French Dining Etiquette: Eating with the Frenchies

Today’s post and pictures are reposted with permission from the HIP Paris  blog.  The author is Erica Berman, an American by birth, who has called Paris home on-and-off for 17 years.  She is also owner of Haven in Paris, a luxury vacation rental company.

by Erica Berman

After over 17 years of Frenchie living, I am largely used to the etiquette of dining chez les Francais – along with all of their implicitly understood rules and regulations.

A brunch with Parisian friends for which the first guest arrived 30 minutes after the announced time, and an 8 pm French dinner party invitation with food finally served at 10 pm, prompted the following list of tips for enjoying error-free dining in the land of berêts, baguettes and smelly cheese.

Les Faux Pas qu’il ne Faut pas faire (errors to avoid), a few pointers for socializing Chez les Francais with hopes of avoiding unnecessary uncomfortable moments.

Rule 1: Never, never, never arrive early. Not even one minute. This is highly unacceptable (and unheard of) behavior in France. Walk around the block a few times, have a café, do some lèche-vitrine (window shop), but do not ring that bell even one minute in advance.

Rule 2: Never arrive right on time either, except for a formal meal, or in a restaurant. Even for a sit- down meal, your host will expect you 5-10 minutes late. For a party, a casual brunch or cocktail, you will be expected 20-45 minutes past the specified time. Arriving on the dot might find your host not only not ready, but also not particularly overjoyed by your presence.

Rule 3: Always bring a little something for the host, be it a bottle of wine, a homemade goodie or a bouquet of flowers. Remember, showing up empty-handed is seriously frowned upon in France. Note: Do not bring gifts of soap or bouquets of mums. Soap makes your hostess feel like you are implying she doesn’t wash, and mums are brought to cemeteries to cover gravestones.

Rule 4: In France, à table (at the table), one does not speak of politics, money, or religion. One does not ask a French person their salary, their religious beliefs or who they voted for. This is the ultimate insult to a Frenchie!

Rule 5: You don’t have to help with dishes. In the U.S. it’s the norm, even rude, not to help your host clean up the mess. In France the logic is that you are the guest and you are there to relax. When you invite your friends over they will expect you to extend the same courtesy and will not offer to help you with any of the clean-up either. The first few times this happened in my apartment I was annoyed at the lack of help. Now, I appreciate being able to relax when dining out and letting my guests relax when they dine chez moi.

Rule 6: Eat what is on your plate. The French have low (up from no) tolerance for finicky eaters. It is very rude to decline what your host has prepared, and even ruder not to finish what is on your plate. NOTE: If you are a vegetarian or have a true food allergy don’t be shy. Your host  just might be sympathetic.

Rule 7: Remain open-minded. Try everything. From blood sausage, steak tartare, pan-fried fois gras, rabbit w/prunes, baked pigeon and deer stew to escargot, raw sea urchins, fried oysters, frogs legs, tripe and andouillette, I have been there and tried that. These dishes are not found in my normal eating repertoire, and there may not be a second time for many of them, but I think my hosts appreciated the effort that went into my sampling of their fare. Not only will the French be impressed by your ability to reach out of your American comfort zone, you may just discover a new favorite.

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15 responses to “French Dining Etiquette: Eating with the Frenchies

  1. so funny, I’m always early :) Usually it doesn’t backfire, I just get first dibs on the apéro et fingers foods!

  2. Very good “French Dining 101″…

    I just have a couple of things to add:

    -Rule 3: it depends what is your relationship with the host really, but if you’re an expat, it’s unlikely that your host is a lifetime long friend, so yeah, bring something.

    -Rule 4: Well, once again, it depends on how close you are with the host and the other guests. My friends (as well as my family) always talk about politics. Money and Religion? Well, it depends, but it’s rare.

    -Rule 6: Yeah, wasting food is rude, almost an insult. Also, if you’re a vegetarian: do go to France. In France we respect food, we respect our bodies, so vegetarians are limited to a few not very sane people. If you have a food allergy, mention it the day you’re invited or as early as possible, not when the dish shows up on your table.

    -Rule 7: Yeah, if you’re abroad, you’re there to experience another culture, and food is a huge part of French culture. Can’t deal with French food? What the hell are you doing in France in the first place?

  3. NOT being on time is so hard for me. . .planning to be late takes some getting used to! I also like to bring a small gift to the kids (if the host has kids) candy usually.

  4. thedogatemyhomework

    And, try not to have to use the bathroom. From what I’ve experienced, the French don’t use a hosts’ “facilities” .. and may not like it so much when guests use theirs

  5. Unless you’re invited to dinner by the absolutely most “coincé du cul” Parisians, I’m not sure that all these prohibitions are reasonable, particularly with regard to Rule #4.

    My thirty-year experience of normative expectations for French dinner-table conversation would suggest that any subject whatsoever can be discussed… if your remarks are well-informed and your mastery of French permits you to come across as even half-way witty.

