French faux pas: the worst of the worst

MyFrenchLife™ - French faux pas - ParisWe’re fairly confident that by now we can conduct ourselves in France without embarrassing ourselves – at least too much.

We know not to forget our table manners, and that insulting France isn’t going to win us any French friends (obviously), but it is inevitable that we will occasionally, inadvertently, make a faux pas.

And if not ourselves, we’ve all seen someone else do it! Here are the worst of the worst…

Going in for a hug instead of a bisous

As Anglophones, it is natural for us to hug, but for the French, there is nothing worse. As Oui in France explains, the French consider the hug to be incredibly intimate, and almost exclusively reserved for a lover.

Attempting to hug a French friend will only give rise to panicked looks, and uneasy shuffling away, so it is best to stick with a quick bisous.

Mixing up tu and vous

It is one of the most difficult parts of learning French, and if you get it wrong, you can cause offence, confusion and even total horror. Choosing whether to call someone tu or vous is tricky, and choosing incorrectly is a huge French faux pas.

If in doubt, go with vous. Being too polite won’t be nearly as embarrassing as mortally offending someone.

Don’t be too friendly…

This can be difficult when you’re trying to make French friends, but it is considered odd in France to be overly friendly with someone you don’t really know.

MyFrenchLife™ - French faux pas - talking to strangers

Another one on Oui in Paris’ list of French faux pas, she explains that asking a pharmacist about his summer vacation isn’t really normal.

This extends to first names – unless you know someone very well, you should always address them as Monsieur or Madame, and leave first names out of it.

… And don’t be too rude

Although French strangers don’t want you asking about their recent colonoscopy, they aren’t completely standoffish, and being too rude is almost as terrible as being too friendly.

Make sure you greet everyone with a bonjour or bonsoir, and also offer a bonne journée at the end of any interactions. It will likely go a long way.

Foodie French faux pas – don’t ask for more!

MyFrenchLife™ - French faux pas - fromageIn Anglophone countries, it would be seen as a compliment to the chef should you ask for seconds. In France, it is exactly the opposite.

As The Local explains, asking for more food, which implies that you weren’t given enough, is very insulting to whoever prepared your meal.

Besides, if you’re lucky enough to be dining in France, you should save room for cheese anyway!

Never split the bill!

Again, while this is completely normal in Anglophone countries, splitting the bill in France is a big non. As The Huffington Post explains, this would be considered very unsophisticated.

Either you pay it all, or graciously let your French companion foot the entire cost. And remember to request the bill: it is considered impolite in France for a waiter to bring it over before the customer asks for it.

Don’t bring wine to a dinner party

We might consider it polite to offer a gift of wine to the host of a dinner party – it is practically unthinkable to arrive empty-handed – but in France, this would be considered rude.

Bringing wine implies that your host doesn’t already know what wine to buy, so do not bring wine unless you know the host very well. Even in this case the wine would be left unopened and saved for a later date. If invited to dinner, bring chocolates or flowers instead, but…

Floral faux pas

Taking flowers to a friend may feel like an innocuous act, but in France, you have to be very careful – it is all too easy to commit a very French faux pas.

MyFrenchLife™ - French faux pas - chrysanthumums

Taking chrysanthemums would not be well-received – these are associated with death in France, and are usually reserved for the graveyard. Many French people also think that carnations are bad luck.

Try not to be too squeamish

Asking for a well-done steak in France will immediately mark you out as a foreigner, and it is likely to arrive bloody anyway. Yes, being squeamish or fussy in a French restaurant is a major faux pas, and is likely to annoy the proud waiters.

Food is hugely important for the French, and they take any criticism fairly personally.

Have you committed any embarrassing French faux pas? Let us know about them in the comment box below!

Image credits:
1. Paris, by Bastiaan_65, via Flickr. 
2. Belleville, Paris, by Henrik Berger Jørgensen, via Flickr. 
3. Blue D’Auvergne, by Renée Suen, via Flickr.
4. White chysanthemums, by Violet Monde, via Flickr. 

About the Contributor

Daisy Naylor

A languages student lucky enough to be living in Paris, I love everything French -literature, film and photography in particular, as well as croissants.

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  1. Julia Greenhalf Jan 7, 2015 at 4:56 PM - Reply

    Love this list, Daisy! Quelle horreur when you’ve slipped up a tu into the conversation when it really should’ve been vous! Yep I’ve died a little inside – but they get it, you’re a foreigner…even if you are trying your best to blend in! I didn’t know about the splitting bills faux pas and asking for a second helping, very interesting, will have to keep them in mind for the next visit!

  2. Renaud MARY Jan 10, 2015 at 6:39 AM - Reply

    Hi Daisy, I am French and I live in england since 1 year. I like to read articles on this website to see what people think about us. This one picked my interest, and I couldn’t resist to give my opinion about the “French faux pas”:

    Going in for a hug instead of a bisous
    Totally agree, and I remember during a trip to California when I tried to make a kiss on the cheek of a man who came to hug me, very awkward !

    Mixing up “tu” and “vous”
    I don’t think it is so important, if people know you are a foreigner. We are aware that “Tu” et “Vous” doesn’t exist in English, and that it shall be difficult to understand, so don’t worry too much.

    Don’t be too friendly…
    I would say don’t be too familiar instead of friendly. Obviously, don’t tell the story of your life to every people you meet.

    … And don’t be too rude
    That can be true everywhere I suppose.

    Never split the bill!
    I partly disagree with that, as you can split the bill when you are with a friend, especially if both of you are not rich.

    Don’t bring wine to a dinner party
    Again, I disagree. I often bring a bottle of wine to a dinner party, or champagne for a special event. Generally, I ask before what the host want me to bring, that could be the desert, but the answer is more likely to be “wine”. If the host had already choosen the wine that suit the meal, the wine can be kept for a later opportunity.

    Floral faux pas
    You should also be careful with the roses ! Red for love, white for wedding, yellow for friendship, etc. But don’t worry, most people don’t care about that.

    Try not to be too squeamish
    This may be true in a very good restaurant with a chef, but I like my meat well-done, and I don’t mind what people think about me. When you go in a restaurant, you pay for the food you like, and you must be satisfied at the end. Don’t hesitate to ask the waiter to take back the meat and to cock it again if you are not happy with your steak, in a very polite way of course.

  3. Ellen Burns Jan 19, 2015 at 4:08 PM - Reply

    Very interesting article! I’m interested also in how many of these I experience in Australia as well.
    I am a very huggy person and find myself in awkard hug/bisous hybrids all the time. I think I’m bad at bisous because I am generally talking constantly when I meet up with someone and talk my way through the kiss!! haha

  4. Christina Guzman Jan 27, 2015 at 1:27 PM - Reply

    I must admit I had no idea about the hug!!! I recently went to Paris and met up with a friend who i hugged as soon as I saw – luckily she didn’t say anything! Maybe they’re more lenient and understanding if they know you’re a foreigner. At least I’ll know for next time!

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