By Ken Seaton
SAYING bonjour and avoiding tu, shaking hands and not kissing on both cheeks, buying an odd number of flowers or not buying wine... France can be a minefield for the unwary expat making an effort to meet their French neighbours.
There is more than language that changes when you arrive in France; manners, etiquette and habits all change as well. Getting it right means your everyday life can go on as before; getting it wrong can leave a French person feeling put out, a little snubbed or even slightly annoyed – if they are so inclined.
Business etiquette consultant Kara Ronin, an Australian married to a Frenchman and living and working in Lyon, said French people are considerably more formal than the British, and especially Americans and Australians, but are generally ready to make allowance for occasional lapses.
“They are intrigued by people who are not French and curious about other nationalities and cultures. If they are asking questions about your country they know to give leeway if you slip up.”
People who have just arrived in France must quickly pick up some of the cultural etiquette. “Start with bonjour when you go into a shop or when you ask the bus driver for a ticket. It’s what the French do. It already makes you seem – in their eyes – less foreign and it’s just being polite.
“But my tip would be to use bonjour monsieur/madame. It is more polite. When you go into a shop or when someone meets you in the hall of your apartment block they say ‘Bonjour monsieur/madame’ they add the extra word.”
Connexion reader Chris O’hagan in Sarthe agrees, saying: “Not only should you say bonjour on entering a shop to whoever is there, and you can add monsieur or madame, or the colloquial monsieur-dame, but also when someone enters while you are there. On leaving you must say au revoir. And, if on leaving, the server says, for example, bon après-midi, you should reply merci and perhaps vous aussi.”
Listen, then repeat
Listening to others is a top tip from reader Roberta Szourou, from Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, who said: “Stand back and observe when in a new situation. You’ll see what’s done and what isn’t. Then do as the Romans do!”
This month, on May 31, France holds the Fête des Voisins, when neighbours will arrange a joint supper to get to know people they may not meet every day, and Kara Ronin suggests inviting people to your home as a way to break the ice.
“If you invite them for an aperitif, make sure to give a formal invitation. If you just say ‘Come around some time in the afternoon’, they might not show up because they don’t know what time or where. In Australia we might say ‘Come round on Sunday afternoon’, but the French need a more definite time.”
And if you do set a time, expect your guests to be late. Roberta Szourou said: “Never arrive early for dinner, preferably a few minutes late.”
Be late, shake hands, kiss
Kara Ronin agreed: “It is generally right to be around 15 minutes late. The reason is that French people expect it and if you arrive on time then they will still be in the middle of preparing.”
Chris O’Hagan said people in France always shake hands when meeting – and often even when parting, “even with tradespeople who come to your house, not to shake hands is very rude”.
He added: “When you know people well, women always ‘kiss’ men and women on the cheek (without the ridiculous myu-myu sound practised by luvvies and others in the UK, and without wetting the cheek) and men kiss women likewise.
“The issue is always whether it is two, three or four kisses (which can vary with regions and families) – but never just one, which is on the verge of rudeness, except with young children where one kiss is usually the norm. You never kiss on the lips, or even attempt to.
“Not following these traditional greetings and farewells is why some Brits come over as distant, aloof, superior, or just plain rude.”
The minefield of gifts
The question of gifts is difficult: some say flowers are taboo as the host or hostess has to leave the guests to go and put them in a vase, while others say wine is taboo as it will probably not go with the meal.
Susan Harrison, from Prayssac, in Lot, agrees on not taking flowers, and suggests sending them before the meal, or after. “But if you want to take something with you, it should be a plant.”
Buying flowers or chocolates can be a problem, as Chris O’Hagan suggests that buying in a supermarket is not the done thing.
“If you are taking flowers, you really should get them from a florist, who will dress them up and add the florist’s label.
“The same with chocolates. Buying from a supermarket can show a lack of respect to your hosts. Yes, it will probably cost a fortune, and you could eat out well for what you spend, but it is the way the French do it, at all levels of society.”
Flowers should be odd
Reader Annette James in Vendée said the number of flowers to give was significant: “I learned this living in Germany over 55 years ago. Since then I have always bought an uneven number of flowers. My gardener, here in France, also said trees should be planted in uneven numbers – always one or three, for example, and not two.”
Chris O’Hagan said an odd number always looks “more attractive for some reason”. He added: “If you buy an even number, it may be best to remove one before giving. But never 13.” Susan and Chris agree that taking wine is probably not a good plan unless, as Chris suggests, it is “pre-chilled champagne, or a really good cru of wine”.
“But don’t expect it to be drunk – your host has probably already decided what to drink with each course,” he said. When you have invited people to your home, Kara Ronin says the French will have expectations of what will happen.
Apéro vs dinner
“If you have specified an apéro, that would mean having drinks such as champagne or wine and some snacks; they are not expecting a meal, but have some food on the table. Perhaps even enough so that they will not be hungry for a proper meal when they go home.
“When people come for an apéro, they are not expecting to stay for more than an hour or two. But if you have really clicked then you can offer to cook something small as a light supper – and they will know it will be more homely, nothing substantial.”
She added that they will also expect you to dress up a bit: “No trainers or running clothes. Dress is a big thing in France, and presentation as well.”
When chatting, the topic that often comes up is whether to use vous or tu, and Irene Pope, from Béziers, Hérault, said: “I have French friends and they mentioned that English expats address French people as tu after the first exchange of names.
“This is considered extremely vulgar so, while not knowing the British grammar, they conclude that the British person addressing them so must be of very low birth. The pronoun tu should be used only by invitation. It is usually reserved for very close friends and younger relatives.”
Irene said there were “long-married couples in France who address each other as vous all their married life”, and the best examples are philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Lévy and actress and singer wife Arielle Dombasle who, like Bernadette and Jacques Chirac, still address each other as vous.
Di Miller in Charente says if you slip up and use tu, you can always apologise. Most people will just say, “Ah non, ça va, ça va”, but if they sniff, you know that you are calling them vous from now on. Once the evening is over, your guests will often invite you for drinks to their house in the next two or three months – remember to send a hand-written card of thanks.