It is no secret that Parisians value formality. ‘La Politesse’ reigns supreme in the City of Light. While some foreigners may see this attention to formality as “rudeness,” the French see this as a necessary part of daily life and consider it rude to not be formal. Making a good first impression can go a long way in opening yourself up to a positive experience with the locals you may encounter in your travels through Paris. By paying attention to a few French etiquette details, you can easily integrate into the Parisian way of life, whether you are planning to be in Paris a few days ringing in the New Year or a week-long FASHIONISTA shopping adventure.
Sadly enough, most visitors will never shed their tourist aura in Paris. But what can you do to minimize any awkward gaffes? It may all just be a matter of getting used to Paris Customs. Read on and enjoy!
Meet and Greet
When meeting someone for the first time, whether in a social or a professional setting, French people greet one another with a polite ‘bonjour’ while shaking hands. As Americans we usually tend to hug… whether to say hello, goodbye, or thank you. Save yourself an awkward moment and do not get “hug happy” while in Paris! Suffice to say that the French very rarely hug, and when they do, it’s certainly not a big bear hug or a full body press. And it’s most definitely not between strangers, or acquaintances, or even most friends or extended family.
Friends and family may greet each other by lightly kissing on both cheeks. La bise for Parisians, is generally two bisous, which are more like air kisses with your cheeks touching lightly—avoid a faux pas and please don’t smack your lips onto the other person’s face. That is considered rude!
Always address as Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle if you don’t know someone, or if you have just met them. First names are reserved for family and close friends. Wait until invited before using someone’s first name. French have a sense of when the time has come. It’s best to assume you do not.
Never use the familiar ‘tu’ form of verbs until someone uses it with you or invites you to ‘tutoyer’ (address as tu). When in doubt, rely on the trusty formal ‘vous.’
Shops and Restaurants
Shopping in the U.S. is often an anonymous activity. This is not the case in Paris, or the rest of France for that matter. It is polite and expected that you will greet the restaurant or shop owner/employees when you cross the threshold.
Many years ago, proprietors lived above their establishments. So entering their shop, restaurants or café was the equivalent of entering their home – hence the need to be polite. More often than not, the owner will be the first person you will encounter as you enter a shop.
You are expected to say ‘bonjour’ in the morning/afternoon or ‘bonsoir’ in early or late evening with the honorific title of Monsieur or Madame/Mademoiselle when entering a shop. When you leave ‘merci, au revoir’ will suffice. However, I always prefer to be a bit more traditional and say ‘merci, bonne journée’ (thank you, have a great day) or ‘merci, bonne soirée’ (thank you, have a great evening).
There are many more Parisian customs not covered in this post, but this is a good start and there will be many more to come. If you do slip up and make a faux pas, it’s okay to simply apologize and correct your error. In general, you will find that if you show a willingness to be a gracious guest in their country and are open to their culture, Parisians are very gracious.