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Bonnes manières à la française ou à l'anglaise: Comment éviter le faux pas ?
As a French expatriate, there are some faux pas you should avoid in the UK and vice versa. Though only separated by a small channel the cultural differences between both countries are numerous. Neither the French nor the English, two very proud nations, will take kindly to a social mishap so, in order to help you avoid these, we have highlighted the most important differences in etiquette.
Dining etiquette plays a vital role in the creation of an impressive environment. Avoiding a faux pas is an absolute necessity.
Laying the table
Prima facie, laying a table properly in France and in the UK is not entirely different. The basic principles remain the same: the table should be immaculately and even artistically laid, napkins should never be in paper, china has to be unblemished (chipped china is rude whatever the kind of party), candles are de rigueur in the evening but for lunch it would be too much and almost ridiculous. Yet there are also some slight differences. First in the way of placing cutlery.
- Placing cutlery
Concerning forks, in France prongs should always be facing down. For two good reasons: first of all it is said that blue-blooded people used to be afraid of prongs ever since the French Revolution. Who can blame them? It reminded them of the menacing forks of the "sans culottes"... Do you want your guests to be afraid of bloodthirsty revolutionaries? This rule is also due to the location of their coat of arms, which in France were traditionally engraved on the back of the fork. In the UK, however, coats of arms were engraved on the other side. That's why in order to show them to their guests prongs had to be facing up. These codes are still in practice today, so pay attention.
- Bread plates
In France bread is sacred. And yet French people put it down directly on the table. In the UK it would be regarded as very bad manners. The table is usually laid with a bread plate. If in some cases, there is no side plate, then the bread is placed on the main plate never on the tablecloth. These small plates are also used as a cheese plate at the end of dinner. Don't be surprised.
Here are two small patterns to be understood.
In France you absolutely have to put your hands on the table or more exactly your fore-arms (and never ever your elbows). This position could seem quite unpleasant for a Briton but it's an elementary duty even for a simple family lunch. Why? It may be because French people are frivolous and so, in this position, everybody can see where their hands are... Britons must be more trustworthy: They could sit with one hand on the table and the other on their knee or even with the two hands under the table. Putting your two hands on the table would appear weird and uptight.
And what about legs? Is folding one's legs polite? Not really and this applies to either side of the Channel.
Asking for diet
In the UK more people have special diets: for instance the vegetarian diet is extremely widespread. So don't hail it as weird when people ask you for your diet when they invite you and do say the truth: no meat, no cheese, no fish... Think about asking when you're the host too, this will certainly help avoid uncomfortable situations.
Both in France and in the UK it is polite to bring something when you are invited. But not the same thing. In the UK it will be expected that young people bring alcohol (wine or even beer). Don't forget! Sometimes invitations specify "Bring a bottle". In other cases you can bring chocolate boxes, flowers... as in France. There is one exception, though, for big black-tie parties: as the host is going to be very busy, embarrassing her with flowers during the reception would not be welcome; consider sending them before or after the party instead.
Traditionally in the UK port is served at the end of the dinner. Port is put on the table for guests to help themselves. Though it is true that today fewer people drink it, no formal dinner is really complete without it. On the contrary in France, port is served as an aperitif. Don't be surprised!
In France, although it is rude, we often see people smoking during dinner, between courses. This, however, is totally unacceptable in the UK. Smoking indoors nowadays is rude except if the hosts specifically says that you may.
Loyal Toast to the Sovereign
Concerning the Loyal Toast to the Sovereign, don't feel disturbed. Just enjoy your drink and say "The Queen". This is to be done at the end of dinner.
However, British people should not try to toast to the French President... this would be considered weird!
Having a conversation with French and with English people is quite different. If a French person asks a British person for his opinion about a politician, the situation will be very awkward since in the UK politics is still slightly taboo. Philosophy is regarded as boring and stormy debates are to be avoided at all cost. And yet this is what the French love. In the same way, don't contradict the other guests just for fun. It is not fun at all in the UK where conciliation is preferred to debates.
Don't refer to money or wealth when you speak to a French person, it will be regarded as extremely vulgar. Pay careful attention to these details and avoid being bad company.
