While living for several months in the Provencal region of France, here are just a few interesting differences between French culture and American culture that I noticed…
1. Hands above the table.
For me, this was an odd one. When learning this rule, I was told that the French feel like putting your hands under the table means that you’re hiding something. To some extent, this is kind of where the habit came from. During King Louis XIV’s reign, he mandated that all wrists be kept on the table at meals after he heard a rumor that someone was going to poison him.
2. Fork in left hand, knife in right
For the first few weeks in France, I was the slowest eater because of this rule. Luckily, a proper French meal often takes several hours, so being slow wasn’t a problem unless I was with my American friends.
Bonus tip: Eat everything with your fork and knife, including pizza. As an American, this may hurt your soul a bit, but it’s just what the French do.
3. Cutting your lettuce
I never knew that cutting or not cutting the lettuce in your salad mattered. Maybe this says something about my millennial generation, but honestly, I like to think that I had pretty good manners even before France. I will never forget my first dinner there when I was scolded by a French woman for cutting my salad. She said “On doit plier” (You have to fold it). Needless to say, I am the politest eater out of any of my friends now.
Not always necessary! French waiters make a livable wage, so they are only tipped when they do a really excellent job. Even so, this tip is usually between one to five euros.
5. Smiling or making eye contact
This was quite a hard thing to learn for me. I have heard stories about American women accidentally getting picked up in French bars because they mindlessly smiled at a stranger, but it’s very hard not to do in practice. We smile all the time, especially in the South. For the first few weeks in France, I had to consciously think about not looking at people on the metro. However, looking at your phone isn’t much better. It is common for thieves to steal phones on the metro right before they get off, so be wary.
6. Americans do talk louder…
I only noticed this when I was on a metro with American friends or heard them speaking on the phone. As long as you aren’t being obnoxious, it isn’t the biggest problem, but it’s something to be aware of. In general, the French (and Europeans in general) speak more softly because they stand closer together when they walk. It’s almost more about the cultural concept of personal space than actual personalities.
7. The importance of “Bonjour”
To avoid appearing like a ‘rude American’, say “Bonjour” when you walk into a store. In France, it is customary to say “Bonjour” before doing business with anyone. Many Americans make the fatal mistake of asking for directions from a stranger or for a newspaper from a local newspaper stand without a greeting. If you’ve ever wondered why a French person may be unwilling to help you out, this may be your answer!
8. Bus manners
Everyone says “thank you” every time they get off the bus. Short and sweet.
9. Les bises, or kissing on the cheeks, are an art form in France.
If you are with French people who you know well enough to give “bisous” with, wait for cues the first time. How many bises are given and which side they start on is entirely regional. When in doubt though, two (one on each cheek) is the most common. In the same vein, don’t try to hug your French friend to avoid bises. I only made this mistake once because the reaction I got was very awkward and uncomfortable. While hugs are perfectly acceptable in America, they are considered very intimate in France because they require much more body contact the a few kisses on the cheek.
And now hopefully you’ll feel a little bit more comfortable the next time you visit France! Thanks for reading!