Business etiquette and French savoir-vivre coach Marie de Tilly explains how mastering good manners can make all the difference in helping you fit into French society.
THE ORIGINS OF FRENCH MANNERS
French etiquette or courtesy began in the 12th century in the courts of Eleanor d’Aquitaine and Marie de Champagne. Women of high rank cleverly commissioned poets, troubadours and minstrels to write on topics with the purpose of shaming the brutal practices of some men. The messages sent were not only to develop respect for women but to have men stop treating them as their natural suzeraines. A Knight must be at the service of her Her Lady in all circumstances. At that time, the French were precursors.
Elegance in France flourished under the reign of Louis XIV in the 18th century. Under his reign, Fine Arts thrived; the king was a very curious character of novelty but also very respectful of the women around him. For example, he was the first to stand up to greet a woman. It was also at this time that one began the “Main Baise”, the kissing of the hand. Under his rule, codes of Savoir Vivre were established so that the Court could live together in a more elegant way. That is why France is often cited as a benchmark of good education, French elegance.
Another elegant character of French history is Marie Antoinette. She was an icon of creativity, particularly in fashion. Through her alone, she represented what is now called “the French Touch”.
Finally, I quote Boileau, the 18th century writer who said to women: “Be simple with Art”. A definition that still upholds.
5 Basic Lessons on French Etiquette
1. Do not address a woman as “Mademoiselle”.
Women see this as derogatory. Using Miss connotes a condescending attitude and is seen as putting someone in their place. Say hello “Madame” as a mature-aged woman.
2. Use the pronoun “Tu” when speaking to young people (up to 25 years or so).
Otherwise when you meet someone for the first time, you “vouvoyez” the person. Allow the person who is considered more important to set the tone of the conversation, that is to say it is at his or her discretion to say “vous” or “tu” to you. Best not be the one to initiate it, wait for the signal.
3. Do not kiss, especially when you meet people for the first time unless they offer a cheek instead of the hand.
I am against the “bise” the first time I meet a person. I always wait to spend time with them before offering them my cheek. If I kiss, it is only two times – that is to say, one peck on each cheek. Never offer a third unless it’s a habit from another part of the country – immediately signaling you’re not Parisian.
4. Most common faults (even if they are not many):
- Guests who arrive on time at a party while in France; one should be kept waiting half an hour.
- Don’t overdo the total look. Learn to dress like the French by mixing high end fashion with a simple piece from H&M or Zara.
- Style your hair naturally. French can always spot foreigners sporting a stiff blow dry hairstyle.
5. Work your elegance
In conclusion: the French are complicated! They judge others! However, they are still the most elegant. Elegance, contrary to what you might think, is a luxury that cannot be bought but can be learned. So to help you better integrate into French society: work your elegance, your body language, control your emotions and be discreet. But, above all, never forget that humor saves all situations. As Boileau once said, “Be natural with Art”. It works like a charm.