- Evening parties
French are much less audacious than British regarding fashion: When British people go out, they are not afraid to show off. Gorgeous dresses for ladies and dinner jackets for men are usually the norm for an evening party unless otherwise specified, which most of the time the dress code is. For black-tie party the attire is very formal and classy: evening dresses for ladies and black-tie for men. For a white-tie party you have to dress up more. Swallow-tailed tuxedo is de rigueur. Don't worry if you don't have one you can still rent one at Moss Bross!
French people are more discreet, most of the time parties are more casual and the dress code is not so often mentioned.
So try and dress accordingly...
-At the office
British people pay more attention to clothes at work. Whereas in France a man can go to work with odd jacket and trousers, this would be unacceptable in the UK. Attire has to be formal at all times expect on Friday which is more casual. Be careful this doesn't mean that you can wear a simple T-shirt, but you can remove your tie...
The written word
- Christmas cards
As a French person, if you have British friends or even acquaintances, I'm sure you've already been impressed by the fact that, every year, they send you a Christmas card, whereas writing one to your grandmother is already a chore for you. In fact, this is a major tradition in the UK. Christmas cards have to be sent in December to everyone you care about. Not to do so would be considered very rude. In France people don't write that much and one can even wait until January to send "cartes de voeux". Calling your friends and family for Christmas or New Year Eve is more common.
- Invitation letters
British people love writing. Even if they organise a party they will, most of the times, send you a written invitation whereas French are more likely to call. If you want to receive at your place in the UK you could use some forms of address as "Mrs and Mr X at home" plus the date, time and type of entertainment.
- Thank you letters
To thank people, writing a letter is the usual behaviour. In good colleges students are even taught to write good thank you letters... Don't forget this if you have been invited. This is regarded as an elementary "savoir vivre" rule.
The speaking word
In France, the speaking word is particularly codified and subtle. "Vouvoiement", forms of address, hierarchy... In the UK the situation seems to be easier: everybody is you" and calling someone using his first name is not a problem at all, even your boss. Don't dare do the same in France, "Monsieur X" or "Monsieur le directeur" will be perfect... Giving someone a nickname is also more usual in the UK. Calling someone who is French and you have just met "my love", "my dear" or "sweetheart" would make you sound weird or even ill-intentioned.
Punctuality is not regarded in the same way around the world. In France punctuality can be approximate, you could even hear about the " quart d'heure de politesse" ( being 15 minutes late to be polite). The idea is to let the hosts finish preparing the party without rushing them. In the UK on the contrary punctuality is a golden rule. Some invitations even mention "8.00 for 8.30". It means that the party or the dinner will begin precisely at 8.30 and that you are supposed to be there from 8.00. Being late in that case would be unforgivable. Especially if the hostess decided to cook a soufflé!!!
Dealing with the unexpected
English people are not the kind who like dealing with the unexpected. Whereas in France you can bring someone unexpected at the last minutes just to make a call, it would be regarded as extremely rude in the UK. In the same way, staying after lunch would seem awkward even with family whereas in France you may be invited to stay for dinner, eating some pasta or the leftovers. In the same way, you definitely can't pop by your friends, neighbours or even family without having called first to find out if it is convenient.
As a French person in the UK you should be cautious about the words you use in order to be polite. Some words that derive from the French will not be of good taste. For instance don't use "toilets" or "serviettes". These are correct, but the preferred forms are "loo" and "napkins" which sound more polite.
The office is a centre for socialising. W all the same in France as in the UK.
French people generally hate their boss. He is regarded as the enemy and so are all superiors. Tensions always exists between the hierarchical levels. The employer-employee relation is very different in Great-Britain. In fact, in the UK the sense of authority is less burdensome and executives seem to be more approachable. Chiefs are often called by their first name and the "Monsieur le Président" would make them laugh.
In the same way, relationships with colleagues are easier. In the UK it is usual to have drinks with colleagues and superiors after work, and even encouraged. So some firms organise after work parties, presuming that people who know each other work together better. On the contrary in France "metro-boulot-dodo" still seems to be the rule. Take your time before trying to become close with your French colleagues.
Wherever you are, don't forget your usual good manners at the office!
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