Do you know your ‘p’s from your ‘q’s ?
A guide to French etiquette

Louis XIV

The word etiquette (translated in English as ‘label’) originated during the reign of King Louis XIV when his gardener at Versailles put up signs (étiquets) politely asking the King’s noble guests not to walk on the grass or the flower beds. Later, the name étiquette was given to a ticket for court functions that included rules regarding where to stand and what to do.

Over time the word has evolved and today is seen as a guide to good manners in all the things we do in our daily lives.

The French have some very formal rules about manners and etiquette, so here is a brief summary of the main ones to help ease you into French culture.

To ‘vouvoyer’ or to ‘tutoyer’ ?

When meeting people for the first time, and even the first few times after that, it is expected to shake hands and to use the formal address of 'vous'. In English there is only the formal 'you', effectively everybody is vous as 'you is' is never used, it is always 'you are'. But in France the more informal 'tu' is only used among friends and family. If in doubt, always vouvoyer, wait to be invited to tutoyer someone or if you feel you are both skirting around, ask them if they would mind if you tutoyer'd them. As a rule of thumb, if someone is older than you, you should vouvoyer but if someone is younger you can tutoyer them (but they must vouvoyer you unless you invite them to tutoyer you). Got it so far ?

kissing map

Kissing – and how many ?

The bises (a light kiss on the cheek) is reserved for close work colleagues, friends, and family members. As to how many, it all rather depends on the location. The following map should help you. The majority of France do two, one on each cheek, but in Hérault the average is three (unless you are in Béziers where it is two). Just remember to always start on the right cheek and take your lead from your French biser to avoid hanging in mid air, lips pursed after they have turned away. One Frenchman was heard to explain that the number of bises he gave depended on how pretty the woman was.

Names and Titles

First names are used only for close friends and family so use their last name and appropriate title (Monsieur, Madame or Mademoiselle) and wait to be invited to use their first name. Madame is generally used for all adult women, married or single, over 18 years of age. When addressing a stranger, always add Monsieur or Madame, as in ‘Excusez-moi, madame’ if asking directions. When you enter a shop, or post office etc, always say ‘bonjour’ and if there are several people address everyone by saying ‘Messieurs Dames’. If you greet one person in a group or at a table, you must then greet everyone else. When writing any formal letter, even to a utility company, it is usual to end it with a longer version of “Yours sincerely”, most commonly: Veuillez accepter, Madame (or Monsieur), mes salutations distinguées.

Socialising, wining and dining


If invited to dine in a French home you should arrive with a gift such as flowers, chocolates or a bottle of wine or champagne. Always keep your hands on the table during a meal but keep your elbows off. Wait to be seated and don’t offend your hostess by offering to help. Never start eating until your host and hostess have begun. Wait until toast has been proposed before you drink wine. Never cut bread but break it with your fingers(there are usually no side plates so put bread on the table next to your dinner plate above your fork). The French consider leaving food on your plate as impolite.

There is no need to dress up when going to a restaurant; smart casual is the order of the day. The French don’t leave tips and if they do, it is only a euro or two. If you have invited someone to a restaurant you should leave the table to pay the bill and not do so in front of your guest.

Safe conversation topics include the weather, an individual’s health (but don’t get too personal), pets, gardening, children and holidays. Never discuss earnings or wealth and venture warily into the realms of religion and politics.

Basically, just be polite and friendly and you will be forgiven any faux pas.