Etiquette for Americans visiting Paris
March 7, 2017 10:36 AM   Subscribe

Heading to Paris for a vacation in a week. Would appreciate any tips you have for a pair of Americans in their late 30s (traveling without kids) on proper etiquette in France—the kinds of things that might not be obvious to travelers from the U.S. Regrettably we do not speak French, but any advice is welcome. Thanks!
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell to Travel & Transportation around Paris, France (31 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
The big one that I read (possibly metafilter) was to say, "bonjour madam/monsier" to the shop clerk when entering a store or restaurant. Because English is often the Esperanto of Europe, we had no problem muddling along without much French, especially in Paris.

Also, a bunch of our favorite things about Paris came from old metafilter threads, so definitely search. Two key items: the map apps can be great, and if you can climb it, do.
posted by ldthomps at 10:43 AM on March 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Just be polite, let any perceived rudeness roll off your back (really, don't worry about it), and enjoy :) Seconding ldthomps, say "Bonjour" (you don't have to add Madame/Monsieur) when entering shops. Even if you can't see anyone. You're likely to hear a disembodied "bonjour" in response.

Re: perceived rudeness. Personal space here is practically inexistent, so you'll feel crowded and as if people are aggressive. Some of them are! Don't worry about them. Also, people smile a lot less in public than in the States. This too can give an impression of coolness. Water off a duck's back.
posted by fraula at 10:45 AM on March 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

I actually found some good etiquette advice from the book Clotilde's Edible Adventures in Paris, from the blogger Clotilde Desouilier. The book is actually about restaurants and food shops, but she does have a couple sections of general etiquette tips and advice about customs throughout. (She's an absolutely charming writer too, and the book also has a few recipes; although some of the shops she's written about in there have since closed.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:06 AM on March 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

I got yelled at in Paris by a cafe employee when I tried to sit down with my children after buying just ice cream cones (which I only bought so we could sit down). Perhaps someone else could explain the rule I accidentally broke.
posted by FencingGal at 11:08 AM on March 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I lived in France for a while, went to Paris often. A couple tips off the top of my head:

- Definitely 'bonjour' when you enter and 'au revoir,' when you leave a place, at minimum. A week isn't much time, but try picking up a few basic phrases; it will be appreciated.

- Watch out for the volume of your voices! I don't know what it is about American tourists but they're some of the loudest people I've ever met, and I'm from India.

@FencingGal, cafes have different prices for service at the bar vs service at the table, maybe that was it?
posted by Tamanna at 11:11 AM on March 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you can't finish your meal, no matter how good it is, don't ask to take the rest with you. Just let it go. Doggie bags are not a thing.
posted by Mchelly at 11:16 AM on March 7, 2017 [8 favorites]

I've been to Paris a few times, with and without children. They're correct upthread: when you enter a shop, look the shopkeeper in the eye and say "bonjour" or "bonsoir" ("good day" "good evening"). Say merci instead of thank you. Parisians have this reputation for being rude but I think it's totally unfounded (same deal with NYers.) You just have to remember that this is their place. Be polite and generally everything will be fine.
posted by nushustu at 11:17 AM on March 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

cafes have different prices for service at the bar vs service at the table, maybe that was it?

Yep. And the etiquette is that if you want a table, you seat yourself and then wait for someone to take your order. For the big-name cafes, outside seating is sometimes more expensive than inside. If the cafe is switching over some or all tables for meal service with cutlery and tablecloths, don't sit at those tables unless you want a meal. (If there's a waiter at the door, wait to be seated.)
posted by holgate at 11:24 AM on March 7, 2017 [6 favorites]

Fencing gal, there's commonly different prices for where you sit in a cafe. The cost of a coffee at the bar versus a table can be different.
posted by raccoon409 at 11:25 AM on March 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Thanks Tamanna, holgate, and raccoon409. I knew I did something wrong, but I was never sure exactly what.
posted by FencingGal at 11:43 AM on March 7, 2017

In some shops they don't really form a visible line as we do in the U.S., but rather sort of clot around the register. I guess everyone visually keeps track of who is behind whom. Anyway, watch for the clot, don't assume it's just a bunch of people idly standing around.
posted by praemunire at 11:55 AM on March 7, 2017

I highly recommend Earworms to learn some basic French phrases before going.

Just about everyone that you encounter will speak English, but don't just barge up to someone and start talking to them in English. A quick "Pardon, parlez-vous anglais?" will be well received.

At restaurants, they won't bring you the bill until you ask for it: "Excusez-moi, l’addition s’il vous plait".
posted by donajo at 12:03 PM on March 7, 2017 [8 favorites]

If you have time. learn some basic French phrases like "where is…", "how much is…" etc. Nthing saying Bonjour when you enter a shop.

