Eating faux-pas: habits to avoid when dining in France

From ignoring fellow guests to hogging the cheese board, we take a look at the ultimate no-nos when dining in France.

How can you avoid making a faux pas when dining in France?

Navigating a dinner party or eating out in France can be a minefield. We take a look at how not to behave when eating in France from the most common everyday offences, to the strictest etiquette faux pas that even French people make.

Dinner parties 

Do not:

Arrive on time 

Do not arrive exactly on time or – even worse – early for a dinner at a French person’s home. It is customary to arrive around 15 minutes late to ensure your host is ready and not surprise them by arriving too early. 

Hold back when greeting

Dinners are no different to other situations in France, where it is polite to greet every single person, no matter how many are present.

Ignoring fellow guests will come across as impolite.

Turn up empty handed 

It is common for guests to take a gift when invited for dinner in a French home, such as a bottle of wine, even if the host has said you do not need to bring anything. 

However, do not always expect that you will drink the bottle that evening. It is unlikely you will know what is being served and will be able to bring the right wine, so view the bottle more as a present for the host. 

Read more: ‘Tchin tchin’, ‘santé’, eye contact: The rituals of French apéros

Say bon appétit

Despite being widely used in France, many experts in classic French dining etiquette say using the common phrase is tantamount to bringing up digestive habits over the dinner table – a definite no-no. 

Instead, they suggest saying something like “this looks delicious” as a polite alternative. 

Read more: 5 tips to be accepted into French village life

Put your hands in your lap

Place your hands either side of the plate setting, not on your lap, if you want to blend in during a French dinner. 

And while elbows on the table are often seen as impolite in many countries, etiquette expert Marie de Tilly told France 24 that women can put their elbows on the table “elegantly” to show off their rings. 

Eat with your hands 

In France, it is customary to eat most food using cutlery. Eating with your hands is considered impolite, so make sure to tuck into that steak frites with your knife and fork. 

Notable exceptions include bread and certain dishes including asparagus. 

Cut your salad 

One thing you may have noticed in France is people do not cut their salads. Do so, and you might receive a few funny looks. The practice that is said to date back centuries to when cutting into lettuce leaves would have risked getting vinaigrette onto the steel blade of the knife and oxidising it. 

Most hosts will chop a salad into bite-sized portions before it is served at the table. If you do come across a larger piece, fold it or separate it with your fork. 

Salad is not the only thing to avoid cutting with a knife. In France, many believe only meat and fish should be cut with a knife, and many other foods, including quiche, should be cut with the fork alone. 

Read more: MAP: Michelin lists 56 places in France where you eat well for €40

Have more than one serving of cheese

It is customary to serve yourself one helping from a cheese board that is usually passed around the table in between the main course and dessert. Your neighbour will hold the plate while you cut yourself a helping of cheese. 

Digging back into the board for a second helping can, traditionally, be seen as a slight on your host – as the cheese is the only course they did not prepare themselves, going for a second helping suggests you were not fed enough for your starter and main course. 

Cheese is usually accompanied by bread, which you should put directly onto the table, not on your plate, if you want to fully blend in. 

Read also: Traditional Roquefort and Camembert are under threat, warn scientists

French restaurants 

Do not: 

Call the waiter ‘garçon’ 

The antiquated habit of calling the waiter garçon (boy) is a strict no-no in France. The term is old-fashioned and will be seen as incredibly rude by most people. 

French people are very respectful to restaurant staff, so call your waiter monsieur or your waitress madame. If you are trying to get the waiter’s attention, simply using excusez-moi (excuse me) is a polite way to do it. 

And whatever you do, do not click your fingers to get someone’s attention. 

Read also: La politesse: what habits can make you seem rude to French people?

Talk too loudly 

Many French restaurants, especially in cities such as Paris or Bordeaux, are small and intimate, with tables spaced closely together. 

It is important to respect the space and keep your voice low rather than talking too loudly. Listen to how other diners are chatting to get an idea of how loud you should be. 

Seat yourself 

When you enter a French restaurant, make sure to ask your waiter or waitress for a table rather than just taking a seat yourself. This will be viewed as impolite and you may even be asked to move – not the ideal start to your meal. 

Put your cutlery in the wrong place

When you have finished eating, place your knife and fork together facing the top left of your plate. This is a sign you have finished your meal and it is ok for the waiter to remove your plate.