France is one of those evergreen travel destinations that most people have on their bucket lists even before they hit puberty. We get it – after all, this is the country that inspired a thousand artists, painters and musicians, and the French are just so cool with their effortless style and slightly haughty vibe in general. Also, you cannot claimed to have lived if you haven’t strolled down the Champs-Elysées at dusk or bitten into the crust of a fresh baguette baked by a local boulanger. However, the French are notoriously set in their ways and wary of tourists, which kind of adds to the charm of an excursion to France. To smooth the way for a French adventure without any unfortunate touristy faux pas, we thought we’d share a few hard-won tips on French peculiarities. Here goes!
Manners are paramount
First things first, it is important to realise that the French are not rude or aloof, they are simply quite formal and reserved in their interactions with people they don’t know. This is the French way. The country is so serious about good manners that they award La Médaille de La Famille Française to families who raise their children with dignity. No kidding!
As we all know, it is customary to follow the lead of the locals when you visit a foreign country, so here are a few courtesies you can extend to ensure a happy travel experience:
Which brings us to the next order of business, you’re will to need to learn a bit of French (sorry!).
You might need to know a bit of French
We know it’s a bit of a pain to wrap your head around a foreign language when you’re knee-deep in travel arrangements, but see it as an opportunity to build out your linguistic skill set. Most nationalities will warm to you immediately if you speak to them in their own language, but the French in particular are quite averse to conversing in English if you don’t at least try to speak basic French. This stems from the fact that French used to be the world’s common language, which is where the term ‘lingua franca’ (‘a common language between speakers whose native languages are different’) comes from.
At the very least you’ll want to know the basic greetings (hello, goodbye) and courtesies (please, thank you, excuse me), but investing in a good phrase book is also a good idea. In fact, knowing a bit of French can actually keep you from spending a fortune in restaurants. French waiters are expected to serve an incredible amount of tables, so they seldom have time to explain the menu, and the general rule of thumbs is that you are expected to pay for your meal even if it wasn’t what you thought you ordered.
Top Tip! If you’re stuck on what order because you can’t make head or tail of the menu, go for ‘Prix Fixe’ (fixed price) meal, which normally changes daily and is displayed on a blackboard.
It’s one of those destinations in Europe where the way you dress matters
So, we all know that the French are super elegant – this is the country of Marie Antoinette and Coco Chanel, after all. While we’re not saying you need to traipse about draped in Dior, but the French are seldom seen on the street dressed in anything less than ‘business casual’, so if you wish to blend in it is best to follow suit. A neat pair of slacks, loafers and a button-down shirt with a cardigan draped over the shoulders works for both men and women and is pretty easy to pull off. This mode of dress also serves to safeguard you against the notorious French pickpockets and conmen, who are always on the lookout for people who look like tourists.
Next, let’s talk beachwear. The French are quite liberal in the way they dress at the beach – many of the men wear tight-fitting speedos and most women wear bikinis, with quite a few going topless on occasion. Young children often run around completely nude, and this is not seen as strange. You are free to dress and cover up in any way you like at the beach, but be careful not to stare at anyone who does differently. Also, as soon as you leave the beachfront (even it if is just to buy an ice cream or have a drink on a terrace across the road) it is accepted that you’ll cover up in at least shorts and a T-shirt. Ladies who tan topless will also frequently cover up when they head down to the water or walk along the beach.
Top Tip! When you’re out shopping, remember to ask before you touch or take down items to try on in a store. It is considered common courtesy.
Kissing is the norm, but sometimes not
As we well know from all the French movies we love to watch, the French greet with a double-sided cheek-kissing manoeuvre. The official term is ‘la bise’ and the proper way to execute ‘la bise’ is to touch the other person lightly on the upper arm (don’t clutch) and touch your cheek to theirs while making a kissing noise – i.e. no lip contact. You might encounter someone who forgoes skin contact altogether or some who may throw in a third and fourth kiss to either side, but the two-kiss encounter is most common. It is also important to note that the French don’t really do hugs. In fact, they don’t even have a word for it, so rather steer clear of hugging if you’re unsure about a person’s greeting preference.
Fun fact: Kissing is not allowed on train platforms! A 1910 law prohibits couples from kissing to avoid late departures. So time your kissing accordingly.
The French can be dismissive of culinary minorities
The French revel in their love of food. In fact, dining and culinary excursions are somewhat of a national pastime. As such, you may find that you’re up to a bit of a challenge if you follow a restrictive diet of any sort. Gluten-intolerant travellers and proponents of the Paleo/Keto diet often run into quite a few blank stares when they ask for carb-free options and vegetarians will find that they’re offered fish when they request meat-free meals. Try not to see this as an insult – exclusive diets are simply not that widespread in France, so you’ll just have to order something off-menu. There are trendy, forward-thinking eateries in the bigger cities that offer gluten-free and vegetarian meals, but you certainly won’t find it in smaller villages. If you’re pressed for time and not in the mood to haggle with a busy French waiter, it’s perhaps best to head for a supermarket and put together a nice meal you can enjoy at your hotel or accommodation.
It’s quite a lot to take in, we know! But one of the most exciting things about travelling to a foreign country is that you have the opportunity to immerse yourself in a culture that differs from your own.
Travel with us to France on board the 12-day Highlights of France tour and see all the best and the rest of France.