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BlogTravel tips20 French traditions & unspoken French customs to know before you go
buildings on a street opening to the eiffel tower in paris france
Travel tips

20 French traditions & unspoken French customs to know before you go

Jun 01, 2022 by Jamie Gallerani

One of the best parts of exploring a new destination is getting in step with the local culture. And, while we may not do everything the way the locals do (like—gasp!—forgoing an afternoon cappuccino in Italy), having some cultural tips on hand will make immersing yourself in daily life a breeze.

That’s especially true if you’re headed to France, where knowing some simple French customs can be the difference between committing an accidental faux pas, or casually blending in with the locals. Read on for some French traditions and unwritten rules about French culture to know before you set off on our France tours.

people buying baguette in a shop

1. Say hello when you enter a shop or restaurant

Whether you’re popping into a small Parisian boutique for a quick look around, or picking up a French baguette from the boulangerie, greeting the shopkeeper is a must—this is a non-negotiable French tradition. It’s considered very rude not to say hello, goodbye, and merci to the staff. If you skip a polite “hello,” the shopkeeper will likely treat you accordingly.

“Over my few trips to France, I have distributed the basic (but weighty) ‘bonjour’ whenever I’ve entered little shops or greeted a waitress or anyone else I’m about to interact with, and it goes a long way,” said staffer Claire. Another nice greeting to try is, “Bonjour, messieurs et mesdames!” which means, “Hello, ladies and gentlemen.”

2. Try a few French phrases

Using some simple French phrases when you interact with locals is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in French culture. It shows that you’ve made an effort, and will likely elicit a warmer response from the person you’re talking to.

“Don’t assume everyone in France—including Paris—speaks English,” said staffer Kelly, who lived in France for a year and listed this as a top France culture tip. “Greeting shopkeepers in French and making a bare minimum effort to speak French can go a long way to having a better experience with the locals. Using common phrases like “Je voudrais ça” (I would like that) while pointing to what you want, and “merci” when you receive something, can go a long way!

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woman waving on bridge in france

3. Always dress your best

Paris is noted as a fashion capital and according to French traditions, Parisians dress in a simple, sophisticated way. To blend in with the locals, put your best foot forward when you’re out and about. That means skipping the sweats, and opting for clothing that makes you feel put together.

And, while comfy workout gear might be your go-to when you travel (hello, yoga pants), a Parisian wouldn’t dream of strolling down the Champs-Élysées in leggings. “Dress business casual whenever possible,” said staffer Kelly, who spent a few lucky years living in Paris. The same goes for other areas in France, too! Check out some packing tips in our France Travel Guide →

4. When in doubt, throw on a scarf

One easy, understated way to dress up a simple outfit? Throw on a light scarf to pull your look together. “Scarves are a huge part of French fashion,” said staffer Abby, who spent a year studying in France, and learned all the France culture tricks. “The second it drops below 60 degrees, you will see everyone sporting their favorite scarf.”

person smiling in front of eiffel tower

5. Only smile when you really mean it

In Paris and the rest of France, it’s expected that one conducts themselves in a formal, polite way. While those of us in America might think a friendly smile works in all situations, that’s not the case in France. In many cases, the habit of smiling too much can seem insincere or even flirty.

So, if you’re interacting with someone directly in a shop or restaurant, a smile is more than fine. But, if you’re passing strangers on the street while walking through Paris, for example, steer clear of flashing a big grin in their direction. It’s likely that it won’t be received in the friendly way you intend it.

6. Keep your voice down while having conversations

One sure way to peg yourself as a visitor while exploring France is by talking too loudly, which is just not done in French culture—it can come off as rude. French locals air on the polite side and keep their conversations to themselves so they don’t disturb those around them. If you want to get in step with French customs, it’s best to keep your voice at a respectable level so that only the people you’re chatting with can hear you.

7. Never haggle in stores

“Don’t haggle prices at a shop like you might in places like Morocco,” said staffer Kelly, who called Paris home for a few years. “If you want a deal, go to France during its “les soldes” season, which is when shops will mark down prices to make room for new inventory. Usually, these sales take place twice a year around January–February and June–July.”

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french baguette in a bag

8. Don’t eat while walking down the street (unless you have a baguette, of course)

While you may be eager to dig in to everything from pastries to quiche to crêpes on tour in France, be sure you’re sitting down at a table when you do. Nothing will get you more side-eye than chowing down while you stroll along the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

The only time a street-side nibble is culturally acceptable? When you have a warm baguette in hand. Even locals often can’t help having a quick bite as they leave the boulangerie, and you’ll often see the top part of the baguette chewed off—we love this part of French culture! Speaking of baguettes… “You should ALWAYS buy a fresh baguette for bread,” said staffer Arlena, who studied abroad in France. “Buying any other type of bread from a grocery store is a crime.”

9. Order menu items as-is

The French take good food very seriously—you would too if you were known for some of the best cuisine in the world! So, if a restaurant lists a menu item a certain way, you can be sure that every element of the dish has been carefully vetted by the chef, and has earned its place in the flavor profile. So, even if you see an ingredient you’re not crazy about, go for it.

“Don’t ask a restaurant to customize a dish to your liking,” said staffer Kelly, who lived in Paris for a few years. “For example, if you don’t like fish, don’t order a salade niçoise and ask your waiter for no sardines and no tuna.”

server pouring wine in restaurant

10. Don’t expect ice

“Ice is never guaranteed in your water or drink,” said staffer Arlena, who studied in France. “You will always have to ask for it.” This is true for many places throughout Europe, where freezers are few and far between. If you do end up asking your server for ice, here’s one French custom to keep in mind: Don’t put any in your fine French wine! Oh là là…

11. Don’t worry about tipping servers—even if you sit for two hours!

“Tipping is not expected and is factored into the price of the meal,” said staffer Abby, who spent a year studying and living in France. While you can round up to show that you appreciated good service, you’re not obligated to leave a tip.

