What you need to know about the French taboos you should never break


There are some difficult lessons to be learned when it comes to life in France.

From French dining etiquette to the conversational conventions, here's a look at a few of the highlights, in the hope that the uncomfortable silences and condescending looks suffered by others may spare you from the same fate.

Bonjour !

Several of our readers told us about bad experiences they had had after forgetting to begin a social interaction without a clearly pronounced bonjour, including Gregg Kasner, who recently received a stern reminder of how crucial this little word really is in France.

"We were in a rush to get to the theatre, and when I put my last subway ticket into the turnstile, it wouldnt accept it. Upset, I went to the attendant in the booth and said in French, “I dont know what is wrong, but the turnstile would not accept my subway ticket.


"She gave me the most caustic look possible and sarcastically replied, 'Bonjour . . . ' Completely embarrassed that I had not greeted her, I said, 'Bonjour' and repeated my sentence. Without a word she checked my ticket and then clicked open the adjacent gate for me to enter.

"I never forget the 'bonjour' rule. This time I did, and I was embarrassed."

The importance of beginning conversations with this greeting is such that the Canadian authors Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow chose to call their book about French conversational codes The Bonjour Effect. They explain that the word bonjour serves a phatic function, meaning that it does not convey information, but rather serves to open the channels of communication.

"[What] French people mean when they say bonjour is 'were going to communicate', or 'I am going to talk.' This also might seem self-evident when you are already talking, but not to the French.

Even those who are familiar with the rule sometimes forget. When in doubt, just keep in mind this piece of advice from Nadeau and Barlow:

"Of all Frances phatic expressions, bonjour is by far the most important. It is a universal greeting and the key to any exchange… You can never say too many bonjours. Our rule of thumb is to say bonjour in all contexts and all circumstances. When it seems like overkill, you are probably right on."


Photo: Depositphotos

Bisous, bisous, bisous (and repeat)

Bonjour isn't the only problematic aspect of greeting people in France.

However one reader pointed to one of the many potential pitfalls you could make in this area.

"Do the bisous to everyone at the party when you arrive AND when you leave," he said.

And while there will no doubt be times you will be expected to just that, not everyone will expect you to do it the first time you meet.

While la bise is a staple of French manners, sometimes it's just a handshake, especially with the older generations.

Just remember, la bise etiquette is one of the hardest things to learn for all foreigners in France, so don't give yourself a hard time if you don't get it right away – give yourself at least a few years of living here.

Readers also mentioned the pitfall of using the informal 'tu' form of the verb when speaking to someone older, such as your French partner's grandmother, or an authority figure.

"Not cool,"said Svein Håkansson. "Tthey will let you know about it also or just not listen cause you cant possibly be talking to them."

Everyone's done it so there's no need to worry too much if you let 'tu' slip but when in doubt it's best to use vous and you'll be told when/if it's okay to switch to the informal version.

Table manners

In an eating and drinking culture with as prestigious as Frances, there are bound to be a few rules, notably with respect to their much- vaunted cheeses.

"There is a serious protocol when slicing and serving cheese," Kyle Smith says. "Ive made the mistake of innocently deforming a wedge of cheese with a knife and faced the wrath of my Parisian in-laws."

In this case, there is actually a pretty clear logic behind all the indignation.

"It was explained to me after my faux pas that in a wheel of cheese, especially soft cheeses, there are different textures and flavors as you move from the circumference to the center. By cutting off the “nose” of a wedge, I was seen as a greedy glutton for taking the best piece. Also, the aesthetics of changing the shape were brutish and notably American.

Those who dont want to be seen as greedy gluttons would do well to cut cheese wedges from the center of the wheel to the edge, thereby fairly distributing the more flavorful center among all the diners. More on this – along with some other vital cheese advice – can be found here.


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