Posted by: Jennifer Sage | February 6, 2008

Common courtesies and dining tips while in France

After 19 years of cycling, traveling and  living in France, I know the French very well. I love French people, I love their culture and history, I love their gastronomy and their ways of enjoying all the sensory aspects of life. I love their savoir-faire, their love of art, literature and culture, and their passion for the finer, simpler things in life. Their traditions, especially around eating and politeness, may seem odd or stodgy to some Americans, but when you learn the roots of many of them they make more sense.

Having spent many years leading luxury cycling tours in France, dining in some of the finest restaurants in the country, I can say that I’ve noticed that Americans can be, uh, rather crude at times. In most cases it’s out of ignorance and not intentional, so I’d like to offer some suggestions for getting along swimmingly with the French on your next trip!

The French get a bad rap as being rude and unfriendly. I can’t say I haven’t met those people in my travels, as I have. But it’s almost always in a big city like Paris or a pretentious city like Nice where you will meet these stereotypes. It’s much like you might encounter in New York City if a foreigner were to ask for directions from a Type-A born-and-bred New Yorker who doesn’t have time to help someone who barely speaks his/her language. When you get into the provinces, you’ll find the people to be very welcoming. Some of the kindest, most caring people I’ve met have been from France.

If you learn a few simple niceties outlined below, most of which are common courtesies that we seem to have lost in this country over the last century, you’ll be less likely to walk away with an experience of rude French people. Learn a few simple French words, practice them and use them frequently, and your next experience in France will absolutely blossom. The bottom line is to be as polite as you possibly can, use the Golden Rule, and remember the lessons your grandmother taught you.

1. Always say Bonjour and Au Revoir when you walk into any small store (as in a boulangerie,  clothing shop, salon de thé, boucherie, etc). And not only should you say hello and goodbye, but you should acknowledge the gender of the person/people you are greeting. For example “Bonjour Madame” or “Bonjour Monsieur”. If there are both genders in the room, if you feel comfortable you can say the contracted, “Bonjour sieur-dame”, which covers both. If you don’t feel comfortable (it does kinda make others think you know more about French than you might actually know), then say hello to both the women and the men. (Don’t worry about plurals at this point)

If it’s a young woman behind the counter, you would say, “Bonjour Mademoiselle“. You can err on the side of ‘young’ if you’re not sure if she’s married. She will rarely correct you!

Start noticing how everywhere you go, in every shop or café, they all say hello and goodbye, even when they don’t know each other. Sometimes they just address it to the room in general, especially if the room is filled with a number of people, other times they’ll look right at you as they come in the door. If that is the case, and you’re already in the line at the boulangerie counter and have already said your bonjours to the counterfolk, look that sweet little old lady who just walked in the door in the eye and say, “Bonjour Madame” right back to her!

When you leave the shop, after saying Merci (see #2), say “Au Revoir monsieur/madame.”

I love how the women tend to raise their voices an octave or two when saying Bonjour. See if you can notice that on your next trip!

2. Say Please and Thank You, all the time, every time. Americans seem to freeze when it comes to saying S’il vous plait and Merci. Maybe they say it at home, but I just don’t hear that many Americans saying these small words when in France. I guarantee, practice this one, and it can win even the most grumpy waiter over to your side, it can open doors for you, and it will change their opinions of Americans. And don’t just say “s’il vous plait”, say “s’il vous plait madame“, or “merci monsieur“. Again, doing this will give you big brownie points (or rather, éclair au chocolat points).

If you don’t know how to say the word for what it is you’re seeking, like milk, that’s ok. Don’t just yell “milk” in a loud voice as you point to your coffee and wave to the waiter (I’ve seen this a million times). Instead, say “s’il vous plait, monsieur…” and then pantomime pouring milk into your coffee. He’ll get the picture, and when he brings it, you might even say, “Merci beaucoup monsieur“! I guarantee, he’ll smile knowingly and will be more likely to go out of his way for you. It’s ok to use sign language when you don’t know something, that’s one of the joys of traveling in my opinion. Just say please first!

By the way, S’il vous plait also means pardon me (see #3) and is what you use when offering your seat to an elderly person on a bus/train.

3. Say “Pardon“. Often. You can also use “Excusez-moi”, but pardon is used much more frequently. It is used not just when you bump into someone or want to pass, but also use it when you need to get someone’s attention (s’il vous plait can also work in this situation). Want your request to be more successful? How about, “Pardon Monsieur”! Oh, and try to say it with a French accent (see the pronunciation tips at the end of this post).

4. Never, ever call the waiter “Garçon“! I don’t know why they teach this in American French classes, but it’s just not used. Garçon means ‘boy’. They hate this. If you want the waiter’s attention, wait until he’s near you, and then say without yelling, and with your index finger raised to eye level to get his attention (not above your head like you’re calling a taxi), say “S’il vous plait monsieur“, or “Pardon madame” (see #2). If they hear ‘garçon’, they may stay away on purpose. They also might do this if you never say please or thank you, or if you yell (see #5). They have been known to resort to revenge from time to time, as in ignoring you.

5. Don’t yell. Especially in a restaurant or café. (see #4)

If you’re speaking with someone (or are trying to), if they don’t speak English, saying it louder doesn’t help. I’ve never figured this one out about Americans! I’m sure you’ve experienced this on your last trip to France, hopefully not from your table, but the one next to you.

Also, if they do know a bit of English, slow way down as you speak, and don’t use idiomatic expressions that don’t translate. Try to use the most basic words, in the most basic verb tense, to get your point across.

