When I mention visiting France, especially Paris, I often receive smirks and comments about French manners–or lack of such. To comments about the French as rude, off-putting and aloof, I respond, “Have you ever visited France?” My experience is always positive. They are warm, kind and open. Therefore, I decided to clear up all these misunderstandings about the French and their manners.
Bonjour means so much more than hello.
After interviewing more French than I can count, I’ve found that they all agree on one point; proper greetings is most important with respect to manners. Simply, proper greetings are the most basic of manners for them. To visit a store without saying, “Bonjour Madame (or Monsieur)” to the shopkeeper is viewed as very poor manners.
Many times, even botching most every French word we attempt to utter, most French will accept us if we approach them with an earnest greeting. Don’t all of us want to be treated nicely? Sure we do. The bottom line, greeting people nicely is treating people nicely.
The French take up less space.
One of the first and most important social skills I teach as an etiquette teacher is that all of our behaviors affects others. To instill this message, I ask clients to envision a calm lake with only the sounds of birds chirping in the background. They are to imagine throwing a little skipper rock across the lake. The result? The water ripples ever so slightly. Then they are to imagine what happens when some joker throws a large rock into the lake. They know instinctively the results are a huge splash with water displaced. The objective? We should emulate the little skipper rock and avoid affecting others in a negative fashion.
From my observations, the French already know this. They speak in whispers in public while others speak loudly. They appear to be aware of how their actions affect others. For example, when visiting the Arc de Triomphe, a woman left her bag on the ground for a moment. A police officer appeared embarrassed when inquiring about the unattended bag. He smiled, explaining that he had to ask due to terrorism threats. It was clear to me that he didn’t want any of us to feel awkward.
Table manners matter.
The French use the Continental method when dining. Fork and knife is held the same as when using the American method, but the fork is not transferred to the dominant hand when finished cutting food. Additionally, the tines of the fork remain pointing down toward the plate. It’s quite utilitarian.
One part of French table manners that is most noticed — so please take note — is our hands and arm placement at the table. When using the American method, we cut our food, transfer the fork to our dominant hand and then place our inactive hand in our laps. For the Continental method, it is considered rude to place hands in the lap. Our hands should always be visible–on the table.
There are many other table manners rules, but these two should get you moving in the most well mannered direction.
Counting, one, two, three…
An interesting side note. Typically, we in the US begin counting with our index finger as number one. The French do not. They begin with their thumb. I noticed this in Italy as well. I’m guessing here, since I can’t confirm it. Nevertheless, I would guess this is because of the distaste of pointing at someone, which is considered impolite.
More by Rebecca
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Vacation Etiquette: Foreign Travel Tips