You’re about to meet a French person.
The idea seems exotic and exciting… until you realize you know nothing about French people!
What will you talk about? Do you like the same things? What if you accidentally offend them?
Oh gosh, what if they don’t even speak any English?
To make things easier, there are basics you should know about French culture. Having a better idea of what to expect from the French people in your life will give you some discernment regarding how to act around them.
Tips for French Cultural Interactions
Know That Young People Are Less Stringent
Some of the items on the list below fall into the category of what you might experience in people’s homes and at business outings and other formal events.
But if you’re hanging with a bunch of 22-year-old Frenchies, they’re likely to be more relaxed about traditional French social guidelines than their grandfather or your French boss would be.
Still, better safe than sorry! You have to know the cultural rules before you can break them.
Flex Your French
All intercultural interactions become easier if you can speak the language!
First of all, it just becomes easier to talk with people and make a good first impression. Second, if you don’t understand something culturally, it’s helpful to know how to ask for clarification.
For example, you might ask, “Où est l’assiette à pain?” (“Where’s the bread plate?”) or “Comment célèbres-tu la Fête nationale?” (“How do you celebrate Bastille Day?”). If you can ask easy questions and understand simple answers, life just gets way easier.
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Just Show You’re Trying
If you can’t memorize every single aspect of French culture, don’t stress out! Yes, the French are known for being an uptight breed. But they’re also more apt to go easy on you if they know you’re trying your hardest.
Put effort into eating with the right utensils, celebrating May Day and conversing in French, and you’ll be just fine. (More on all that below.)
Let’s Get Cultural! 30 Things You Should Know About French Culture
1. How You Say “You” Matters
Ah, English, you’re so simple sometimes. No matter whom we’re talking to, we just say “you.”
French is a little more complicated. Formality, hierarchy and authority matter in a conversation. To show your respect, refer to the other person using vous (formal you).
Talking to your boss? How about a friend’s mom? Or even just a complete stranger who’s an adult? Time to whip out that vous!
But if you’re just chatting with a pal or a young person, you can use the informal tu.
For example, you’d tell your boss, “Vous portez une belle chemise aujourd’hui.” (You’re wearing a nice shirt today.)
But you’d tell your younger sister, “Tu portes une belle chemise aujourd’hui.”
Oh, and you conjugate verbs differently depending on whether you’re using tu or vous. Dang it, French! Keep one of these handy French conjugation apps on your phone for quick checks.
2. Everyone Says Hello and Goodbye
While living in France, my mom couldn’t find the correct train platform. She was afraid she was going to miss her train, so she rushed up to a local and said, “Où est le quai six?!” (“Where’s platform six?!”)
The French woman just raised one eyebrow and grunted, “Bonjour, mademoiselle.” (“Hello, miss.)”
That woman interpreted my mom’s failure to greet her before jumping into a conversation as a total lack of common courtesy. Gosh darn it, she was going to get her greeting before helping out some impolite American!
When you approach someone or even enter a small shop, you’re expected to say hello right off the bat. It’s also important to say goodbye when you leave the conversation or exit a small store.
3. People Downplay Compliments
Imagine a French lady approaches you and says, “Vos cheveux sont très beaux!” (“Your hair’s so beautiful!”)
You respond, “Merci!” (“Thank you!”)
Simple enough, right?
Not so fast.
In France, thanking someone after they pay you a compliment is viewed as extremely haughty. It’s as though you’re saying, “Thank you, I know! Aren’t I gorgeous? I’m amazing!”
Instead, try something along the lines of, “Non, pas du tout! Vous êtes trop gentille.” (“No, not at all! You’re too kind.”) This shows modesty and humility, which the French respect.
4. Natives Should Take the Lead
Are you at a total loss for how to act when speaking with a French person? Here’s a tip for the complete beginner: Wait for locals to take the lead.
Should you faire la bise (kiss on both cheeks) or just shake their hand? They’re a little older than you, but not by much. Should you refer to them as vous or tu?
When in doubt, wait to see what the native does before making a huge cultural decision. For example, if they say, “Tu parles bien le français” (“You speak French well”), you’re probably in the clear to use the tu form.
However, if you want to be sure you’re not offending someone, simply ask them, “Je pourrais vous tutoyer?” (“May I use tu with you?”). French people would rather be asked than have a foreigner assume they don’t mind being addressed informally.
5. French Students Are Well-rounded
If you’ve met a French person before, maybe you noticed they were remarkably cultured and knowledgeable. French people dominate cocktail parties. They can hold a conversation about anything! How do they become that way?
Well, it all starts in l’école primaire (elementary school).
French elementary schools remind me of American liberal arts colleges. From a young age, students learn much more than just reading, writing and arithmetic. They study theater, music, art appreciation and philosophy.
Even P.E. class is taken seriously. When I was a kid, we pretty much just ran laps and played dodge ball. French children learn to swim and play badminton, ping pong, soccer—and they learn to do them proficiently.
