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Etiquette
Culture

Bonnes manières à la française ou à l'anglaise: Comment éviter le faux pas ?

By No author
13/11/2009

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.

 

 

Gentleman
Gentleman

 

Table manners 

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.

 

Laying the table in the UK
Laying the table in the UK
 
 
 
Laying the table in France
Laying the table in France

 

Position 

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.

Laying the table
Laying the table

Bringing something

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!

Smoking

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!

Social manners 

Conversation 

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.

Find out more about taboos 

Black tie
Black tie

Dress code

- 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.

 

Invitation letter
Invitation letter

 

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
punctuality

Punctuality

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.

Vocabulary

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. 

Office manners

The office is a centre for socialising. W all the same in France as in the UK.

Hierarchy

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.

Colleagues

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. 

Find out more about differences between French and British companies 

Wherever you are, don't forget your usual good manners at the office!

Office manners
Office manners

COMMENTAIRES:

08/10/2016 - Normanclark1955 a dit :

As a Canadian living in French Quebéc, I understand and live both cultures.....They are very different! But love them both....

08/02/2016 - s.pollock-hill a dit :

Did you know that the French when they serve salad, the correct usage is to toss it 26 times (why 26- no idea?) I thought this was an anacronism and a blague by a French boy doing an exchange with us in the Sixties, but I heard a lady chef on Radio 4 repeat this. "Fatiguer la salade " is not a translation of toss- (well only if one is being a bit rude to male members!)

06/05/2015 - s.pollock-hill a dit :

Port ...NB in Britain
If a formal dinner party vintage port is often drunk at the end of the meal, with cheese cheddar or Stilton) being passed round with grapes celery, and perhaps nuts.
In the old days ( up to late Sixties, the hostess used to i9nvite the ladies to join her in the (with) drawing room, while vintage port and cigars were served to men who discussed business or ribald stories. the host has the decanter bottled in front of him and he serves himself and passes it to the left ALWAYS! It must keep circulating round back to the host with everyone helping themselves or passing it on.Some Port could be 50-100 years old, and decanted in advance. Experts know the favourite vintages. Now, with slimming and thebreathalyser for drinking Port is often not served.

06/05/2015 - s.pollock-hill a dit :

re:Position,
You have ignored the fact that the French need to "speak" with their hands, or "gesticulate", this is very un-English, so one hand under the table, sometimes.
I attended a dinner in London lastbweek when the Toast was "The Queen", and another "The French president"!- I noticed some did not toast the latter, but all the former!
(It was the annual French Chamber of Commerce Dinner at a top London Hotel!)

05/12/2014 - timothy.wood4 a dit :

Great information here, and good comments. Being a bit traditional, in business if a new acquaintance (particularly someone trying to sell me something ) uses my first name immediately I, like many others, find this too 'forward' and so irritating. Up goes the shield and obtaining my custom becomes harder. Often permission will be obtained after a polite time .."may I call you Timothy or do you prefer Tim?".

16/09/2013 - renehenrygillescarre a dit :

I think you forgot to specify that is very impolite and rude if you do not open immediately the present brought by a guest in France. Many of English people in france don't know that !

09/01/2013 - elsadefontaines a dit :

I was always told that the habits of having the hands on the table in France is due to the "affair of the poisons" under Louis XIV where many people were poisonned during meals. The king would have forbidden his guests to keep their hands under the table to keep an eye on them. As the rest of the country imitated the aristocracy, everyone started putting their hands on the table while eating.

15/07/2012 - Markiep1009 a dit :

A toast to The Queen, or Loyal Toast as it is known is only given at formal dinners, not normally at private dinner parties.

The dress code in British business circles has relaxed very significantly in recent years.

14/06/2012 - deanejennings a dit :

I arrived at 7.00 pm on the dot once with French hosts in France and found him still in the shower, and her still cooking in the kitchen, and nothing ready. Although she was polite I could tell that she wasn't pleased to see us.

It really is polite to not arrive on time in France, and for all these years my guests have been turning up late by 20 - 30 minutes, and I never realised why! Doh.

29/06/2010 - 176094885 a dit :

Well , the view of the passage is totally correct ,your details is really reasonable and you guy give us valuable informative post, I totally agree the standpoint of upstairs. I often surfing on this forum when I m free and I find there are so much good information we can learn in this forum!

18/12/2009 - patriciaconnell a dit :

In answer to some of the points made below:
1) Toast to the Queen - I was at a formal dinner last week with over 1000 people and there was toast to the Queen.
2) The French Habit of 'Cleaning up' Sauce on a plate - Many French people do it but it is also considered bad manners.
3) The French do use a same plate when eating at home but I have to say I have never seen it done with a soup bowl.
4) The French have fish knives and forks but similarly to the Brits, not everyone uses them.


18/12/2009 - sbinysh a dit :

Other table differences:
When eating soup, the spoon is pushed away from the body in the UK but towards the body in France;
the French habit of 'cleaning up' sauce on the plate with bread is considered extremely rude in the UK;
When eating at home, the French might use a single plate for several courses including soup, whereas the British use a separate plate for each course.
I've never seen a fish knife and fork in France - do they exist there?

05/12/2009 - ljcallow a dit :

re:Dress At the office
I don't know where you work but as a Brit I disagree with your analysis of dress at work, dress down Fridays are being actively discouraged these days.. I would certainly NOT be unacceptable to go to work in an "odd" I guess you mean mismatched jacket and trousers.. this is not Victorian England!!
PS I have NEVER heard a toast to the Queen...and I have dined at some very conservative families' tables

20/11/2008 - marylouisebajolle a dit :

What about the serving of the cheese course at meals? In the UK this is usually kept until last, ie after the dessert course. In France the cheese is served before the dessert course. This makes sense to me, but it still took a lot to get used to! ;-)
Thank you, Mary-Louise

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