Customs and Etiquette in Paris: 15 Things Every Visitor Should Know

Posted by Fodor's Editors on March 22, 2010 at 10:12:48 AM EDT | Post a Comment

Only the lucky few ever truly shed their tourist aura in Paris. But what can you do to minimize any awkward gaffes? Read on!

Customs

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The French like to look at people—that's half the point of cafés and fashion, so get used to being looked at; it's as natural here as breathing. They'll look at your shoes or your watch, check out what you're wearing or reading.

What they will not do is maintain steady eye contact or smile. If a stranger of the opposite sex smiles at you, it's best to do as the French do and return only a blank look before turning away. If you smile back, you might find yourself in a Pepé Le Pew–type situation.

Visitors' exuberance—and accompanying loud voices—may cause discreet Parisians to raise their eyebrows or give a deep chesty sigh. They're not being rude, but they're telling you that they think you are. Be aware of your surroundings and lower your voice accordingly, especially in churches, museums, restaurants, theaters, cinemas, and the métro.

When entering and leaving a shop, greet and say good-bye to the staff. A simple bonjour, monsieur/madame and au revoir, merci are considered a virtual necessity for politeness.

Other basic pleasantries in French include bonne journée (have a nice day); bonne soirée (have a nice evening); enchanté (nice to meet you); s'il vous plaît (please); and je vous en prie (you're welcome).

When asking for directions or other help, be sure to preface your request with a polite phrase such as excusez-moi de vous déranger, madame/monsieur (excuse me for bothering you, ma'am/sir).

Greetings

When meeting someone for the first time, whether in a social or a professional setting, it's appropriate to shake hands. Other than that, the French like to kiss. For the Parisians, it's two bisous, which are more like air kisses with your cheeks touching lightly—don't actually smack your lips onto the person's face!

Out on the Town

When visiting a French home, don't expect to be invited into the kitchen or to take a house tour. The French have a very definite sense of personal space, and you'll be escorted to what are considered the guest areas. If you're invited to dinner, be sure to bring a gift, such as wine, champagne, flowers, or chocolates.

Table manners are often considered a litmus test of your character or upbringing. When dining out, note that the French fill wineglasses only until they are half full—it's considered bad manners to fill it to the brim. They never serve themselves before serving the rest of the table. During a meal, keep both hands above the table, and keep your elbows off the table.

Bread is broken, never cut, and is placed next to the plate, never on the plate. When slicing a cheese, don't cut off the point (or "nose").

Coffee or tea is ordered after dessert, instead of with dessert. (In fact, coffee and tea usually aren't ordered with any courses during meals, except breakfast.)

Checks are often split evenly between couples or individuals, even if someone ordered only a salad and others had a full meal.

Eating on the street is generally frowned on—though with the onslaught of Starbucks you can sometimes see people drinking coffee on the go.

Language

One of the best ways to avoid being an Ugly American is to learn a little of the local language.

The French may appear prickly at first to English-speaking visitors, but it usually helps if you make an effort to speak a little French. A simple, friendly bonjour (hello) will do, as will asking if the person you're greeting speaks English (parlez-vous anglais?). Be patient, and speak English slowly—but not loudly.

A phrase book and language-tape set can help get you started.

Photo credit: istock / fanelie rosier

Posted in Travel Tips

Member Comments (29)  Post a Comment

  • arno on Jun 29, 10 at 09:27 AM

    About cheese : nose is the most tasted part. This is true with cheese like "camenbert" not the others ones. So in any case the polite manner is not to cut off the noise.
    About gift : any doubts ? just bring chocolates. It will be ok.
    About tourists : yes you will see many tourists in Paris. And parisiens are comforable with. Country side is very different. But places like Normandie have tourists all the year. So no problem at all.
    Arno from France, Bordeaux

  • CariC on Jun 26, 10 at 11:00 PM

    If dining where there is a whole uncut baguette or any loaf of bread being passed, make sure it is placed right side up.