6. Philosophy Class Flavors French Life
Speaking of philosophy, this subject is integrated into the curriculum at a young age.
Reading existentialist works at such a young age affects how French people grow up seeing the world. At the risk of oversimplifying, many French people believe life has no true meaning.
This existentialist worldview has its pros and cons. On the plus side, French people feel compelled to savor the good things in life. If nothing ultimately matters, we should just make the most of our time on Earth!
On the other end of the spectrum, France is one of the most depressed countries in the world. A lack of meaning probably isn’t helping.
One thing’s for sure: If philosophy wasn’t ingrained in people from such a young age, French culture would be quite different.
7. Teachers Tend to Shame Students
When students don’t catch on to a lesson, teachers don’t usually respond in a nurturing way. Instead, they may shame the student, often in front of the others.
Teachers hope this will motivate the child to work harder.
This tactic contributes to many young people putting pressure on themselves to succeed.
8. French Education Is No Longer Held in Such High Esteem
For years, France’s education system was regarded as the third- or fourth-best in the world. Now, its reputation is slowly diminishing.
Students are getting lower scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam. France is also facing backlash for failing to meet needs of a variety of learners, particularly special needs students. People complain that teachers are knowledgeable in their field but don’t seem to know how to teach.
We’ll see how this criticism leaks into the rest of society over time.
9. School Isn’t Creative
French classrooms focus heavily on memorizing facts, completing worksheets and reading books aloud as a class.
So you may notice that the French have a tendency to emphasize critical thinking and analyzing over creative problem solving.
10. Bread Is Everywhere
Croissants and pain au chocolat (chocolate bread) for breakfast. Sandwiches made from baguettes for lunch. Rolls with dinner. The French are a bread-obsessed group, and I must say, I love it.
Let’s be honest, bread is the best part of a meal in any country. But the French take it seriously. Any bread you order should be fresh!
11. The French Drink Water or Wine with Dinner
Granted, young people might be fonder of soda and beer these days. But if you’re at a formal dinner, expect to drink water or wine!
Oh, and that wine will pair perfectly with whichever cheese and meat you’re eating.
12. Fish Are Served with Eyes
If you’re a fish fanatic, prepare yourself. When you order fish at a restaurant, it’ll be served with the eyes. Your food will be staring at you.
The French serve fish this way to prove it’s fresh. If the eyes are cloudy, you know it isn’t fresh!
Maybe you should just avoid fish altogether around French people.
13. Beets Are Very Popular
You probably already know the French eat some weird things, like snails. But did you know beets are super popular?
Diced beets show up frequently on a plate of crudités (assorted raw vegetables) or in salads, but perhaps the most popular beets dish these days is “peasant beets,” which are beets with Swiss chard and cheese.
14. Organ Meats Are on the Menu
Well, if you thought the French fascination with beets was strange, natives just kicked the absurdity up a notch!
French people eat every part of an animal. Expect to see your fair share of les ris de veau (sweetbreads, better known as pancreas).
Maybe you’ve heard of pâté de foie gras. Do you know what it is? Goose liver paste. Yum!
French Dining Etiquette
15. You’ll Eat in Courses
If you eat at a restaurant or are a guest in a French person’s home, expect to eat multiple courses. Granted, you’ll eat slowly and they’ll be small portions. But prepare yourself!
There’ll be at least three courses.
16. Group Meals Are Long
Last night, I went to a French restaurant in America. Everyone there obviously was either French or had visited the country.
Want to know how I could tell?
When my husband and I arrived, there were five other groups at tables. We stayed for over an hour. When we left, all five groups were still at their tables. And they showed no signs of leaving anytime soon!
With all those courses and bottles of wine, French people like to prolong the experience of a good meal with people they enjoy. And since they’ve been so well educated on multiple topics, they have plenty to talk about for hours on end.
If you go to a French restaurant, especially with a group, don’t be in a hurry. An hour is the absolute minimum you’ll spend eating.
17. The French Indulge, But They Don’t Binge
We’ve already talked about the love French people have for their bread.
There are plenty of unhealthy foods they’re known to love. Macarons, steak-frites (steak served with fries) and mousse au chocolat (chocolate mousse), just to name a few! Not to mention—all that wine must add a few pounds, right?
The French appreciate good and, yes, sometimes fattening food. But they know how to eat it in small portions.
I don’t know about you, but I can put away a big meal. An appetizer of jalapeño poppers, followed by fried chicken and fries. Plus some sweet tea, because I’m from the South!
The French wouldn’t hear of that, though. They enjoy everything in moderation, and that includes food.
18. Their Evening Meal Is Light
There are always exceptions to this rule. For example, those six-course meals with three glasses of wine at business dinners.
But in general, the French prefer to eat a hearty lunch and light dinner. And they have science to back them up! If you eat heavier meals earlier in the day, your body has time to burn those calories. If you eat an entire large pizza right before falling asleep, it goes straight to your thighs. (That last part comes from my “personal scientific research.”)