6. Smile. This seems like common sense, but it’s still necessary to remind everyone. A smile can go miles!

7. Use your knife! OK, now here’s a tradition that goes way back in French history. Have you ever watched a French person eat? They always have two hands on the table, with their fork in one hand and the knife in another. This is actually Europe-wide and not specific to the French. To them, if you can’t see your hands, then you are doing something with them that you shouldn’t be…like hiding a knife or a gun. To them, this is far ruder than putting your elbows or leaning on the table.

At dinner at my French boyfriend’s mother’s house back in 1989, he would take my hand out of my lap and put it on the table until I finally learned it. And he wasn’t the only one – I’ve been asked by countless French friends why Americans have this silly habit. It just doesn’t make sense to them, and goes so against their grain, their hundreds of years of tradition.

Emily Post and Miss Manners taught us Americans to cut our food with the knife in the right hand, then set the knife down, switch the fork to the right hand, then place the left hand in the lap. You don’t think almost everyone does this? Watch carefully the next time you go out to eat. In fact, many Americans don’t even bother with the knife, and cut with the side of their fork.

Big faux pas in France/Europe. Watch them eat. They hold their fork in their left hand and keep it there. Use the knife in the right hand and keep it there, and after cutting, use it to help push food onto the fork. Notice that they often don’t even turn the fork over, and push the food onto the back of the fork. Before long, you’ll get so good at it, you won’t want to go back to that silly way!

8. A few other dining tips.

  • croissants are only eaten at breakfast. If you’re craving something in the afternoon, have a pastry at a salon de thé.
  • it’s very American to order a “cappucino”. What you want is a café au lait (coffe with milk) or a café crème (coffee with cream).
  • yes, they do always say Bon Appétit before a meal. Notice that others around you in a restaurant might say it to you as you’re about to eat. You can do the same. It’s a very polite thing to say. In English, we don’t really say “good appetite” but it’s equivalent to “enjoy your meal”.
  • a “menu” is a prix fixe meal (fixed price), usually with 2-3 choices for each course. The ‘menu’ that you read, as we know it in the States, is la carte. Therefore, something that is ordered directly from their printed ‘menus’ is à la carte.
  • there are usually 3 or more courses in a typical menu for lunch/dinner. The entrée is the first course (what we call an appetizer. Entrée means “to enter”, so how did we mess that one up in the US?), the plat principal is the main course, followed by either cheese or dessert (or both). Finer restaurants will often have two main courses, a meat and a fish course.
  • cheese is always eaten after the main course, and never as an appetizer (though it might be in a salad, especially goat cheese). Once on a bike tour, my group was hungry and impatient after being seated at a busy restaurant. Without asking, they went and raided the cheese cart, thinking it was appetizers. Needless to say, I got the look of death from the waiter!
  • coffee is not served with the dessert. It’s considered rude to bring the coffee too early; it implies they want you to leave. Finer restaurants will give you more sweets to eat with your coffee, after their copious dessert. (Make sure to reserve the wheelbarrow to take you away after dinner).
  • the check is never automatically just brought to your table. This is considered very rude. In a French restaurant (and in most of Europe), you can sit there as long as you want. They are assuming you are going to have philosophical conversations for hours, so they would never imply that they wanted you to leave. This is ingrained in their culture and tradition. Moral of the story: if you want your check (l’addition), you have to ask for it! (see #2). “Pardon, monsieur, l’addition s’il vous plait!” And afterwards when you’re leaving, “Merci beaucoup monsieur, bon soir!”
  • tipping is usually included (up to 18%). Look for “Service Compris” at the bottom of the menu. Compris means “included”. It’s nice to leave your spare change for a small meal, or 2-5% for great service. But being a waiter or waitress is a career in France, and they don’t live off their tips like in the US and are paid a salary. They won’t say no to it, of course, but in general tipping too much is frowned upon.

 

Au Revoir and Bon Appetit!

 A few simple pronunciation tips:

  • Bonjour: bohn-zhur (the ‘n’ is nasal, not pronounced)
  • Monsueur: muh-syer
  • Madame: mah – dahm
  • Bonjour ‘sieur-dame: bohn-zhur syer-dam
  • Au Revoir: ohr vwah
  • s’il vous plait: seel voo play
  • merci: mayr-see (kinda like you pronounce ‘mayor’, and not like the English ‘mercy’)
  • Pardon: par-dohn (the ‘n’ is nasal, not pronounced)
  • beaucoup: boh – coo (that’s like the bow in ‘bow tie’. It’s not boo-coo like Americans like to say “boo-coo bucks”)
  • Bon appétit: bohn app-ay-tee

 

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Responses

  1. Thank you for writing this. I’m French-American and have spent most of my life inarticulately trying to defend my Father-Country from ignorant statements like “all French people are rude.” It’s nice to see someone clearly outline the reasons behind French ettiquette.

    It’s strange, because I’ve always found French people to be so polite when I visited family there growing up. Everyone said please, thank you, acknowledged your presence, spoke directly to your face. Anyway. Thank you.

  2. Je vous en prie, Secret! I’ve been on a longtime crusade to teach Americans some manners while traveling in France…perhaps too much so at times! It’s not so much that I think Americans are rude, they are not, but the courtesy is taken to another level in France, and it’s really a nice thing in my opinion. Also, as I said, saying something in another language (even something as simple as Merci) can make some people freeze, for whatever reason, and I’m hoping I can melt that resistance just a little. Let me know if you have any more suggestions that I might have missed! Merci beaucoup!


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