Feeling French: 6 Differences in Everyday Etiquette

Abigail Nowell is a student at the University of Arkansas. She is an ISA Featured Blogger and is currently studying abroad with ISA in Lille, France

In only three weeks in France, I’ve learned so many things about the French culture, especially about what is and what’s not correct. Here are 6 differences I’ve noticed between the United States and France.

1. Hello and Good-Bye.

The French say hello and goodbye all the time, even to strangers. My friends and I found it odd how a stranger on the elevator would say, “Bonjour!” even though we had never seen them before. To the French, this is the equivalent of Americans smiling to strangers; however, smiling at strangers in France is considered more of a romantic gesture. Also, restaurant employees and shopkeepers find it incredibly rude if you don’t say hello when you enter their establishment. Once you purchase something at a shop, you can expect many farewells, such as, “Merci! Au revoir! Bonne journée!” (Thank you! Goodbye! Have a good day!)

2. Checks at restaurants.

Restaurant etiquette is not made very clear at first, so it might take you a few meals to figure it out. You have to ask the waiter to bring you the check, or he will think you are still enjoying your meal or your company. French meals are very serious endeavors, and are equally as much a social event as a time for eating. Also, the check will never be split—sometimes you can pay for your individual meal with a card, but the majority of the time everyone has to pitch in with cash.

3. Air Conditioning.

That is, the lack of air conditioning in France. This was the biggest adjustment for me to get used to. Typically, the north of France is very cool, but the first week upon arrival was unusually warm. Most of the French establishments don’t have air conditioning, so you can either choose to sweat it out or buy a small fan like I did.

Apartment—Here is a glimpse of my apartment, including my personal fan that served as my “best friend” for the summer!

4. Water at meals.

Be prepared to order a pitcher of water for the table! The proper term is “un carafe d’eau”, which is simply tap water. Otherwise, servers will charge you for a large bottle of flat or sparkling water.

5. Mayonnaise.

The French put mayonnaise on everything! So, keep this in mind when ordering any type of sandwich. Since I don’t like mayonnaise, this was kind of unfortunate for me as most lunch options are pre-made (with mayo). Mayo is also a popular condiment for dipping with French fries!

Cafeteria-Pictured here is a typical lunch from our school cafeteria—a ham sandwich (with mayo), a side, and French fries-with ketchup for me!

6. Counting.

The French can be a little deceptive when it comes to numbers. Many times, I saw card games include “0” as an option, and building levels begin with a “0” floor. For example, one of my classes was on the 4th floor, but I actually had to take five flights of stairs! So, be sure to look for an elevator (if there is one!).

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