Living in France - understanding French etiquette, customs, culture, and language
When relocating to France or spending time here in a holiday home, understanding and integrating yourself with the local French culture and customs is a key element of settling in.
When adapting to a new life in France, you will need to become acquainted with French culture and customs, as well as observing any specific customs in your local area. You would probably be forgiven if you should accidentally insult your hosts, but it is better to be familiar with the different accepted taboos. There is perhaps a more formal approach to greetings and courtesies in France than you may think, especially in comparison to the UK or USA. French culture and customs go back so many hundreds of years and even in today’s modern world, there is a strong legacy of the family coming first. Families tend to stick together and generations mix easily. This is probably one of the main reasons why we love France – not to mention of course the wonderful food and wine!
The more you find out about French traditions and culture, the more you will want to learn. France includes a long and varied history, with countless legends and customs that have been passed down from one generation to another. Each region of France is unique in its customs, proudly boasting its own distinct version of French culture. Researching these different cultural traditions can be very rewarding.
Formal greetings and goodbyes
When you are introduced to a French person, you need to say “good day, Sir/Madam” (“Bonjour Madame/Monsieur”) and shake their hand (briefly, but firmly). “Salut!” (“Hi” or “hello”) should only be used with good friends and young adults. When saying goodbye, it is a formal custom to shake hands again. In an office environment, everyone shakes hands with everybody else when they arrive at the office, and then shake hands again when they depart. When you leave a shop, you always give an ‘Au revoir, bonne journée’ to the sales assistant, even if you didn’t buy anything.
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Then, of course, there’s the minefield of the cheek-kiss. How many, to whom? Generally speaking, you’ll kiss, rather than shake hands, with anyone of the opposite gender you’re introduced to in a social context, and often in a work context, too. When you say hello or goodbye, it’ll normally be a kiss rather than the ‘Anglo-Saxon hug’ or a handshake – and remember this, again, means saying goodbye individually to every single person in the vicinity when you leave a party. ‘Taking French leave’ in French is called filer à l’anglaise – taking English leave!
As for how many kisses, even French people get tripped up by this. The ‘default’ is two, but the northeast usually uses one, like neighbouring Belgium, and so does the Finistère area of Brittany. In the southeast, inland from the coast, it’s normally three. And, if that weren’t enough, parts of the Indre do four. And that’s without going into whether it’s an area that starts from the left or right.
Addressing friends and strangers
Any attempt to speak French will be hugely appreciated, and don’t worry about making mistakes – just trying to learn the language will go down well.
The most important thing to know is that French is a language with formalities, and using the wrong form of “you” could possibly offend someone. If they are older than you, are your superior, or if you do not know them, use “vous”. If they are a child or your classmate, use “tu”. However, for someone more junior than you at work, still start with ‘vous’, as acknowledging that by calling them ‘tu’ can be just as offensive.
In days gone by, the “vous” form was almost constantly used, even amongst families, in particular by the upper classes, which may seem strange to us now. The two different forms of “you” exist in other European countries also, so it is important for British visitors and expats to learn the difference.
Any attempt to speak French will be hugely appreciated, and don’t worry about making mistakes – just trying to speak the language will go down well.
If in doubt, always go for ‘vous’, and make liberal use of ‘monsieur’ or ‘madame’ to address anyone working in a service job (shop assistants, train conductors), elderly neighbours and just anyone else you want to be polite to.
‘Madame’ and ‘mademoiselle’ are not related to marital status, and ‘mademoiselle’ should only be used for teenagers these days. Most French organisations have banned the use of the word in correspondence, and it is falling out of use.
Finally, you’ll notice the word ‘bon(ne)’ (‘have a good…’) coming up frequently. A general goodbye? Bonne journée ! Off for the evening? Bonne soirée ! Off to another party? Bonne fin de soirée ! Off to the hairdresser’s? Bonne coiffeuse ! Not doing anything? Bonne continuation !
Straight to the point
There’s a reason ‘beating around the bush’ doesn’t exist in French. Don’t be surprised or offended at an occasionally seemingly brusque manner. French people are big on polite greetings, but not so much on small talk – and any email or letter you receive will get straight to the point. They are also more than willing to volunteer their opinion on all and any subject.
If you are ready to buy in France within the next few months, call our friendly France Resource Team on 020 7898 0549 or email France@propertyguides.com.
If you have children, they will get often very direct feedback without sugarcoating from their school teachers, so it’s important to remember that there’s no bad intent behind it. It’s simply a different style of communication, and you’ll soon get used to it. Many overseas buyers find they actually prefer it, as at least you always know where you stand!
Focus on French food
Many traditions and customs in France focus on food – perhaps unsurprising in a country so well known for its gastronomical accomplishments. If you are planning to move to France, or will simply be visiting throughout the year, it’s really worthwhile learning about all the different foods and recipes on offer in your chosen region of France, experimenting with local and national delicacies. You will invariably find more than a few delicious dishes.
Beheading the Champagne
One unique tradition in France is the beheading of Champagne bottles at weddings, using an exclusively made sabre. This tradition is said to have originated in Napoleonic times, when Champagne bottles were beheaded in the same way to celebrate victory.
The festive season
The holiday season, including Christmas, sees many old customs and traditions in France being followed. Members of the family and friends participate in the late Christmas Dinner, usually held on Christmas Eve, following the holy Christmas Mass. Roast turkey is the most common item on the menu.
The France Buying Guide walks you step-by-step through each stage of the property buying process in France. Additionally, there are also practical recommendations from our experts who have been through the process themselves. The guide will help you to: