After over 6 years of living overseas and extensive travelling, I've learnt about many cultures, including my own! Things that we take as granted in our home country can seem very different or surprising to visitors from other countries.
Table manners are very important to French people and can be tricky for overseas visitors. If you are planning on visiting France any time soon, here a few tips that you may find helpful!
Before the event
1. Extra guests & pets - Ask first: You are not allowed to bring any friends (nor pets) without asking your host first.
Tip: If your French host agrees for you to bring a friend, DO bring a friend. Your French host would be annoyed if you change your mind repeatedly, especially if extra food has already been catered for.
2. No BYO: In France the concept of BYO doesn't exist (at home, nor in restaurants). For example, unlike in Australia, in France you would NEVER be expected to bring your own meat to a BBQ party. It would actually be considered RUDE to bring food for yourself only and not to share it with the other guests (it would be even more rude for the host to ask you to bring your own steak!). Usually if you are "invited", it means the host is prepared to cater for everything. If not, they would politely ask you if it is possible for each guest to bring a dish, a bottle of wine or something for dessert.
Tip: You are expected to offer before they ask! See #3).
3. Offer to bring something: When you RSVP to a dinner party in France, you should always ask your French host what they would like you to bring on the day. They would usually either decline your offer or ask for some wine, sparkling or dessert.The host usually shares with all of the guests what they receive on the day (ie: wine, dessert, chocolate, cheese etc.) It would be considered rude for the host to keep it for themselves (unless the giver specifically request so and specifically mentioned it is a gift).
Tip: If the host tells you not to bring anything, still bring something! (a bottle of wine or maybe some flowers).
4. Arrival time: If invited to a dinner party or lunch at somebody's house in France, you are expected to arrive 15 minutes LATER than the announced time. The French host would hate you to arrive while they are still preparing/setting the table or cooking.
5. Assistance: Don't forget to OFFER assistance to your French host (before, during and after the party). Ask her/him before hand if they require you to arrive a little earlier to help with the preparation. In 99% of the cases the answer is going to be NO. But your host would be pleased that you've asked.
6. Timing: In France, if someone organise a "lunch", it would usually start at around 12:30 pm, (never in the middle of the afternoon like it happens sometimes in Australia! Lunch shouldn't start after 1:30pm!). Dinner can be anytime from 6:30 to 7 pm (starting with aperitif /pre-drinks (see #7). Dinner would normally not start after 8:30 pm unless a special occasion like a wedding.
At the event
7. Aperitif: A firmly established tradition – If you are invited for lunch or dinner, expect to start the festivities with pre-drinks for at least an hour before the meal is served.
Tip: Don't forget to "cheers" with your host and other guests before starting your drink.
8. Meal duration: In France, a meal with guests usually takes from two to four hours because one meal consists of several courses served separately. French people usually like to eat slowly (see #12) and savour each mouthful or their food. they also like to talk - a lot, in between each mouthful!
9. Sitting: Ask your French host where they would like you to sit or if they have any preference. In a formal setting (wedding, business dinner), French people like to alternate a man/a woman. In a more casual setting, men usually sit close to each other and women alike.
10. Elbows and hands: Do not rest your elbows on the table. Your hands should be visible but not on your lap. I think this is quite common to most Western countries, isn't it?!
11. Wait: Do not start eating before your French host. Often the host likes to say a few words and thank his/her guests for being present. By the way I have never came across anyone who prays before eating in France, maybe 60 years ago they did but definitely not any more.
12. Eat slowly: Remember that French people like to eat slowly, to enjoy their food. Make an effort. It would be regarded as rude to finish your plate within a few minutes from it been served (even if you were hungry). Show your host that you are enjoying the food by making it last.
Tip: Take the time to talk, laugh (and drink wine) between each mouthful.
Tip: Take the time to talk, laugh (and drink wine) between each mouthful.
13. Compliment the host: Always compliment your French host/cook about the food that is served.
Tip: Do not wait to be asked if the food is good, take the initiative.
14. Serving size (food): Guests eat small portions of every course. Each course is brought in order and passed around. If your French host offer you to go for a second round, it is polite to accept, to show that you like the dish. If you decline, the host may question you (in front of everyone) about how you've found the food.
Tip: If you are no longer hungry you can ask for a "just a little bit because it's delicious" or simply decline: tell the host how delicious you thought the food was, but explain you want to "keep some room for dessert". This is VERY ACCEPTABLE!
15. Serving size (wine): Two VERY important rules
- NEVER fill your glass of wine yourself. Instead if you want more wine, wait to be offered some.
Tip: Alternatively ask the person sitting next to you if they would like a top up. Only then you can pour yourself some more.
- NEVER fill your glass of wine to the top. This is unacceptable in French culture. A glass of wine should not be pour more than half way!
16. Don't get drunk: Pace yourself. Don't forget that you may still be served a dessert wine, champagne or a digestive (liquor).
Tip: You should leave your wine glass nearly full if you do not want more wine.
17. Eating Salade: A 'green salad' is sometimes served as an entree but it is also common to serve it after the main meal and before the cheese platter (French people say it eases the digestion). Lettuce or green leaves should not be cut, you should rather try to fold the leaf and bring it to your mouth with the fork.
18. Cutting cheese: You would always be presented with a cheese platter at the end of a meal (never with pre-drinks like in Australia). Cheese is expected to be eaten with bread (not with crackers!). Also, you must know that French people are VERY PARTICULAR when it comes to cutting cheese. Cut it lengthwise. Round cheese is cut by means of making wedges.
19. Dress etiquette: Clothes should be elegant and classy, no cleavages or upper thigh exposing for women. See-through and too revealing clothes are a sign of bad taste. French people are a little conservative when it comes to clothing. However, backless long dresses and elegant blazers are considered classy. Quality fabrics are always to the French liking.The shoes should be discreet-looking. The generally accepted dress-code in France looks down on runners.
20. Language: If you are visiting rural areas or smaller cities, speaking basic French is crucial. People in the French country side consider it rude to address them in English.
Tip: Learn to say that 'the food is delicious'! It will help you make friends!
After the event
21. Give a hand: your French host would appreciate if you offer to help with the cleaning. If you are lucky, they'd decline your offer!
22. Thank your host: Tell your French host that you had a great time and thank her/him again for having you over.
And finally, the last but VERY IMPORTANT rule
23. Return the invitation: If you live in France, you would be expected to return the invitation within the next couple of months. It is EXTREMELY RUDE not to do so. Be aware that you most likely won't be invited again until you return the invitation.
French people love to entertain guests at home! So make sure to follow these few simple rules and you would have a fantastic time with wonderful memories for sure!
Have you been to a French dinner party before?
Did you feel comfortable?