  • pdeb69 on Apr 24, 10 at 03:08 PM

    I went to Paris and had a wonderful time. I am thinking of going back this year. I encountered only the nicest people. I was able to get a table at at a restaurant at the last minute because I was wearing a NY Yankee Derek Jeter Tshirt and the waiter happened to be a fan!

  • wotyot on Apr 19, 10 at 03:22 AM

    We are Aussies and have always found the French very helpful(with the exception of one scam man at Gare du Nord).On a number of visits to France the French have gone out of their way to point us in the right direction and in 2008,being unable to find accommodation near Giverny, we ended up being provided with lodging in a French country home.We even had an article printed in an Aussie travel magazine about this night.We have found that taking some small souvenirs of Australia on trips to give to those who assist us pays off!

  • JustineA on Mar 30, 10 at 02:19 PM

    This is a nice piece. I love the French and being in France--the charm, the manners, the love of beauty and have only had a problem one time when I was much younger (1985) and tried to order Poire belle Helene and the waiter insisted in a rude manner that he didn't understand me and threw down a fruit salad instead. I was deeply disappointed having had my heart set on finally trying this famous dessert in a place known for it!!!!!!!!!!
    The only problem that I sometimes have with the starring from strangers is that sometimes it feels like the person is looking to see if there is anything worth stealing.
    Also, just for the record: I was raised in Philadelphia, Pa with all of these manners taught to me. Keeping our voices down, saying hello and thank you and nice to meet you, bringing a hostess gift, table manners---never heard the bit about the nose of the cheese but that's good to know. We always had a bread plate, so putting the bread down on the table makes me uncomfortable. Anyway, this is all great advice and good reminders.
    Leaving for Paris next month! can't wait.

  • tinabina on Mar 25, 10 at 11:03 AM

    We were in Paris last summer. I did my best to follow the above advice and was rewarded with wonderful and often very patient Parisians. The only person who seemed annoyed with me was the Eurostar attendant who watched with open contempt, as I hoisted my big American sized suitcase onto the security belt. He was quite right! My suitcase was too big and heavy, next time I will pack in a smaller more manageable bag. C'est la vie!

  • Kitty_Parigi on Mar 23, 10 at 07:48 PM

    I agree; lots of great advice here. Good manners truly go a long way. Also, I've visited Paris eight times between 1991-2009 and GypsyMama is right, English is more and more prevalent all the time. My number one advice (see Carolofla, above): KEEP YOUR VOICE DOWN. Americans tend to yell in public, which drives the French nuts. Re: hostess gifts, flowers are not always the best choice since they force the hostess to ignore the guests and go find a vase. Better to bring some some elegant chocolates from a good chocolatier, like Patrick Roget, etc. Bottom line? It's a wonderful city and if you don't expect it to be just like home you'll have a memorable time.

  • OnlyACarryon on Mar 23, 10 at 07:26 PM

    I am here now and I have met several dozen people at various gatherings and salons - and every single person has used "enchante" when introduced. I never used to hear it, but now I do so maybe it has come back in to fashion. Along with rolling up jean's pant legs to form a 2"+ cuff!

  • bedoyas on Mar 23, 10 at 05:31 PM

    I was supposed to be going to Paris in two weeks, but I am now going in October. While I know the basics in French, the extra time will allow me to improve my language skills. No matter where you are in the world, NOTHING (even bad French)can take the place of having good manners and etiquette. Instead of reading a French phase book, maybe read a little Emily Post as well.

  • Shanna on Mar 23, 10 at 05:06 PM

    Let me reiterate the comment about elderly. My mom was treated like a queen in Paris - always the first table available and a seat if there was a delay. Escorted to seats at concerts, doors held open, very attentive to her needs. Mom spoke no French but was an officer's wife and a student of Emily Post so her manners were always impeccable - and appreciated! Paris sealed its fate as my favorite city after our visit.

  • idahogem on Mar 23, 10 at 04:00 PM

    GypsyMama your comments are so right! I found mostly friendly people in Paris and not a one rude person in Strasbourg.Your are visiting beacuse of the differences! you ar ein thier country so be frindly and polite and at least try to speak a little of the language . The French people will appreciate your efforts! jdcairo your spot on too!

