Customs and Etiquette in Paris

One of the first things you’ll notice about living in Paris is the formal politesse that pervades daily interactions. Neighbors greet each other with a cordial bonjour and au revoir, sales clerks will always refer to you as madame, mademoiselle, or monsieur, and most of the time, drivers will actually slow their Citroëns and Renaults down to a stop at crosswalks for pedestrians—which may or may not be a direct result of the Ministry of Transportation’s efforts to establish a Day of Courtesy.

More important than mimicking the French version of Emily Post is to simply treat everyone you encounter with respect. Do as the locals do and be liberal with your pleases and thank-yous. When boarding the Métro or bus, step aside from the doorway to allow others to exit first. Offer your seat to the elderly, pregnant women, and parents juggling one or more children. The warm smile and gratitude you’ll get in return are worth it, and you’ll feel good about contributing to the social order.

People queued at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.
Line-jumping is one custom Americans might find off-putting when living in France. Photo © Olga Besnard/123rf.

Line Jumping

One annoying exception to the standard trend toward politeness is line jumping. It happens each and every day at Disneyland Paris, the local post office, and hypermarchés: A silver-haired granny or twentysomething hipster will glide in ahead of you, occasionally with cash in hand to announce the guaranteed swiftness of the impending transaction, with nary a glance in your direction, lest eye contact be made and guilt established. Fussing about this is rarely worth the effort, though many expats dare to speak up once they’ve mastered the language, and find the act of defending one’s territory to be a confidence builder!

PDAs (Public Displays of Anger)

The French are quirky, so it follows they would have quirky customs, many of which foreigners find simultaneously befuddling and charming. The tradition of the bisou—kissing on each cheek as a form of greeting—is so ingrained that kids in diapers are practically pros by the time they reach the Terrible Twos. The French are not entirely immune to the urge to flip out in horn-honking traffic—as you’ll discover any day during rush hour in Paris—but road rage isn’t practiced here the way it is in other countries. If you want to react in a manner befitting the locals, you’ll learn to puff out your cheeks, throw up your hands, and say “Oh la la la la” like the rest, while leaving the shouting and aggressive driving maneuvers to the uncivilized world.


Many North Americans are pleased to discover that tipping is not mandatory or even expected in France. Restaurant work is a profession with a modicum of prestige attached to it, and because waitstaff earn a living wage and are entitled to full benefits, they aren’t motivated to perform any better in expectation of a monetary bonus. However, at cafés, it’s customary to leave any small coins floating around in your pocket on the table or counter, and many diners—if they feel like it—will leave a euro or two after a restaurant or brasserie meal. These little acts of generosity are entirely voluntary, and you shouldn’t feel obligated to leave anything beyond what’s tallied up on your addition.

French Kissing for Beginners

Everyone’s heard of a French kiss, but the voracious tongues-and-all method isn’t the standardized variety carried out in la belle France. From the moment you step off the plane or alight from your train, you’ll see what French kissing is really all about (and, perhaps, what it isn’t about: tongues).

The art of the bisou begins with identifying who’s on the receiving end: If you’re of the female persuasion, you’ll dole out kisses to everyone. Ditto if you’re a child. (They start ’em young here.) Men are typically exempted from kissing other men, unless they’re family or extremely close friends. Step two is all about the action: Lean in toward your intended with your right cheek, allowing your respective cheeks to touch gently and momentarily while you make a kissing sound. Step three involves pulling back slightly and repeating the gesture on the left cheek. One or both hands can rest gently on the kissee’s shoulders or an arm, or simply keep your mitts to yourself. In some parts of France, this act can be repeated for a total of four kisses; let the Frenchie take the lead if you’re uncertain about local protocol. So what about that other French kiss practiced the world over? Yes, they do it in France, too, but here they call it un bisou avec la langue—a kiss with the tongue.

Invitation Etiquette

Here are a few rules of thumb to commit to memory, just in case you are lucky enough to earn a coveted invitation to a French person’s home. Many expats report never having received a party invitation, let alone a dinner invite, even after years of working with someone or decades of daily chats with the next-door neighbor. This is less about you and more about the separation of public and private life—a cultural idiosyncrasy that is sacrosanct to the French. But when that elusive invitation comes, arrive at your host’s home 15 minutes late, bring flowers instead of wine (they’ve already selected the wine to drink that evening), and don’t be afraid of “awkward” silences; think of them as food-enjoyment pauses instead.

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