You wouldn't think a country so close to England would abound in opportunities for cultural misunderstanding. But France's culture, after all, is Latin, and its language gave us the word etiquette (not to mention faux pas ). Among certain Americans, France has a prickly reputation—and in fact, the mayor of Paris has waged several politeness campaigns in his city—but getting along in this ancient European culture is relatively simple. You just do what you'd do in any place where you'd want to come off well: Play by its rules.
The table: The classic five-course meal and how to eat it
(with assistance from André Soltner, a dean at the French Culinary Institute and longtime chef at the famed Lutèce)
Since in this case you'll be having beef as your main course, it'll be red. NEVER pour your own glass at a restaurant. Always wait for the server to fill it for you. If you're at a dinner party, the host will do the pouring. Women, especially, should always have their wine poured for them by men. If you don't want more, don't drink too much from your glass; it will be refilled automatically.
Asparagus stalks, served lukewarm in a hollandaise sauce.
How to eat it: Asparagus is one of the few French foods that can—and in fact should—be eaten with the hands. Lift a spear by the large end and take bites starting at the tip. You may dip for extra sauce. Leave uneaten on the plate about a quarter of an inch, at the broad end of the stalk.
Langoustines, poached in a bouillon called a nage, with carrots, celery, onions, salt, pepper, and white wine, and served in a soup plate.
How to eat it: Use your hands to take the langoustines out of their shells. Finger bowls with water are provided.
Boeuf à la mode, with a side of gnocchi à la Romaine and a few vegetables (carrots and small silver onions).
How to eat it: "I see Americans. They hold the fork in a really special way," Soltner says. He's being polite, but switching hands is not normally done. ALWAYS keep your knife in your right hand, fork in your left. Place the beef in your mouth without turning the fork right side up. Spear the gnocchi with your fork, still in the left hand, and again keep the tines pointed down. You may scoop up vegetables and garniture with the tines turned up, but keep the fork in your left hand. When you're done—having cleaned your plate (as you always must), place your knife and fork close together, parallel, handles facing you at about a four o'clock position on the plate.
Cheese selection accompanied by a salad consisting of lamb's tongue and olive oil with a little vinegar or lemon juice.
How to eat it: First of all, it's THE ONLY COURSE you're allowed to pass up. If you are a vegetarian or don't eat certain foods or have allergies, you must let your host/hostess know well in advance, because refusing a course is just not done. Unless it's cheese. Don't cut the salad. Roll the greens onto your fork clockwise, holding the fork in your right hand. Cut the cheese with your right hand, then place a piece (or spread it, if the cheese is soft) on some bread, which you'll hold in your left hand. Generally, you'll have the bread and cheese in your left hand, the salad in your right.
A cold soufflé glacé (although it is served in a soufflé dish, it's actually ice cream baked with an almond paste). It comes accompanied by a coulis of raspberries, strawberries, or peaches.
How to eat it: A dessert spoon will be on your right, a dessert fork on your left. You'll want to use primarily your spoon, which you'll hold in your right hand. Note, too, that almost no one has coffee with dessert. You request it either before or after you've eaten the complete meal. The same goes for fruit juice or soda. With lunch or dinner, you drink only wine or water.
Dinner party rules
1. Don't arrive exactly on time. Fifteen minutes late is ideal; otherwise, your hostess might still be in the shower.
2. Bring low-maintenance flowers but not chrysanthemums (associated with funerals) or anything yellow (which suggests the hostess's husband is unfaithful). Sweets are a safe bet, but NEVER bring wine, which would imply the host's wine isn't good enough.
3. Unless the dinner is very informal, men should wear a jacket and women should wear high heels. You won't go wrong in blue or black.
4. If you use the bathroom (or the toilette), NEVER leave the door even slightly ajar when you exit.
5. Don't know when to go? Sometimes the serving of orange or grapefruit juice signals the host is ready to say good-bye.
General eating rules
1. Always keep both hands on the table, wrists at the edge.
2. Treat your waiter with respect, and be generous with compliments on the food.
3. You normally have to ask for water, so don't be shy.
The greeting: Things to know about kissing
1. Let the woman lead. As for men, they don't generally kiss each other unless they're very close.
2. Be prepared for more than two outside Paris. In Alsace and Brittany, people kiss three times. East of Nice, it goes up to four. So get ready for more kisses. But DON'T initiate them yourself, as many French consider it déclassé to kiss more than twice.
3. Go crazy until you're 30. In adolescence kissing is ubiquitous, but after 30 it's not automatic, particularly on the first or second meeting. The older you are, the more acceptable air-kissing is—but don't make it obvious.
4. It's not going out of style. Don't assume Americanization has made the custom obsolete—in fact, it's increasingly common. Robin Massée, who has worked in the French embassy in the United States for ten years, says, "The minute you meet French people, you're kissing."
Expert opinion: Do's and don'ts from Polly Platt, a consultant on French etiquette
- Use the five magic words. When asking a stranger something, always begin with "Excusez-moi de vous déranger."
- Be a gracious customer. In a store, immediately greet the proprietor with "Bonjour, Monsieur/Madame." If possible, make small talk; if there's a problem with your service, explain your situation apologetically. Failing to do so results in the kind of service-sector misunderstandings that lead Americans to believe the French are rude.
- Be chivalrous. Open doors for women, enter a restaurant first (to "pave the way"), and compliment colleagues on their dress. If you're a woman, try not to be put off. "It does make some women uncomfortable," says Platt. "But French women can take care of themselves."
- In meetings, shake hands with everyone. Think of it as the business-meeting equivalent of kissing hello. "If you have a meeting with fifteen people, you will certainly shake hands with all of them," says Platt. In some offices, co-workers shake hands with one another every morning.
- Dress up. French women often wear makeup even for a trip to the grocery store. Tank tops are probably a no-no, and you should wear T-shirts and shorts sparingly. Even on hot summer days, you'll never see businessmen in seersucker. "All tourists should definitely pack a jacket," says Platt. For women, heels and dresses are de rigueur in the evening.
- Give bear hugs. "Totally unknown here," says Platt. Hugging can be considered more intimate than kissing.
- Talk loudly in public. It's considered an "ugly American" trait. Don't shout into your cell phone, and silence it in company. Cells are ubiquitous in France, but people tone them down in public.
- Sulk when people are late. They're on Mediterranean time, and they just don't care about punctuality as much as we do.
- Leave the lights on. Especially as a houseguest, respect the habit of being economical about electricity.
- Take up too much space. Carry smaller bags if you can; be aware of your personal space; and don't take offense if someone stands a mere millimeter behind you in line.
Polly Platt is the author of "Savoir Flaire" (Culture Crossings).