Learning French Culture & Customs
Paris is a city of great diversity, with significant populations from countries around the world which contributes to making Paris the diverse and exciting city that it is. None the less, the French and Parisians remain rooted to their traditions and customs. In many cases, the Parisians will seem more formal than most North Americans when it comes to how they address a stranger, the way they dress, notions of politeness and notions of etiquette when eating.
You’ll quickly notice that
- upon entering a shop or restaurant they will say “bonjour” and “au revoir” when they leave.
- Likewise, the French language has two means of addressing people, using the formal vous (or vouvoiement) or the informal tu (tutoiement). When first meeting anyone except a classmate, it is best to use the vous until it is suggested that you switch to the vous (which may never happen if the person is considerably older than you).
- Eating in France is unlike what most North Americans experience. One could say that it is highly ritualized with very specific times for meals (lunch is between 1 and 3, dinner never before 7). While “eating on the run” in the North American style has expanded in France in recent decades, the preference is still to have quiet, leisurely meals that last at least one hour (and two hours or more is not uncommon for a dinner out at night).
Many stereotypes of the French have long ago disappeared. The beret fell out of style decades ago and while the French do still like their wine and their baguettes, the Parisians, especially, have become very accustomed to and drawn toward new experiences: cuisines, music, art, and culture in general from around the world is always available in Paris. That said, the French do still, largely, hold on to certain cherished traditions.
- Developing friendships with the French typically takes much longer than with North Americans. The French tend to be more private and reserved. Rather than seeking out huge numbers of acquaintances, the French are more drawn to developing deeper, more substantial connection to the people in their lives. The French are very interested in other cultures, other ways of life but you have to be patient.
- It is important for English speakers to understand the great importance the French language holds in the lives of the French. While English has become increasingly more popular among the French in the last thirty years (you will hear English words frequently dropped into French conversations (the French are very proud of being highly cultivated with their knowledge of different languages and cultures), they can remain militantly protective of their language. They will expect (just as most North Americans would) that when you come to visit their country you should make some effort to speak the local language. A little effort goes a long way so be sure to always say Bonjour, Merci, and S’il vous plait.
- Customer service in France can call for an adjustment on the part of North Americans. The customer is not always right in France and the worker will be there to remind customers that they aren’t to be treated like slaves. It is important to understand that the French Revolution–the overthrow of the monarchy and aristocracy–is as important to the French as the “go west young man” myth is in the U.S. The French are proud to have resisted oppression and they remain vigilant of mistreatment at all moments even centuries later. This is, sometimes, overdone but in most cases, while the French store keepers may not always be as friendly and forthcoming with help as North Americans are used to, they are in most cases highly professional and competent, taking their jobs very seriously.
Daily Schedules: Typical weekdays start at about 7:30 am in Paris or even a little earlier. Stores tend to open around 9:30 or 10 am and close around 7 or 7:30 pm. Some shops will close for two hours during lunch. Lunch tends to be eaten around 1 pm (be sure to arrive by 2:30 to be sure you can still be served before the kitchen closes at 3 pm). Dinner is often eaten at around 8 pm. Don’t expect shops to be open on Sundays in France (with the exception of restaurants and cafés). Boulangeries tend to be open from Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Tipping for service: In Paris taxis it is customary (without being an obligation) to give the driver something; usually 10% is enough. The French waiters especially like Americans as they are used to paying higher tips and often unaware that a 15% service charge is automatically included in the bill. Typically, one leaves up to 5% extra when the service was correct.
Other PICA pages which may interest you:
- Check out our page on Cultural Activities.
- Check out the PICA Day Trips Page.
- Learn more about PICA Weekend Trips.
- Health and Safety Tips for your time in Paris.
- Managing your Culture Shock when first arriving in Paris.
- How to Plan your Trips from Paris to the rest of France.
- Where to find Art & Photo Supplies in Paris?
- How to get ready to go back home (and avoid the worst of Reverse Culture Shock)!