Don't mention the ... French

Hello everybody, Mr Majik here.

I have been asked by one of my clients to give a talk on French culture. Not the wine and food side but the actual colloquial and “How to live among them” sort of thing.

The company that wants the talk employes English people to go and work in a French environment. Normally the only experience these people have of France are a mix of School trips, Monty Python and the news.

I would like you to list your personally learned DO’s and DON’Ts as well as things you wished people had recommended/told/warned you before you plunged in to France.

Obviously we can omit Tax issues and other paper trail horror story’s as these employes will not have to deal with any of that (fortunately for them!) but when in comes to interactions, social Faux pas and “how to get along” your input will be greatly appreciated!

Just about anything you feel necessary to arm a brit for survival in a 95% French environment.

Merci d’avance


P.S the French in question are majority Norman/Breton

Say bonjour to everyone you are even slightly acquainted with, colleagues, neighbours, everyone, the first time you see them that day. When to start saying "bonsoir"? I thought it should be when it was getting dark, which at this time of year is quite late, but the other day I said "bonjour" to the lady behind the till at my local supermarket (yes, you must do this) at about 17h30 in bright sunshine, and she scowled and said "bonsoir". Maybe she was just looking forward to getting off work. Don't ever start eating and drinking before your host has. Don't smile. Try not to think French people are rude when they greet you with what seems like a sneer. It's difficult. Don't be horrified when people serving in shops drink something or talk on their mobiles while they are serving you, or make you wait until they have finished their private conversation. They won't smile either. Not much of an administrative nature happens on a Wednesday, as many women who do these jobs take Wednesdays off to look after their children, because for most French children there is no school on Wednesdays. Don't laugh at French people for all going on holiday at the same time and sitting for hours in traffic jams. Don't ask why. It's just a thing they do. When French people get a cold they go to the doctor and get antibiotics. Nobody knows why they do this. Don't accuse them of endangering public health. They won't understand. Oh and nobody will smile at you. Ever. There are non-French who have been married to French for 20 years and have never had a smile from their loved one. When they have come back from their holidays (all at the same time) it is compulsory to shriek a lot and kiss each other ("la bise") for the first few hours of the working day. Do not be annoyed. This counts as work. Police and detective dramas, in book, film and TV form, are compulsory. At least 80% of TV time is devoted to them. Nobody smiles in those either.

This set me a thinking, here are a few of my thoughts (which duplicate some of those already on here but, hey, saying something twice can sometimes be helpful.


Always say “Messieurs. Mesdames” or “Bonjour” when walking into a room or small shop

When leaving anywhere “Aurevoir” is always said. There will also be “Bon journee” or you can enter the nightmare of “Bon Appetit” “Bon Apres midi”, “Bon fin d’apres midi” “Bon soiree”, with even “Bon sieste” in the middle if you wish. Knowing when one changes from one to another is an art.

When the French ask “Ca va” they do not mean to ask for your whole life or health history

When asking for something specific in a shop always start with “bonjour”

The French like talking about the weather.


When the French meet they always shake hands or offer the cheek to cheek approach. The problem is that you never know whether it will be one on one side only, one on each side or three. Also it is polite to remove your glasses before starting this manoeuvre.

With children it is always the cheek to cheek – and they are tu – not vous.

Never use “tu” unless and until the French person uses “tu” to you first. Also they are “Monsieur or Madame X” until they use your first name.


be prepared for them to expect you to keep the one knife and fork for the meal.

Get used to having a plate in front of you which is not used but only to put another plate on.

The French have only two spoons, a coffee spoon for deserts and a table spoon for soup. Show them our soup spoon or desert spoon and they ask “why?”

Be prepared to wait after ordering in a restaurant, in most cases they start to cook the meal after they know your wishes. Be patient – here eating is a pleasure not a necessity.

The French start to eat the moment their meal arrives – they do not wait until everyone has their meal before tucking in.

Tips in a restaurant are included in the bill (at the moment) but, if you intend to return to the same restaurant in never hurts to leave a little extra (if you feel they deserve it of course).


Get used to the two hour lunch break. While there is little more frustrating when you are in the middle of a job and cannot “pop out” and get something needed to finish it – be aware that the French work to live and do not live to work.