    At any French table, an America, for example, who can hold forth on French politics in a sophisticated and subtle fashion would be regarded by everyone present as a dazzling, unexpected entertainment — something on the order of a cat or dog suddenly leaping onto the table and singing Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” it its entirety.

  6. I’ve heard before that politics are verboten, but they usually do make an appearance in the conversation… sometimes for the whole conversation (unfortunately, for me). I usually try to glance at Le Monde before a dinner party, just so I know what the hell people are talking about.

    I agree about not using the bathroom. Also, be sure to cut the cheese in the special way (so that the shape is maintained). And don’t pass the cheese platter more than twice.

    I’ve read that the appearance of a pitcher of orange juice means your host is telling you it’s time to leave — has this ever happened to anyone?

  7. Yes, I finally experienced the orange juice service recently! I was looking around for some to tell so I could say, “see see, it’s for real!”

  8. What?
    I’ve never heard about that Orange Juice thing, except from some Americans asking about it.

  9. I can’t wait to read a blog post about the orange juice!

  10. As an English woman living in France or the UK or wherever, I consider it extremely rude for my guests to arrive early, even 1 minute. My father was a diplomat and we would arrive at our host’s neighbourhood early and then hang around until 5 or 10 minutes after the time to arrive. When we would drive up and park. The French don’t respond to RSVP and for a large party I threw, not one French person replied and I had no idea how many to expect. In the end, more turned up than I had invited.

  11. I grew up in France and I never heard about the orange juice thing.
    But I confirm that you should never be early – aim for 10-30 mins late.
    And if you don’t know what to bring, flowers are usually your best bet. Chocolates or a bottle of wine are also good (if you bring wine, don’t be offended if you don’t drink it with your meal – it may not go with what you’re eating and your host probably planned to drink some other wine). Sometimes guests can offer to bring desert but arrange with your hosts beforehand.
    Politics, while technically taboo, often make it into the conversation, especially with close friends. I’d stay clear of money or religion though. If someone else brings it up, try to keep the conversation light hearted.
    But don’t panic! Most people should understand that as a foreigner, your sense of etiquette might be little different.

  12. Well, thanks for all this information. i needed it for my project.

    Thanks a lot! Terima Kasih!

  13. I’m from the French part of Switzerland and I would find it simply unaccpetable for anyone, inclueded Frenchs, to arrive 30 min. late to a dinner party! When you have a nice piece of meat in the oven, you planned the evening to go a certain way and late comers aren’t counted in. 10 min. past the given time is still ok and most hosts won’t mind, but even then you’ll have to excuse your delay. Arriving early isn’t a good idea either.
    This goes for acquaintances, neighbours, colleagues, etc. as well as for very good friends and family. If you know you’re gonna be late, you should call and let you hosts know that you’re sorry and they shouldn’t worry.
    Now, if it’s a bbq or a pic-nic, it’s different… Sometimes, it can also happen that the invitation is “à partir de…”
    But this article is intesting, I’ve never notice any French person I know follows these rules… Then, again, it might be typically Parisan.

  14. Hello,
    I am french and parisian, this article make me laugh so much ! These rules were maybe true a hundred years ago ! I usually arrive on time at a dinner but if it is 10 mn later, it’s not a big deal ! I have never heard of that orange juice think, an american legend ? Take it easy and enjoy your diner !

  15. Pour les repas, tout dépend si c’est pour le déjeuner ou le souper. Pour le déjeuner, il est obligatoire d’arriver à l’heure en semaine, le retard de 10 à 20 minutes est accepté les jours fériés ou de repos. Pour le souper, le retard ne doit pas dépasser 20 minutes, sauf si vous êtes intime avec la famille. Vous pouvez refuser un plat ou n’en manger qu’une partie si ce plat sort trop de l’ordinaire, mais il faut le faire avec grande politesse. En principe, les sauces sont servies à part. Les cadeaux sont obligatoires sauf pour les personnes intimes, si vous offrez du vin, faites attention, pas plus d’une bouteille d’un prix entre 15 et 50 euro, moins cher c’est une insulte, plus cher c’est de la prétention. Vous pouvez parler de politique sous réserve de ne pas faire de propagande. Ne parlez jamais de religion, c’est très mal vu, même si la famille qui vous reçoit est très religieuse, elle ne fera jamais de prière à table, cela ferait fuir tout le monde. Attention aux plaisanteries à table, vous ne devez pas employer d’expressions vulgaires ou grossières, vous devez toujours utiliser des expressions imagées, dans ce cas, même les choses les plus horribles peuvent être dites, le jeu étant de vous exprimer pour que les convives devinent ce que vous sous-entendez, c’est très courant pendant les repas. Enfin, si l’ambiance est ennuyeuse ou trop snob, refusez les invitations ultérieures, on ne va pas à un dîner pour “se faire chier”.

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