stores and waiters in restaurants.
To American standards, being polite and formal can sometimes be considered uptight, prudish, reserved … but please realize that, in Paris, being polite, formal and proper is the most socially acceptable way to be. As a visitor to France, learning about and using French etiquette is part of a successful Paris “integration.” If you are able to present the traditional courtesies that the French expect, you will find acceptance and friendliness in them—attributes that can make your stay a memorable, pleasant experience in France.
Courtesy of International TEFL Training Institute Paris, France