I often get asked by my American friends about the cultural differences with France and what to watch out for when traveling there. Here are a few tips about French traditions that might help you:
For informal greeting between a woman and a man or two women, kissing on the cheeks starting on the left side is common.
For interactions between two men or in formal interactions, handshakes are used.
Don't forget to say bonjour Madame/Monsieur to get someone's attention and au revoir to end a conversation.
Bonjour and au revoir are expected upon entering and exiting a store/shop.
Chez les français
When invited into a French home, it’s customary to bring a small gift such as chocolates, flowers, or candies.
You might also be invited to L'apéritif (L’apéro) which is a pre-dinner drink with finger food similar to a cocktail party. A typical invitation is: Tu viens pour l’apéro ? (Are you joining us for an apéro? ).
Appetizers are served with most formal meals, so don’t fill up before the main dish is served.
To know when to start eating or how to eat certain foods, observe what the host does.
Beverages are served at room temperature rather than cold or with ice.
The French view being formal as polite for interactions with strangers.
A quiet tone of voice is expected in public.
Dressing down is not common in France. Even when casual most French people care about what they are wearing.
Unsure about your French? Make sure to ask if someone speaks English before speaking to them in English.
The French downplay compliments. While compliments are common in the U.S., in France, thanking someone after they pay you a compliment can be viewed as arrogant. It's as if you are saying "thank you, I know! Isn't my outfit amazing?". Instead, try something along the lines of Pas du tout! Vous êtes trop gentil(le) (Not at all! you are too kind). This shows modesty and humility which French people view as more respectful.
Imitez les français
Let the natives take the lead. For example if the person uses tu when addressing you and says tu parles bien le français (you speak French well), you are in the clear to use the tu form. However, if you are worried about offending someone, simply ask Je pourrais vous tutoyer ? (May I use tu with you). French people will appreciate the question.
When in doubt, mimicking the behaviors of French locals will help you remain polite and respectful to the culture and traditions.
Faites de votre mieux
Yes the French are known for being uptight but they will likely go easy on you if they know you are trying.
You do not have to be fluent, just put some efforts and use the French you know, you will be just fine! And most French people find the American accent charming.