In general, French people are more private and reserved than Americans, especially upon meeting someone for the first time. Understanding some of the nuanced and ritualized social practices will help you to feel more comfortable getting to know the locals. And, combined with a smiling countenance and some sign language, knowing even a just few words in French along with the courtesy & customs in France will help you to get more from your visit.
Language and Greetings
- Burgundy is rural. Except for tourist areas in the major towns, not many French people here speak English. In a pinch, your best bet will be to approach a young person, perhaps under the age of 25 or so, and ask if he or she speaks English. “Pardon, madame. Parlez-vous Anglais?” (Par-dohn, mah-dahm. Par-lay vooz ahn-glay?)
- Greetings are absolutely vital. Whatever comes next, not using a greeting may be seen as rude. In stores, on the street, in a café, or hiking in the woods, always say hello: “Bonjour, Monsieur” “Bonjour, Madame” with a slight nod or tip of the hat. Substitute “Bonsoir” as evening falls.
- As is true with people everywhere, a warm smile and a sincere “please” (s’il vous plait) and “thank you” (merci!) – will do wonders to communicate respect and create good will!
- A few other useful phrases:
- I do not speak French. “Je ne parle pas Français.” (Juh- nuh parl pa frahn-say.)
- I am American. “Je suis Americain.” (juh-sweez-a-mare-ee-can)
- Can you help me? “Pouvez-vous m’aider?” (Poo-vay-voo may-day?)
- The handshake is not as common in France as it is in the United States. Simply follow the lead of the people you meet. If a hand is offered, use a firm but gentle grip and expect one simple up and down motion.
- The French are not huggers.
- The French are kissers. Specifically, you will see the two-cheeked air kiss, or bisous, in use throughout the culture. It is the typical greeting among friends of all genders, ages, and walks of life. If you meet someone a second or third time, are introduced by a mutual French friend, or have a particularly warm and enjoyable conversation, you may find yourself participating in the ritual. Once again, follow the lead of your French companion. Simply lean slightly forward and offer a cheek, usually right first, then left. Typically there is just a light touch of your friend’s cheek involved. No “smoochy” sounds required. You will have the hang of it in no time.
Finding a Place to “Faire Pipi” (Use the toilet)
- Fortunately, these necessary appliances are known by the same word in France, les toilettes. Even better news is that the word is used in all contexts and places. So do not ask for help finding a restroom, lavatory, or women’s room. Simply approach someone who works in an establishment, say bonjour, and with a shrug and questioning tone say, les toilettes?
- In addition to finding them in restaurants and cafes (for customers only), you will likely see public restrooms in large, modern grocery stores, train stations, museums, and public spaces. In some instances there will be a common area with sinks for both men and women and signs pointing to stalls for hommes, men, and femmes, women.
- At some public toilets there will be an attendant who collects a small fee. It is always good to have a couple one euro and 50 cents coins in your pocket for this purpose. The attendant may hand you a token to fit into the door of a stall or may simply point you in the direction of an empty stall. It is common for women attendants to routinely pass through the area where urinals are in use for men.