  • jdcairo on Mar 23, 10 at 03:29 PM

    Wonderful advice. Through our many visits to Paris, I have always found the French people to be very very polite, kind and helpful. Ultimately, they appreciate your efforts to speak even a little of their language. The key to remember, wherever you travel; they will be as polite to you as you are to them. If you are rude and beligerent to them, then expect that in return.

  • airportrpg on Mar 23, 10 at 03:23 PM

    Wonderfuladvice and comments, all. I wish to expand on a running theme. When entering a retail establishment, the very first thing to do, in every instance, is to greet the store proprietor or employee with a simple but genuine sounding "bonjour, madame (monsieur, madmoiselle)". Too often, we Americans show our local disdain for salespeople with the attitude of "I'll let you know when I need your assistance" which tends to be expressed through silence and/or uninviting body communications. This will be met by the French with silence in response, which the American will interpret as standoffishness, rudeness or arogance. But it isn't "them", it's "you". So, be courteous and memorize the basic greeting and do it religiously whenever you enter a space. It will work wonders for your travelling contentment.

  • RomaLisa on Mar 23, 10 at 12:03 PM

    Merci beaucoup! I will be visiting Paris for the month of April and even though I've been there many times (and was a French major many moons ago), it is still helpful to have a bit of a refresher in etiquette.

  • GypsyMama on Mar 23, 10 at 11:28 AM

    I was born in Paris and lived there for the first 22 years of
    my life. The next 40 years were spent in the US.
    1) Parisians are different from the rest of the French.
    2) There are friendly people and nasty ones everywhere.
    3) YES the French etiquette is intricate and comprised of
    nuances only the French - or anyone who lives there
    long enough to assimilate the culture - understand.
    4) All above mentioned advice and comments are very
    valid BUT...
    BASICALLY...
    Have a great time ! Paris is definitively a one of a kind city.
    You ARE a tourist. Nothing wrong with that at all.
    Leave your preconceived ideas at home.
    You MIGHT very well encounter rude individuals.
    Unless you really KNOW wine... bring flowers when invited.
    It is a fact that English is the " International language ".
    In a way you are lucky. In a way it sometimes makes you
    " assume " the world should speak YOUR language and can encourage an " entitled " attitude.
    Never forget that non-English natives spent YEARS and a lot of effort learning English.
    Normandy - as well as other " provinces " in France will have its own cachet.
    GO WITH THE FLOW.
    If you think of it... we are all tourists on this Earth !
    Amusez-vous bien !

  • carolofla on Mar 23, 10 at 11:27 AM

    I've been going to Paris twice a year for many years. People who have never been there alsways ask. "But, Aren't the French rude?" How did this ever get started???? The French are DIFFERENT; we are perceived rude with our loud voices, abrupt questions, white sport shoes, cargo shorts, etc. etc.
    If you go to Paris you will be interacting mainly with business people so you must master "Bonjour Madame/Monsieur...." You will be one among hundreds of other toursits, so relax and enjoy, and keep your voices to a conversational level. ALSO if you really want to know what the French are like get one or more of Polly Platt's books...any bookstore. She taught courses for Americans coming to France to work or travel and her insights are extrememly helpful.

  • wcinro on Mar 23, 10 at 10:48 AM

    Terrific advice. We've been to Paris and France several times. Everyone told us the Parisians in particular were quite rude. I found that to be just the opposite. Un petit peu mots en francais work wonders. I learned long ago that the Golden Rule works well no matter where you are. That old "do unto others" adage is a great one. We're off to Paris and SW France this May; I can hardly wait. Paris is my favorite place to visit. Keep the advice and info flowing. BTW, chocolates are always a great gift to bring someone if you get invited to their home.

  • 14gillyflower15 on Mar 23, 10 at 10:45 AM

    How lovely, we had just the same manners in Britain in the 50's. Is it too late to go back?