Be prepared for your shop to be closed all of Sunday and sometimes Monday as well.


Learning French is essential but be aware that the Parisians do not speak the same French as the Charantais. But then in the UK neither do those in the centres of Newcastle upon Tyne or Glasgow speak the same English as an Old Etonian.

Most French do not feel comfortable trying to use their school learned English. You must be able to speak their language if you want to communicate. Shouting, speaking slowly and pointing are not the answer.

Anyone got any more please?

I would advise them to learn French and to try to use it, and tell them that a lot of people study English, but not many are happy to speak it.

"The French have a very high capacity for work..."

Apart from between mid day and 2pm or Sundays!

Too right about the use of knife & fork - quite extraordinary & I don't have a clue why - there is no difference in terms of how silver is used between my GB and my French family, for example (& it isn't the way you described!!). But I have seen some horrors on both sides of the channel.

The friends in question are teachers at the lycée here in Bergerac who regularly take groups of pupils over to GB for scientific exchanges, live with their opposite numbers and host them here in return. The opposite numbers weren't a problem but meeting large groups of GB people was, shall we say, an eye-opener for them, in all sorts of ways.

And they thought it was very strange to be treated as paedophile criminals when they took photographs of uniformed nursery-school children playing in a public park where their own pupils were eating their sandwiches & taking photographs of one another.

I am reporting what my French friends say because while they have no qualms about telling me, they would be far too polite to say it to someone completely British. My opinion is a bit schizophrenic - obviously, because I am 1/2 and 1/2 and have spent my life juggling at least 2 sets of cultural norms (hands on/off the table, la bise etc).

I am reporting what French people have spontaneously said to me because I think those are things British people would never suspect Fr people find baffling or annoying and it might just make certain reactions more comprehensible. Oil the wheels of social intercourse, that sort of thing. They know I am 1/2 & 1/2 so they think I am likely to help them decode British people's behaviour and don't mind asking because as far as they are concerned, I'm French, and will understand.

I am not making any value judgments - "genuinely trying to be nice" well the person may be - but French people won't necessarily understand that's what they're doing, it won't come across as genuine at all if there is too much grinning and exclaiming, and the person in question may well feel disappointed by the French person's reaction. If you live in France it helps to know what WE take for granted and to realise it isn't always what YOU take for granted.

My personal opinion (for what it is worth) is that if you come to either of my countries and want to get on with people it is as well to understand the things that 'go without saying' because otherwise you can end up looking a prat and feeling excluded and not understanding why. First impressions are often the only ones.

To Veronique L ,So you are just reporting what your friends say or do you have an opinion ? If anyone has a problem with how someone smiles or greets someone when they are genuinely trying to be nice then they surely have a problem. « where I come from it is thought polite to smile» + 1Celeste :-)

Oh you look people in the eye all right and smile at them if you know them but you shouldn't do that big toothy anglo-saxon grinning at people you've only just met as people find it weird & annoying & favour-currying (just reporting what my friends say - they have actually asked me if it is normal to grin at virtual strangers in GB for instance - they find it vvv peculiar. The word simian has been used).

You can have a pleasant expression on your face without baring your teeth.

Oh and Fr people have a big problem with the pitch of spoken English - much higher than French so an animated conversation between English-speaking women sounds squeaky & hysterical (again I'm reporting friends' reactions).


O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain—
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.

As it was in Elsinore so is it in France.

Shake hands with workmen who might be working on your home, and even if their hands are dirty, shake arms with them.

Don't start to drink your apero before your host starts his/hers.

Never walk past a client/colleague/neighbour in the street without greeting them.

Don't take those lovely chrysanthemums, which seem to fill the market at Toussainte, as a bouquet for your hostess.

Hit the nail on the head there Véronique, especially the 'smile' bit. Never did trust people who grin at you when you first meet them. Just so false....

Don't smile too much before you know people - it is seen as inane hypocritical grinning & makes us v suspicious.

Call people Madame or Monsieur until they tell you otherwise (without the surname).

Remember you can call people by their first names for 20 years but still vouvoie them.

Don't forget to greet & take leave of every single person in a room personally when you arrive/leave. None of that general hello/goodbye.

Greeting and shaking hands/kissing. Very different to UK culture. Also the vous/tu protocols.