That’s even true if you linger over your meal—which is expected! “Don’t go to a restaurant with the American mentality of quick in and out,” suggested staffer Arlena. “Eating is a pleasure in France, so if you go to a restaurant, the waiter isn’t going to rush and you should expect to be there for two to three hours.”

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plate of food

12. Leave your leftovers behind

This one goes back to those time-honored food rules the French have in place. According to French culture and traditions, a good meal should be eaten at its best: freshly made, delivered promptly to your table, and just as the chef intended it. So, taking any leftovers in a doggy bag and eating them cold or reheated later is frowned upon.

With that said, cultural views about taking leftovers are changing a bit. As of 2016, larger restaurants are required by law to give doggy bags to patrons who ask for them, in an effort to cut down on food waste.

13. Don’t expect to see café au lait on the menu

Here’s a fun fact about French culture: If you’re heading to a French cafe and would like an espresso-based coffee with a generous amount of foamed milk, use the term “café crème” to sound like a local. Even though your server will likely know what you mean if you order a “café au lait,” that’s usually used to describe the milky coffee that locals sip during mornings at home.

And, while you’re sure to get your coffee in a cup when out and about, locals sip their café au lait from small bowls at home (which is one of the unique customs of France). What’s with the bowl, you ask? The café au lait cools more quickly, and there’s more room to dip buttery, jammy bread (la tartine) or a breakfast pastry. We can get behind any French custom that leaves more room for a morning slice of buttered baguette.

14. Put your cellphone away in restaurants

Yep, we’re back to the culinary traditions in France. The French take mealtimes seriously, and nothing can spoil the enjoyment of a perfect cassoulet like chatting on your phone while you eat.

“Don’t use your cell phone when you’re in a restaurant,” said staffer Kelly, who’s spent time living in Paris. “It’s considered impolite in America, but downright rude in France. Also, holding your phone in front of your face on speakerphone like a walkie-talkie is also considered rude whether you’re in a restaurant or outdoors.”

piece of pie on plate in a cafe with coffee

15. Save room for lunch—and dessert!

“Lunch is typically the biggest meal of the day in France,” said staffer Abby, who studied in the country for a year. “Dinner is a smaller plate, usually followed by a cheese course. The French are big on courses.”

Plus, “Dessert after dinner is a custom!” continued Abby. Yep, you read that right—the French almost always eat something sweet after dinner, which can be anything from yogurt to fresh fruit to dark chocolate.

16. Don’t order omelettes for le petit-déjeuner (which means breakfast)

If you love starting your day with eggs, not to worry—the included daily breakfast in the hotels on our France tours will likely have them as an option in most cases. But, if you want to eat according to traditions in France, save les œufs for lunch or dinner.

While only eating eggs later in the day is one of the unique customs of France, times are shifting, and there’s now a budding brunch scene in big cities like Paris. That means you may see a classic eggs benny on the brunch menu if you’re cafe hopping during free time.

17. Greet friends & family with a check-to-cheek air kiss

This is a common way for friends and family to say “hey” in France and other parts of Europe. “It is custom when meeting a friend, family member, or host family to ‘faire la bise,’ which is when you kiss each cheek of the person you’re greeting,” said staffer Abby, who studied in France. “In different parts of the country, they might kiss one check, both, or three times.”

Another thing to watch out for? This greeting doesn’t involve touching your lips to someone’s cheek. Instead, touch cheeks while making a soft smooching sound, then turn your head and do the same on the other side. You can even lightly put your hands on the other person’s shoulders while you go through the air-kiss motions.

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traveler looking at eiffel tower

18. Know when to use “madame” vs. “mademoiselle”

Here’s a helpful France culture tip to keep in mind: Traditionally, you will address married women as “madame,” and unmarried women and young ladies as “mademoiselle.” This comes in handy during polite interactions with locals, say, in a shop (“Merci, madame!”). It’s not a perfect science, but you can either look to see if the woman is wearing a wedding ring, or try to guess if she is old enough to be married.

If you need a little more context, check out this handy article about when to use “madame” and when to use “mademoiselle” from a born-and-raised Parisian. And if you want to be a bit charming, take staffer Andy’s advice in very special cases: “Calling a much older woman ‘mademoiselle’ is totally incorrect but can delight her, especially from a much younger man!” he said.

19. Arrive to dinner parties fashionably late

This is another fun fact about French culture: If you’re invited to a dinner party in someone’s home, it’s best to be at least 15 minutes late. Arriving right on time (or worse, early!) might rudely catch your host by surprise as they put the finishing touches on their outfit or meal.

One time you don’t want to be fashionably late while on tour in France? When your Tour Director asks your group to meet at a certain time! In cases like that, promptness is the name of the game.

box of chocolates

20. Don’t bring wine to a dinner party

Food is king in France, and dinner party hosts go to great lengths to carefully plan a meal paired with the perfect wine. So, gifting a bottle of your own wine might come off as rude, as if you're suggesting that the host hasn’t already picked out the ideal pairing to go with their meal.

So, what do you bring if a French person has invited you to their home for dinner? A box of high-quality chocolates is always well received! And if you must bring a bottle of something, some Champagne, Cognac, or Calvados is the way to go.

Have you picked up any other facts about French culture on a tour of France? Share them with us on our Facebook page!

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About the author | Jamie Gallerani
It was Jamie’s homestay in Germany that made her fall in love with travel (and her studies in Florence that really sealed the deal). When she’s not writing and sharing the magic of seeing the world with others, she’s usually on the lookout for her new favorite memoir, testing out recipes at home, or visiting her family on Cape Cod.

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