19. People Know How to Wield a Knife and Fork
Yes, they even use them to eat French fries. And fruit. And pizza.
This is another cultural norm where you should look at the people around you first. If you’re with young people, there’s always the chance they’ll pick up a slice of pizza with their hands. But you shouldn’t initiate that move!
It’s also worth noting that this knife-and-fork tip applies to sit-down meals with a proper place setting, rather than at picnics. Feel free to get down and dirty at les pique-niques (picnics)!
20. There’s No Bread Plate
Of course, there’s bread with the meal! But don’t bother looking around for a bread plate. Unless you’re at a hoity-toity restaurant, you won’t find one. You simply place your bread on the table, to the top left of your dinner plate.
Well then, how will you butter your bread? Surprise! French people generally don’t put butter on their bread at mealtimes, except when preparing their tartines to accompany their café au lait at breakfast.
21. People Own Few Outfits
“Less is more” is a big concept in French fashion.
Whereas I own around 10 dresses, 15 T-shirts, five cute tops and three pairs of pants, the French are much more minimalistic.
They typically wear the same outfits over and over again, using different accessories to liven them up. Especially with high quality shoes and handbags.
For this reason, they’re usually willing to spend a little more on nice outfits and accessories at stores such as Maje. Since they’ll wear that shirt at least once per week, they know they’re getting their money’s worth.
22. The French Wear Dark Colors
How do you spot a tourist in Paris?
It’s the person wearing a pastel-colored shirt and floral shorts. They obviously aren’t French!
Wearing dark colors is a classic French staple. Keep in mind, though, that this trend is especially popular in large cities. It’s also more common in winter. In summer and in the south of France, people typically wear softer or brighter colors.
23. Women Don’t Dress Down
You probably won’t find a French woman walking around in a sweatshirt, running shorts and flip flops. Which is too bad, because that’s my outfit of choice!
No, women like to present themselves nicely all the time, because their style is a direct reflection of who they are. (More on that below.) You’re more likely to spot them wearing heels, a dress and a stylish hat.
24. Women Have One Style
Maybe you’ve heard that French women have a certain je ne sais quoi (I don’t know what) about them.
Je ne sais quoi is a term referring to an unidentifiable something that makes a person attractive. You want to be around them. They have something that makes them cool, but je ne sais quoi!
Well, I know exactly quoi it is. French women know who they are. And they own it.
You won’t find a French woman sporting overalls Friday, a little black dress Saturday and a bohemian jumpsuit Sunday. No way. She knows who she is and she expresses it through her unique, personal style.
25. Religion Isn’t a Priority for Many
The French aren’t a particularly religious bunch.
In fact, a whopping 24% claim they’re atheist or non-religious. When I spent a summer in France, I was 21 years old and had grown up in the deep South of the U.S., where religion is a huge part of our culture. The disinterest in religion was hard for me to comprehend.
26. Catholicism Is Popular
No, religion isn’t a big deal in France. But of the religions, Catholicism is the most mainstream. Eighty-three percent of French Christians consider themselves Catholic.
Catholicism is the religion of most people’s ancestors. So while many French citizens self-identify as Catholic, few actually attend mass, other than on religious holidays.
27. Religion Has Affected Art
Although the French aren’t into religion, they do appreciate art.
While younger folks might be more into modern and funky art these days, bring up Gothic and Renaissance art to the older generations, and they’ll know plenty. Artists from these periods drew their inspiration from religion and church, so art aficionados will be able to talk about religion, or at least religious symbolism, to some extent.
28. They Celebrate May Day
If you’re European, this holiday isn’t foreign to you at all.
For those of you not in the know, May Day is a celebration of the country’s workers that takes place on May 1st. It’s a lot like American Labor Day, except it’s on the same day every year.
The best part? That means schools and government agencies shut down that day! Everyone loves an extra day of vacation.
If you’re in France when May Day falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, consider yourself lucky! In this case, many French employers let workers faire le pont (take a four-day weekend.)
French people also give out Lilies of the Valley or take them to loved ones’ graves on May Day.
29. Never Forget July 14th
As is the case with most countries, people celebrate with fireworks. If you’re in a big city, like Paris or Lyon, you’ll get to see some of the biggest and best fireworks.
If you’re in Paris, go to the Champs-Elysées military parade.
30. Christmas and Easter Are Popular
Earlier, I mentioned that religion is deemed irrelevant in France. People don’t typically go to church or mass every Sunday.
But on Christmas and Easter, those pews are packed!
In fact, celebrating these holidays might be a way for you to bond with French people. Like many Western societies, the French hunt for eggs on Easter and display the nativity scene for Christmas.
With these cultural facts and a little French language knowledge in your head, you’re ready to meet a French person!
Who knows? Your knowledge of French culture may even lead to a new friend or an invitation for a second date.
Laura Grace Tarpley is an editor at FluentU. She loves tinkering with crossword puzzles and playing with her puppy, Tuna. Follow her on Twitter @lgtarpley.
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