The Secret Codes Of French Society
Eighteen, almost nineteen years since I’ve immigrated to the United States. Multitudes of parties attended, numerous new folks met, and inevitably the same one question keeps getting thrown at me:
“Why are the French so rude?”
Most of the time, I don’t know how to respond. I suppose this recurring question is not helping our mood.
It is true that the French can be perceptibly rough around the edges, tough, short, to the point, stern, impatient, with a lot of opinions, and are not afraid to voice any of it.
Our “coolness” was not lost on Natalie Portman. She was prompt to report on it to the Hollywood media when she moved back to LA from Paris in 2016 and experienced a reversed culture shock. “Is it considered rude to be friendly in France?”, Jimmy Kimmel questions.
“Rude” and “friendly” may not seem like it, but they are incredibly subjective and cultural concepts. Something may be considered rude in a country and not at all in another. "Rude" is in the eye of the beholder. And friendly may be friendly somewhere, and of questionable intent somewhere else.
In the US, you'll make a stranger feel good by offering a smile. In France, you'll do so by staying out of their way and respecting their personal space.
Also, we do not smile while walking down the streets. That would be opening ourselves up to harassment from strangers, something we absolutely detest to have to deal with. This happens a lot if we don’t build up a shield to ward off unwelcome behaviors. And by shield we mean us, not smiling, willfully walking down the street with a don’t-mess-with-me attitude.
Smiles and eye contact are for people you know or to have a shared moment of flirt with a stranger.
Do it outside of this context, and you’ll be followed around the block by someone who finds you unbearably charming, won't tear themselves away, and ends up calling you a “salope” (bitch) when you don’t engage back.
This is in part what I imagine Ms. Natalie Portman encountered while living in Paris, along with the few “rules of politeness and codes of behavior” France and the French hold near and dear to our hearts. Any and all human societies have rules of conduct (so do the US, trust me). This is what makes them them, and those in France are what makes our beautiful country one of the top rated places in the world for our incredible art of living.
Because you can't know what you don’t know… for you, just for you, and Ms. Natalie Portman, here is our quick guide to
What to do and not to do to survive a trip to France:
On the streets
Be cool, calm, collected. Be on target and just go where you need to go. Pitstops allowed: shopping, coffee at a bistro, baguette at a bakery.
You’d think the French poetically meander through the cobble stoned streets with our heads up in the clouds, declaiming verses from an obscure 17th century dramatist. Wrong. We walk straight to the point with our heads down to make really really sure we don't step in dog poop.
At the café
Do not hail or howl at the waiter. He'll feel rushed and be rude, guaranteed. These pros have eyes behind their heads. They know you're here and will come to you in the order in which you've arrived. Be patient and wait your turn.
In a store
The very first thing one should do is greet the community within the store, including the sales staff and the other shoppers. This is particularly true in boutiques. Ms. Portman was surprised that one had to greet a sales person in a store and give them a chance to respond alike before starting to make demands. Frankly, we are a bit surprised by her surprise.
Isn’t it an incredibly polite rule for a society that is deemed rude?
Upon entering a store, say: “Bonjour”, "Bonjour mesdames” (for a crowd only comprised of ladies) or more simply “Mesdames”, or “Messieurs Dames” (for a mixed crowd). We love you Natalie, we do (yes we do!), but we don’t get what is so complicated.
Invited for dinner
Never, ever, ever show up at a friend’s house for dinner empty handed. Like, ever. The French will rarely ask you to contribute a dish, or even a bottle of wine unless you have access to something extraordinary they don’t. An official dinner invitation at a French house is often a highly curated event. The menu will have been carefully chosen down to the drinks, don't throw a wrench in the plan.
Flowers, a box of designer chocolates, or something more personal such as décor, a scarf... are all perfectly acceptable options for gift.
Let yourself be guided by the host or hostess. Invitations to French dinners are sought after because they are more than a cook. They are also a mentor, a tour guide, a caretaker and an entertainer rolled into one. Just follow their lead and in doubt, don't be the first one to start or finish anything.
Stay out of the kitchen unless invited to join. No cook wants you to see how the sausage is made.
At the table
No elbows on the table. Gently place your hands on the edge of it. You'll need both to use your cutlery.
Learn the proper way to use your cutlery.
The food comes up to meet your mouth, never the other way around.
No loud chewing, swallowing, slurping.
Don’t throw yourself, body and soul, at the bread, regardless of how hangry you are.
Do not add salt to your dish without tasting it first, that would imply you think the cook can’t possibly have seasoned the dish properly.
Don’t help yourself to food or drinks unless you are expressly invited to. But even then, take on the mission to serve everyone else before yourself. Don’t help yourself to a second serving before being invited to do so. Eating at the table is paced by rounds of food, and everyone is on the same schedule.
Women first, men second. Always.
The dinner is about the food, but then it isn’t. Above all else, it is about the ritual of sharing food and spirited conversations. Talk, chat, share a lot; eat a little. THIS is why our meals last forever and why we still spend an average of 130 minutes a day eating (vs. 60 minutes in the US).
Don’t overindulge in the food or wine. Neither being stuffed nor drunk is attractive.
Words: Cécile Charlot.