Wear nice clothes when you are visiting churches or other places of importance. Nothing says ugly American like cargo shorts and white tennis shoes. Avoid loud chatting inside Notre Dame.

We got yelled at when we sat at the wrong tables. Don't take it personally. Most Parisians are very polite and helpful.

Be careful at the popular destinations (Eiffel Tower, Louvre, etc.), lots of scam artists/pickpockets looking for gullible Americans. We had a better time exploring the lesser traveled streets and sights.

Be prepared for some strike to be going on. We arrived during a transportation strike and went through hell to get to the B&B. I thought I would hate Paris but it was the best trip Mrs Jabo and I had.
posted by jabo at 12:10 PM on March 7, 2017

I follow David Lebovitz, if you have the time to look through his posts, there are both comments about Parisien mores and great restaurant reviews.
It's really weird, because while I truly feel Americans are more polite than Europeans in general, Americans tend to seem very impolite over here. I have no idea why. So my advice would be: err on the side of exaggerated politeness. It can't harm, and it may help.
Make reservations for dinner. It shows you know what you are doing.
Also, while tips are included in most bills, there is still an expectation of a small extra tip. Nothing near a US tip, just a recognition of good service. I sometimes wonder if the perception that Parisians are rude comes out of the fact that in France, servers are (mostly) paid a living wage, and they are not jumping backwards to get your approval. This is a good thing. You will still get great service in Paris, but you need to give something back - respect, interest, etc.
Parisians are quite formal. You probably aren't even thinking that way, but still: don't wear sportswear, shorts, rucksacks, fanny packs if you want to be taken seriously. It's a city, not a hiking trail.
Remember that everyone understands English, even if some people don't speak it. I've seem some catastrophes happen because Americans wrongly assumed that people didn't undertand what they were saying.
posted by mumimor at 12:18 PM on March 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

The big one that I read (possibly metafilter) was to say, "bonjour madam/monsier" to the shop clerk when entering a store or restaurant.

The key to understanding this is that in the French view you are entering their space so you must be first to announce yourself as a condition for entry unlike the anglo rule where a shopkeeper should welcome a visitor first. I've never felt the need for a madame/monsieur though but I am a Quebecois barbarian so take what I say with a serving of poutine.
posted by srboisvert at 12:21 PM on March 7, 2017 [6 favorites]

I found this thread helpful for understanding cafe etiquette.
posted by neushoorn at 12:30 PM on March 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Learn "excuse me, do you speak English?" in French for when you need to ask anything more complicated than "please could I have...". You will often get a self-effacing "un petit peu" as a reply ("a little bit") from someone who then appears to actually be fluent.

Learn "please could I have one/two/three" - it's fine to just say that while pointing at the thing you want.

Say bonsoir in the afternoon, bonjour is effectively "good morning" and may get you a funny look after midday.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:06 PM on March 7, 2017

Well, I thought me and my friend getting yelled at by a cafe owner was odd, but apparently not, reading the answers here, so, prepare to get yelled at!

I found that knowing how to say "je ne parle pas francais" (I don't speak French") was helpful. Add a "je suis desole" if that seems too abrupt. But really, your accent should give away that you don't speak French.

A lot of metro cars' doors have a lever that you have to push if you want to open the door. Don't miss your stop!
posted by Automocar at 1:13 PM on March 7, 2017

I went to Paris with a group of American friends and thought we'd be hated. We had the opposite experience- everyone was lovely and we didn't experience any rudeness. I think it helped that we tried to use our (terrible) French and didn't just start talking to people in English. They all switched to English anyhow but presumably appreciated the effort. I also made an effort to dress a little nicer than I normally do on vacation (no sneakers).
Have a fantastic time!
posted by emd3737 at 1:13 PM on March 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Just as a counterpoint to the dress codes being suggested – I live and work in Paris, have on one of my four pairs of Merrells at any given time, a Marmot hiking jacket or teal Uniqlo down jacket, and my (bright purple) Thule laptop backpack. Yet I'm always treated politely, even when I step into the Galeries Lafayette jewelry section on Haussmann. The key is politeness and consideration. People can tell the difference between sincerity and "I'm only being polite because I have to." They really, really can.
posted by fraula at 2:15 PM on March 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

oh but fraula, you're looking good and you know it. ;-) I wa thinking if I could explain the difference between touristy sportswear and cool sportswear and decided it would better to posit a simple rule. I'm certain that more detailed and nuanced suggestions with images will be appreciated.
posted by mumimor at 2:40 PM on March 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Meh, no Parisian is going to die of wounded sensibilities seeing a person in sportswear on the street. Obviously there are more formal settings in which such clothing would be inappropriate, but there's a difference between one's clothes not being comme il faut and one's clothes being actively offensive.

