A No-Fret Guide to French Etiquette

Citizen crapaud

When was the last time you had a lesson on etiquette? Approximately…never, in all likelihood. It sounds like something from a Victorian-era manual for the upper echelons, when forgetting how many calling cards to leave in the event of a married lady paying a call to another married lady (the answer, if it has slipped your mind, is her own and two of her husband’s) was the height of indiscretion. The word ‘etiquette’ is nowadays a stuffy reminder of previous social hierarchies and sexism from which we attempt to distance ourselves as much as possible.

…Or is it? Have you ever given up your seat on the bus, or felt irritated at a queue-cutter? Do you find yourself saying ‘sorry’, ’please’ and ’thank you’ every day? Voilà, you are demonstrating typical British etiquette.

Yes, British etiquette. It is strange to think that this etiquette confuses people from other nations, but just imagine stepping off the plane in Britain coming from a country where there are no queues. I have had questions from international students about how to address tutors and lecturers, how to sign off an e-mail, and yes, even how far away from the automatic check-out tills at Tesco’s one stands when waiting in a queue.

Which brings us, inevitably, to France. As our closest European neighbour, France’s cultural hang-ups should, in all fairness, be pretty similar to our own. The French would probably give a (Gallic) shrug at the antiquated idea of formal politeness. Yet the simplest of interactions can be confusing to the uninitiated. Here’s a warning: upon being introduced to someone in France, it is extremely likely that they will immediately stride into your personal space and kiss you. I cannot think of any circumstances, apart from Klute-related, in which that is acceptable with a stranger in the UK. We Brits tend to prefer to get to know each other a bit before touching faces, not to mention entering what I will dub the ‘body odour zone’.

I actually find the bisous quite endearing, at least when they’re not happening to me. I work at a secondary school and there is nothing better than seeing two baseball-capped, baggy-trousered teenage boys exchange a couple of pecks on the cheek, sometimes accompanied by a fist bump. Among male friends, handshakes are equally acceptable (there is no escape for the women though – it’s kissing all the way).

More than simply exchanging your ‘hi’ for a kiss, a Brit in France has to embrace the French inclusiveness. Whether entering a room with several people sat around a table, or joining a scraggle of students waiting for their classroom door to open, a French person will generally go around every person and give each one a kiss or a handshake. This may well be the only interaction they have with that person until they say ’au revoir’, and do it all over again. The nice part of this is that everyone present is acknowledged, the downside being that entering and leaving a room can easily take half an hour each.

The fears of the initial greeting assuaged, you then plunge into French conversation. Amongst the bombardment of shrugs, pursed lips, and marked lack of enthusiasm, you will immediately encounter my pet peeve: the ‘tu’ or ‘vous’ problem.

It would be easier if it wasn’t such a ubiquitous part of speech. I sometimes try to avoid it until I can hazard a guess as to whether I should be tu-ing or vous-ing, but try having a conversation without saying ‘you’:

Enthusiastic co-worker: Hi! How are you?

Me: Fine thanks, and … I mean, the weather is … Gah!

Impossible. Since when was this so difficult? From the very beginning, students of French, as well as Spanish, Italian and a myriad of other languages, are taught this little grammar nuance in passing. To address someone, ‘tu’ is informal, ‘vous’ formal. As a student, it was obvious, and even if you messed up, your classmates in French oral class were very unlikely to be offended. However, stepping into the professional world in France is a minefield. I’m a student and an assistant, a young adult hovering between the teens and the teachers. So how should I address my colleagues? What about friends of the family I’m staying with? Strangers who I think are approximately my own age? It’s not simply the difference between calling someone by their last name or their first. There’s a degree of both formality and respect in using the ‘vous’, and a chumminess and comfort in using the ‘tu’…but they can both be misunderstood if used inappropriately. Calling someone ‘vous’ might sound like you think they’re old or you want to maintain a distance between the two of you, and a misplaced ‘tu’ can seem insulting.

The worst part of this grammatical nightmare is that even French people can’t explain it. I was told to start with ‘vous’ if unsure and progress to the ‘tu’ when told, yet when I tried this with a fellow teacher, he looked at me, startled, and said ‘You scared me! You should call me “tu”!’ I was told that the golden rule was never to switch between the two, yet one French woman told me she calls her parents-in-law ‘vous’ or ‘tu’ in different situations. So in fact there is no understanding involved, you just have to be French, basically.

To make things even more complicated, the rules change in different countries: in Quebec, almost everyone says ‘tu’, even to people they don’t know. What’s strange is that I really hope that, one day, I’ll understand the French etiquette enough to be as shocked by this as my Victorian ancestors would have been by the word ‘leg’ being said in the presence of ladies.

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