No one wants to be seen as an “ugly American” when travelling abroad, particularly in Paris, a city whose locals have a largely underserved reputation for being chilly to foreigners. Parisians can be reserved, to be sure, but if a visitor puts forth some effort to observe these etiquette tips, he will find Parisians to be a warm and welcoming group.
If only one thing is learned before visiting Paris, it should be this: that Parisians are very polite and they expect visitors to be polite as well. Become very familiar with the French words for hello, goodbye, please, and thank you: bonjour, au revoir, s’il vous plaît, and merci. Learn to pronounce them reasonably correctly before leaving for Paris, and use them often during the trip.
Etiquette Tips for Shopping in Paris
Many shops in Paris are small, intimate spaces and Parisians consider these to be almost an extension of their homes. Their shops are smaller and more “private” than the huge “public” shops that are often found in the States. Because of this, it is considered quite rude to enter a shop and begin browsing through the merchandise without first offering the shopkeeper a greeting. A simple “Bonjour” if it is daytime, or “Bonsoir” if it is evening will do. To be even more polite, add “monsieur,” “madame,” or “mademoiselle” to the greeting. “Mademoiselle” is only used for young, unmarried women. If in doubt, it is best to use “Madame.” Also, before touching any merchandise, it is always best to ask the shopkeeper for permission. To do this, simply ask, “Puis-je toucher?” This means “May I touch?” and this small phrase will go far in placing a visitor in a shopkeeper’s good graces. Don’t forget to also say “Au revoir” to tell the shopkeeper goodbye.
Etiquette Tips for Dining in Paris
Observing proper etiquette becomes even more important when dining in a French restaurant. French dining etiquette differs a bit from what most Americans are used to. First, coffee is always ordered after dessert, not with it, and should be a basic café (similar to espresso). Cappuccinos, café au laits, and café crèmes are usually only ordered before noon. During the meal, both wrists should be resting comfortably on the table, not in one’s lap. It is considered rude to keep one’s hands where people cannot see them while dining.
French people usually eat with a knife in their right hand and a fork in their left hand. The food is speared with the fork and is brought to the mouth with the left hand. They do not switch the fork to the right hand to bring the food to the mouth. While it really isn’t a breach of etiquette to eat in the American style, it does look a bit peculiar to many French people, and a diner eating this way may catch a French person watching. Bread is almost always served with meals, but there won’t be any bread plates on the table. Instead, the bread is placed directly onto the tablecloth. Butter is also rarely given in restaurants, as most people prefer to eat their bread plain.
At the end of the meal, the diner must ask for the check. Many Americans find themselves getting impatient, fidgeting in their chairs, and wondering when the server will ever bring them their checks. It is considered rude in France for a server to bring the check before it has been requested. They do not want the diner to feel rushed in any way. Therefore, if a diner does not request the check to be brought, he may be waiting for a very long time. Instead, when it is time to leave, simply get the server’s attention (not by snapping your fingers, please! Simple eye contact or a small hand-wave will do) and say “l’addition, s’il vous plaît” – which means “the check, please.”
Tipping in Paris
Whether to tip or not tip is at the diner’s discretion. Tipping for good service is considered polite, but because Parisian servers do not rely on tips to earn a living wage, the amount given is usually much lower than the standard 15-20% in the States. If one feels inclined to tip, 5-10% is plenty, or just leave the small change leftover from paying the bill.
Learn Simple French Phrases
Finally, it is a good idea to learn a little basic French before visiting Paris. Even a simple phrase, such as “I’m sorry, I don’t speak French – do you speak English?” will go a long way towards making a Parisian vacation more enjoyable. To say this phrase in French, say: “Je suis désolé, je ne parle pas francais – parlez-vous anglais?” To learn how to pronounce the various words and phrases listed in this article, AT&T offers a free online tool. Simply type in the French phrase and select Alain or Juliette as the speaker from the pull-down list, then click the “speak” button to hear the phrase as it should be pronounced.