  • vgwren on Mar 23, 10 at 10:40 AM

    All of the advice rings true. I have visited Paris & rural France several times over the years & have met only one simi-rude person, a clerk at the Gallery de Lafaette...My first trip was alone & totally enjoyable...my second with a friend with a degree in French, who spoke French to all the waiters who in turn spoke English to her...equally proud of their language skills...asking advice from consierges re nearby sites and safety in traveling alone to & from these places was a real gift on my first trip. Don't try to stand out in fashion or manners...go with the flow...& when in doubt, ask for advice

  • usindo on Mar 23, 10 at 10:37 AM

    Though I have not been in France, it is a desire of mine to visit Paris at least once. Thank you for the thoroughness of the story and for the other readers' insights.

  • resist2 on Mar 23, 10 at 09:56 AM

    Be careful about bringing wine as a gift for dinner. The host goes to a lot of trouble to decide on the correct wine with the meal and will feel obligated to open yours which may not at all go with the meal. Champagne is fine as it may be served as an aperitif or with dessert.
    In a true french restaurant there will not be butter or cream after breakfast so coffee may have to be black - but it's great coffee so just add a little extra sugar and go for it. But if they do have cream ask for cafe creme instead of cafe au lait which is only served at breakfast. And lastly you will only receive the check if you ask for it. The waiter will never just bring it to you. You are welcome to the table for as long as you like.
    Great advice - keep it coming.

  • dhq77 on Mar 23, 10 at 09:53 AM

    We are going to Normandy in late April. I know this acticle talks about customs in Paris but am I right to assume that applies to all of France?

  • ambage on Mar 23, 10 at 09:50 AM

    Dittos to all of the above. My 74-yr-old mother and I visited France (Paris and countryside) in Sept. We found everyone to be extremely pleasant and polite. (I can't tell you how many people warned us to expect a measure of rudeness). In fact, I can't really think of one person who wasn't at least a little pleasant.

    And as far as my mother goes.....everywhere we went, the French went out of their way to accommodate her and anticipate her needs. We didn't stand in line for even one minute at the airport or museums before someone came over and escorted her (and therefore me) to the front of the line or to a special entrance.

  • Vermicelli on Mar 23, 10 at 09:10 AM

    Thank you for the information. While the French have the reputation for being rude, the above information gives you some insight to their behavior. Rather than rudeness, they seem to hold strong to their manners and etiquette, and expect the same from visitors. If I were to visit any country, I would learn some of the native language before I went. After all, I AM a guest in that country. I've heard lovely things about Paris. I've also heard that in the French country side, the French are eager for you to try the wine and from their region.
    Again, great advice!

  • msturtle on Mar 23, 10 at 09:10 AM

    And if you take flowers as a gift - don't take chrysanthemums - they are FUNERAL flowers!!!

  • Pvoyageuse on Mar 23, 10 at 08:58 AM

    Oh no, not "enchanté" when you are introduced to people. It is cheap and vulgar.

  • Tuscia on Mar 23, 10 at 08:58 AM

    When the waiter or waitress comes to take your order, ALWAYS remember to greet him or her "bon jour" before you order or ask questions about the menu. But they will always take the lead, when a waiter comes to the table, he will always greet you, and expects a greeting in return.

  • Racer042 on Mar 23, 10 at 08:53 AM

    Our first trip to Paris was several years ago, and we were expecting rudeness everywhere. Much to our surprise, we found everyone to be polite and helpful. Our French is limited to common phrases, but we always greeted shopkeepers, waiters, etc. and used Merci and parlez vous anglais and had a great time. We have returned several times and Paris is still one of my favorite places in the world. All of the above is great advice.

  • DerViking on Mar 23, 10 at 08:42 AM

    Excellent intro to being polite in France.

    I'd add

    --Don't expect bread to be served with butter at the beginning of the meal. Butter is used for bread in the cheese course.

    --Slow down and relax during meals. Even now, the French eat more slowly and a meal should be savored, not rushed through.

    --Be prepared for people to study what you're eating, whether you're at a sidewalk table or not.

    --The importance of "Excusez moi de vous dérangez cannot be emphasized enough. It is a passport because it tells people you are well brought up. I have seen it work wonders. I always add, J'ai un petit problème--I have a little problem.

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