Face it, no one wants to unknowingly embarrass themselves by being the ugly American. Here’s our short list of etiquette tips that function well throughout France and actually translate fairly well to your microcosm back home. Thanks to Renee from Travel Geeks, who also contributed a conversation that influenced this list, and to Imei for editing and compiling it:
- A profuse use of “please” and “thank you” goes a long way. You will hear people constantly saying “merci beaucoup” or just “merci” even more than you hear “you’re welcome.”
- In general, adults don’t wear shorts (males) except for exercise, and women don’t wear short skirts and shorts without stockings or tights (except to a nightclub, where you’ll see shorter skirts on women without hosiery). There is a sense of propriety and class, even if the placards and magazine stands near Metro entrances suggest otherwise. My tip: if you travel for business, bring a sport coat, slacks, and a pair of non-sneaker shoes.
- I don’t care how many times you might have seen this in a movie, but it is rude to snap your fingers to get the attention of a waiter. In my six trips to France, staying two to three weeks at a time, I have only seen the head waiter clap his hands for his team to quickly clear a table and set up for the next course in a 10-course meal. Instead, catch his attention with your eyes or a hand in the air. [General rule of thumb: if snapping your fingers gets your partner livid, just imagine what it does to your server.]
- The Metro posts signs that explain who has priority for seating. Unfortunately, it is all in French. Here it is: women with children, pregnant women, people 75 and older, and those with disabilities. During heavy commuter hours, be aware of those who needs priority seating, even if your feet are begging for a rest.
- Stuffed like a sardine into the train? Make your way toward a door one stop before your exit station, and then kindly say, “Pardon.” People understand and will do their best to make way for you to exit quickly. If you are nearest to the door, open the latch or push the green button to open the door, and get off the train so that people can exit. As soon as people have exited, hop back onto the train and move as far back as you can.
- France isn’t the land of Provence’s best parfumeries for no reason. People like to smell good here, and my guess is that they appreciate that you smell good, too. My favorite: Chanel’s CoCo for night, and Mademoiselle for day. For men: Hermes’ Bel Ami. Men: if you don’t think this matters, just know that I once met someone simply by being able to identify the scent he was wearing. Women have a refined and sensitive sense of smell. Use this in your favor.
- Having traveled around the world, I find that Parisiens do not need nearly as much personal space as Americans. Space is a precious commodity, and they are used to having less of it. A hand at the back, guiding you gently; a greeting of a kiss on both cheeks among closer associates, and other touchy-feely actions fit with this picture. Men: you are the man. Be a gentleman, offer your hand to a woman getting in and out of taxis and cars, settle her into her seat, help her in and out of her coat. You serve the woman nearest to you at the table, and you pour the wine. Her glass is never empty. Women: you are the cat’s meow. Men will wait on you, pour the wine, and often serve the food at the table. If you are feminist and find this offensive, swallow your offense, sit back, relax, and see tip #1.
- Parisiens receive many hours of English instruction from a young age. That does not mean they are fluent. Americans also study a foreign language in order to attend college; that doesn’t mean that in a pickle, you can use your French language studies to figure out why someone is yelling at you (besides the fact that street-French is filled with slang and spoken hellafast with missing words or words that are slammed together like a verbal train wreck). I recommend picking up the “French in 10 Minutes a Day” laminated card with typical phrases, numbers, questions, and descriptions of things you will hear and you will need to say, even if all you can say is “Je ne pas parle le Francaise.” There are translator programs for the iPhone, mini-translator products, and a free version of Rosetta Stone available through most public libraries that you can use to practice a few phrases. Your attempts to speak French go a long way toward connection, making friends, and getting around as a savvy (and welcome) tourist.
- About food: the buffet is usually reserved for large venues and hotels. What you will notice is how little the locals eat: little or no breakfast, a moderate lunch, and a smaller dinner. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Parisien pile his/her plate high, but s/he does not need to. When the food is made with real butter, olive oil, whole food ingredients, no GMOs, and grass fed animals, the amount of food it takes for your appetite to be satisfied is much less than the typical buffet in America. Rule of thumb: take a smaller plate, and fill it 2/3 full. Leave room for a nibble of cheese at the end of the meal. [Incidentally, Paris is following world trends for obesity, instituting new campaigns and education to reduce the incidence of obesity in children and young adults].
- Most Parisien apartments and hotels are constructed of concrete, yet the walls sound like they are paper-thin. Keep your voices down, turn down TVs and electronic devices, and recognize that hair dryers and shavers project sound laterally (your neighbor on the same floor). [Of course, for everything else in the intimate department, just consider it free entertainment.]
Do you have any other etiquette tips to add to this list?