Pardon my French: Faux pas and faux amis
By Jerry Marterer
Which way to cut the brie? Left is correct. Above is a dinner party faux pas. Photos by the author.
So many of my articles include the best places to eat in France, and of course, to eat in a restaurant you must interact with the waitstaff and possibly other patrons. There is also a set of norms and manners for attending dinner parties that are unique to France. Therefore it is essential to have some understanding of local customs of politeness, which although not unconventional are nevertheless different from their American equivalents. Similarly, in navigating the French language, it’s important to understand that familiar-sounding phrases do not always mean what they sound like in English.
Faux pas are “false steps” and faux amis are “false friends,” ominous sounding phrases that you should be aware of when you are in France. Many faux pas surround eating drinking and socializing.
If you are invited to a dinner party at someone’s home, do not arrive early. It’s best to arrive ten to 15 minutes late. You would not want to show up while the host is still preparing the event.
Never bring wine. The host has already chosen the wine to be paired with the dinner. Bringing wine implies that the host is not a good judge of wine.
Bringing a bouquet of flowers is acceptable. However, be careful what kind of flowers. Chrysanthemums are for funerals. Roses are only for your lover.
When toasting, look everyone directly in the eye.
Keep both hands on the dinner table.
There is a legend that when the King of England came to France, he ate asparagus with his fingers, and the French followed suit and have continued this practice. So, unless the asparagus covered with sauce, it’s a faux pas to use a fork!
The first dinner party I attended on Paris started at 8:00 p.m. with Champagne served in the salon as the guests arrived to a grand apartment. I brought a small bouquet of flowers, which quickly disappeared. An hour later we sat at the table in the dining room. Five courses were served with wines for each. Dinner conversations resembled a tennis match with several volleys exchanged across the table among the Parisians about which restaurant served the best cassoulet, coq au vin, sole meunière, etc. Food is always a safe subject, and as the only non-Parisian they wanted to know my favorites. Everyone had an opinion, and the exchanges were lively.
At midnight the guests began to depart. As I was walking down the stairs, I was put in mind of the French expression “L’esprit de l’escalier,” “the spirit of the staircase.” It’s about coming up with the perfect comeback in the dinner conversation as you are leaving.
When you are out and about
Say bonjour or bon soir (after 6:00 p.m.) to everyone you encounter: the bus and taxi driver, at stores, bakeries and restaurants and when asking for directions. You may say it 25 times each day, but the one time you forget you’ll get a cold stare. When you leave, say, “Au revoir” (until the next time).
Look but don’t touch. Paris’s open-air and street markets are great for shopping or just walking through. The fruits and vegetables look so good you may want to touch them. Don’t, or you will hear “Touche pas!” I once asked the greengrocer if his pears were ripe enough to eat. His reply: “If they were not, I wouldn’t be selling them!”
Boulangeries are part of the French culture and the baguette a national symbol. By law a baguette can only be made with four ingredients: water, flour, salt and yeast. If you want the most authentic, ask for “une baguette tradition.” It is not only accepted but apparently mandatory to eat the crusty end (called “la croûton”) while walking home.
If you enter a restaurant before 7:30 p.m., you may find the staff having their dinner in the back. The man always enters the restaurant first, to make sure it is safe! With others at the table, “Bon appetite” is exchanged. Unless you clean your plate, the chef may come to your table to ask why you didn’t like the food.
Etiquette at restaurants, like Chez Francois above, is familiar, but there are key differences in France. Photo courtesy of the author.
When you order steaks, you will be asked how you would like it cooked. We like medium and always say, “À point.” If you just want a minute on each side, say, “Bleu,”; a little more cooked would be “saignant,” literally “bloody.” “Bien cuit” (well done) is something Parisians would never ask for.
In France the “entrée” is always the first course, and the main course is the “plat” or the “plat principal.”
There is often a cheese course served last or second last. An old French saying is that business is discussed “entre la poire et la fromage” — between the pear and the cheese. This brings up another serious faux pas. Many cheeses such as Camembert and Brie are served as wedges cut from a round form. Never make the mistake of cutting off the point. The French will gasp as though you ruined it. Wedges should be cut along the side to preserve a pointed if not symmetrical shape.
You may order “un café” when you order dessert but don’t expect to get it until the last bite of dessert is gone.
If you want fast food, go to McDonald’s. Even in bistros and small cafés, food is prepared as it ordered and eaten slowly. There is never a rush to turn over tables.
Value added tax is included in the prices and so is service. Waitstaff is paid well, but we always leave some coins as we pay the check. In our favorite repeat restaurants, we leave five to ten percent.
We have rarely seen a children’s menu. Children are taught to eat classic French food at school as well as learning proper table manners.
The French have words and customs for those they know well and for those they don’t. The familiar form of “you” is tu. For less familiar others it is vous. It took almost ten years for our neighbors to use the familiar with us. Had we lived in the building full time it may have happened sooner.
The French are more private than Americans. Unless you have known them for years, asking them about details of their family life is considered rude.
Twenty years ago, when I was staying at a small hotel in Strasbourg, I was waiting at the front desk, and the manager was on the phone. I heard him use the expression “max nix.” When he finished, I asked him if he was speaking German. He said, “Non, monsieur, c’est un faux pas, c’est Alsacien!” Alsatians (the American spelling) are deeply patriotic and resent any comparison with Germany.
Beware of faux amis!
In the 1950s the United Nations sessions were often televised. Americans were shocked to hear the French ambassador repeatedly say, “Je demand” or “Nous demandons.” Why were they always demanding things? Why not just ask politely? That’s exactly what they were doing. In English they were saying, “I ask” and “We request.” It’s one of the best examples of how faux amis can cause problems.
If you come across a sign that says, “Avertissement!” it is a warning, not an advertisement, which is known as “publicité.”
Some faux amis are part of French adages, sayings and proverbs. “Bra” in French means “arm,” not an article of clothing. The adage “bras de fer,” literally “arms of steel,” means arm wrestling — an argument with only one winner.
The word “monnaie” means coins or small change. A “coin” in French means “corner.” Paper money and funds in general are called “argent,” also the French word for silver.
If you want to find a bookstore, they are known as a “librairie.” An American-style library is a “bibliothèque. »
Parisians, both male and female, dress differently than Americans, though not necessarily in haute couture designer fashions. Their clothes are darker colors, their accessories always fashionable and there is nothing like wearing a navy blue beret at any age to attain that look of a Parisienne.
In the summer it is not unusual to encounter American adults carrying oversize backpacks and wearing mountain boots, shorts and baseball hats while holding maps in their hands. Why not put a sign on your back saying, “Pick my pocket first”?
My niece and her husband were coming to Paris. She asked us how to dress. I spent a day photographing Parisiens and Parisiennes and forwarded them. They blended right in during their visit.
So, bon voyage! May your steps be agile and your friends true!
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at email@example.com.