When the French invite you to dinner the first time in their home, it can feel like passing an entrance exam. All your dialogue, gestures and actions will be studied, scrutinized, and commented upon. Please understand that the French relish the art of table manners and conversation. If you pass the test – that is to say, if you join the conversation, express taste for the dinner which is served and display your impeccable table manners – you will be embraced and enter the host’s privileged circle of “friends” for life. And this is truly sincere, so the effort is worth the friendship. To prepare yourself for this “rite of passage” which is so important for your stay in France, I invite you to follow some advice to help you feel at ease.
Don’t Appear So Eager
You should know that when the dinner is set for 20:30, it is advisable to NOT arrive on time. You will look quite “out” or “old-fashioned” and, you may surprise the hostess “undressed”! You must allow at least a mandatory 15-minute delay. The best is to come around 20:50, a little before 21:00. However, not after 21:00, this would be frowned upon and downright rude.
Dress Down to Dress Right
The dress code is important because it will reflect your personality, so pay attention to avoid a faux pas. In Paris, people try to be “fashionable” yet not overly dressed. Being overdressed might be perceived as trying too hard. Consider casual chic dressing and especially work with accessories – that is to say the shoes, belt, necklace and bag with deceptively natural makeup. Everything is a matter of skill and balance. Parisiennes are known for their natural yet sophisticated look, and will be the first to admit that looking that good naturally requires effort!
Come Bearing Gifts
A gift is not culturally mandatory, but today they are welcomed. You can offer a scented candle or some treats such as a box of dark chocolates. You may be surprised to learn that it is not advisable to offer alcohol, champagne (even chilled) or wine. Your hostess has already planned everything, so she cannot serve it at the table. As for the flowers, they are a good idea but rather inconvenient if you arrive with a bouquet. The hostess will have to take the time to find a proper vase, preventing her from receiving guests properly. Make sure to offer the gift before dinner or especially acknowledge the event the next morning with a word of thanks.
Be on your best behavior at the table
Once at your dinner, you should sit with legs side by side (uncrossed) at the place that the hostess has indicated. Patiently wait to be served, typically champagne in French homes. You have the right to refuse if you do not want any but remember that that you are in someone’s home, so try not to be too fussy. For first time dinners, politely wait for your neighbor to start conversation and answer the questions that are asked, do not say too much, be diplomatic and attentive to questions too intrusive or intimate. If you find your neighbor to be nosy, answer a question with a smile and humor!
Do not forget to thank the hostess within the next day or two. The best way is to call her. Otherwise use email or SMS (less advised).
If you follow my advice, you can enjoy your Parisian dinner knowing you won’t commit any cultural “faux pas”. Remember that the French are always happy to demonstrate their good manners to strangers and respect reciprocity. Leave it to them and they will be delighted to welcome you, believe me!