Like, there's really no point in pretending that you're not an American, wherever you are. Obey rules of clothing and deportment that pertain to genuine harm to your hosts, by all means, but the fact is: they can tell you're foreigners anyway. No point in being shamefaced about it. A person who will be rude to you because you are wearing sneakers on the street is a person who it is not worth your time to try to appease.
posted by praemunire at 2:52 PM on March 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Nthing the advice above that you should start any conversation or question in a public place with the appropriate French greeting (Bonjoir, Bonsoir, whatever) and then, in French, "I'm sorry but I don't speak French", all while smiling. Almost everyone will understand English but they just want a small token of recognition from you that you KNOW you are in France. It's amazing the difference that it made in people's attitude towards me (who speaks almost zero French) when I was there for two months. But just imagine the reaction a French person would get in America if they walked into almost any bar or restaurant and started blithely ordering something straight off in French!
posted by banishedimmortal at 3:27 PM on March 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Drinking a coffee while you're walking down the street — or riding a bus or subway — isn't something people do. If you're eating or drinking, stop and sit to do it.
posted by lukez at 5:38 PM on March 7, 2017

Less of an etiquette thing, and more of "don't stand out as a tourist" thing. Most restaurants/cafes do not serve food all day. The have set hours where they serve lunch and if you are not eating lunch by 2, you're not eating lunch. The cafe may look open, with people sitting and eating - but they were seated/ordered when the cafe was serving lunch. It was confusing for me for the first few days in Paris. Near tourist spots, some cafes will advertise "all day service" which is akin to a standard restaurant service in the states.

I speak a smattering of French and my husband speaks absolutely none. We got along fine and we had 0 instances of stereotypical french rudeness.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 6:41 PM on March 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

The key is politeness and consideration. People can tell the difference between sincerity and "I'm only being polite because I have to." They really, really can.

I think this is key, and picks up a little on mumimor's earlier comment: Ask works better than Guess in these situations. That's more difficult if you don't have any French at all to draw upon, but you can get most of the way along with just the formal basics. Top and tail your interactions, and if you hit a situation where you're normally inclined to Guess it out, throw yourself a little on the mercy of where you are and Ask to be guided. (French culture, in my experience, has a lot of explicit and implicit "interdit" to it, and it's better to pause and defer than to tread on toes.)
posted by holgate at 8:42 PM on March 7, 2017

Mr hgg and I love Paris and have been there many times. We have never found people there to be any ruder than anywhere else, but people definitely seem to appreciate efforts to follow local etiquette like the bonjour Monsieur/Madame thing mentioned above, and attempts to use some simple French terms like hello, goodbye, yes, no, excuse me.

One thing that takes a while to get used to is the Parisian (French?) preference for exact change. It is definitely A Thing. There are a lot of cashiers who are very reluctant to break large bills, so if you can choose smaller bills at the bank machine, do. And try to get as many coins as you can.

The last time we were there, mr hgg tried to pay for for an item that cost (say) €9.90 with a €10 note and was asked by the clerk if he had the correct change, so loathe was she to give up the 10 cent coin. And this was in the gift shop at a large museum, not some tiny independent corner grocer that might have run out of coins. After we left the shop we laughed our heads off because it was just the most perfect example of the phenomenon we had witnessed.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:13 PM on March 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Whatever you do, avoid wearing tennis shoes and sportswear in general. It's poor taste and best left to the riffraff.

I'm only mildly kidding.
posted by Kwadeng at 10:28 PM on March 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

And try to get as many coins as you can.

I've said this in a few travel threads, but it bears repeating: also get in the habit of spending coins. Americans assume from habit that anything that costs anything requires paper money and generates shrapnel for the change jar, but in Europe that'll weigh you down with the equivalent of $50 in euros that can't be converted back into dollars when you get home. If it's under 10 euro, check your pockets.
posted by holgate at 11:58 PM on March 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Parisian here : hold the door, HOLD the door! When you enter or exit a place, look behind you and hold the door for the next person. Don't just push the door and leave at it. It's rude!
Also : as much as we might hate the reasons behind this code, if you're male hold the door and let women pass before you. It makes everything (a little bit) easier and avoids bumping into each other.
If you need to speak in English, first excuse yourself or ask "Do you speak English?". No need to try to speak French, but just show you don't take for granted the fact that everybody speaks your language. Frenchs tend to think Americans are arrogant and speaking English de facto probably contributes to this image.
If you can, have change : not all shops accept credit cards (especially true for the boulangeries, which you absolutely shouldn't miss!).
And yes, don't speak too loud (and it's coming from a deaf person ;)).
Anyway, hope you'll have a blast in Paris. I find my city has become nicer and nicer over the last ten years :-)
posted by Ifite at 1:07 AM on March 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

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