10 ways to offend the French and how to avoid it

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – offend the French - French Style

The French are friendly people, however cultural differences can cause confusion when interacting with them. It’s a situation we have all found ourselves in: we say something well-meaning or make a gesture we consider polite, but it’s misunderstood by the locals who end up feeling insulted.

When I moved to France 12 years ago I was horrified by the fact that I was expected to kiss every person I met, and confused by the strange expectations and rules. If you’re going to France in the near future, it doesn’t have to be this way for you. Here are ten ways you could unknowingly offend the French, and tips on how to avoid it!

1. Not saying hello when you enter a shop

In other countries greeting a store manager could be seen as interrupting their work. However, not doing so in France gives the impression that you feel the store person is not worth greeting – a sure fire way to offend the French store person. If you are thought to be ignoring the person whose property you have just entered, you’ll quickly be labelled as arrogant – just the way to offend the French!

2. Refusing food or drink in someone’s home

The French are big on hospitality and always welcome guests with refreshments. This is just the ‘done thing’, and refusing food and drink is considered a direct snub of their welcome and will almost always offend the French.

3. Offend the French by making no effort to speak their language

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – offend the French - not speaking French - French dictionary

The French love it when foreigners attempt to speak the language. Not doing so is seen as rude and uncultured, especially when you shout loudly in your own language in an attempt to be understood. Using only a few simple French words will show you are making an effort, and the French will be eager to help you improve.

4. Asking how much someone earns

The French are very private people and asking this question of a person who is not a close friend is seen as an intrusion of their privacy. Being nosy is a sure-fire way to offend the French and to be considered untrustworthy.

5. Not making the kissing sound when you do the bise

This is one of my pet hates and something the French themselves are sometimes guilty of. It gives the impression that having to greet the person to whom you are doing the bise bores you – and I for one would rather not kiss such a person at all!

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – offend the French - bise - kiss

6. Not returning invitations

If you are invited to eat in the home of a French person, it is considered insulting if you do not invite them back in the following months. Of course, there is no need for the invitation to be returned immediately, but if you are invited more than once and have not yet hosted a meal in your own home, you may find yourself left out of the next round of invitations.

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – offend the French - invitations

7. Addressing a person you don’t know well with ‘tu’

Formality is important to the French and using ‘vous’ is a mark of respect. For somebody who is new to the French way of life, knowing when to use each form of address can be daunting. A person you speak to regularly and in a personal manner can be addressed with ‘tu’, but acquaintances and elders must always be addressed with ‘vous’. Don’t worry though: the French are quick to encourage people to address them as friends, and if you feel you’ve overstepped the mark by being too informal, a simple apology will smooth things out.

8. Saying cheers and clinking glasses without making eye contact

This too, is considered a snub and even bad luck! You should look each person directly in the eye when you clink glasses with them; looking elsewhere will contradict the well-wishing toast of ‘santé’ and offend the French.

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – offend the French - cheers

9. Arriving too late or too early

While the French appreciate punctuality, there are some unwritten etiquette rules to follow. It is considered polite to arrive 10 to 15 minutes late to a meal so as to allow the hosts time to finish preparing, but no later. If you are going to arrive later than this, then make sure you telephone to warn your hosts. Do not arrive earlier than the stated time – your hosts will be mid-preparation and this will put pressure on them to entertain you. For medical appointments, it is ideal to arrive five minutes early.

10. Complaining when someone ‘disciplines’ your child

The French value good behaviour in children, and won’t hesitate to give your child a sharp remark if they are out of line. This isn’t intended to belittle your parenting skills, rather it is considered to be a helping hand. The French really do abide by the motto ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. Likewise, you may gently reprimand a French child, but any physical discipline is a definite non! You do not want to come face to face with an angry French mother – or any mother, for that matter.

While this list of ways to offend the French may make them appear easily insulted, French etiquette is really a simple matter. It’s not actually that easy to offend the French, so long as you are courteous, hospitable and enthusiastic, you’ll be embraced as a local in no time!

Have you ever had a misunderstanding causing you to offend the French? Do you have any tips to add to this list? Let us know in the comments below!

Image credits:
1. French Style by martin, via Flickr.
2. Dictionaries by Tim Green, via Flickr.
3. Faire la bise by Simon Blackley, via Flickr.
4. envelopes by Lisa Murray, via Flickr.
5. Toast by Hakee Chang, via Flickr.

About the Contributor

Stephanie Williamson

As a student of French, Italian & European Studies at the University of Bath, UK and former Editorial Intern at MyFrenchLife.org. I have a strong attachment to & interest in the French way of life and culture. A literature lover, feminist, writer, self-directed learner and blogger at Typewritered and TwitterInstagram & Google+.

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  1. Jo Pernot Dec 8, 2016 at 1:32 PM - Reply

    When I was a young child, perhaps 10, my aunt in France sent me down to the store below her apartment to get a loaf of bread. Being an American, I grabbed a baguette off the shelf–wow, was I in trouble! The shopkeeper started yelling at me and I just stood there, terrified, not understanding what she was saying. My aunt came down to check on me, smoothing everything out with the shopkeeper. Whew! Recently, on a trip to France with my French mom, we were in a small grocery store and my mom picked up a piece of fruit to smell it–the owner got mad at her. Living in the USA since 1945, my mom has become Americanized in some aspects and has forgotten a few of the customs in France.

    • Judy MacMahon Dec 9, 2016 at 9:23 AM - Reply

      Bonjour Jo

      What a delightful story! Thanks for sharing.
      I imagine that you were terrified being yelled at in a foreign language, especially at that age.
      How often do you get to France now?

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