Faux pas

Mind the faux pas!I used to think that a ‘faux pas’ (literally, a false step; figuratively, a blunder) was the same as ‘faut pas’ (as in ‘must not’ from the verb ‘falloir’). In the end I realized they are two sides of the same coin: in France, il ne faut pas faire des faux pas. Which hasn’t stopped me from making a considerable number of my own.

Il faut and il ne faut pas are among the most overused words in the French language, deserving of a dedicated post. As for the faux pas, I’ve decided to translate a few of my red-faced moments into a what-not-to-do list.

  1. Do not tell people you live on a ‘cul-de-sac’.
    In English this may describe a highly desirable address; in French, the words have a different connotation, one that is closer to the dead end. (And by the way, in polite company it’s safer to avoid all phrases with the word ‘cul’).
  2. Do not ask for the maître d’
    (or may-truh dee as we anglos pronounce it). You can try ‘maître d’hôtel’ but beware – this is rather posh in French and you may get laughed out of lower-end places.
  3. Do not order dry red wine
    As a rule all French reds are dry. Note that the French generally refer to wine by regions, not cépages (the grape). If you’re in a wine bar you may be able to get away with ordering a glass of Merlot or Chardonnay – but this will blow your chances of passing for a local.
  4. Do not ask for ketchup
    Unless you really want to prove the truth in the French preconceptions about les anglais (and especially les américains) Or possibly unless you order french fries. But if you want to go local, avoid the condiments completely. If you must, stick with Dijon.
  5. Don’t eat (or drink) at your desk
    Meals are social occasions in France, at work as well as in personal life. Coffee is best enjoyed with your colleagues while catching up on the latest news – or ragots (gossip). Sure, you can take the occasional drink to your desk – even eat a sandwich there if there’s a work crunch – but don’t miss out on the many opportunities in French working life to show how well you’ve ‘integrated’ the team.
  6. Do not kiss strangers
    I have nothing against romance, but the customary cheek kissing in France is dangerous ground for foreigners. As a rule, follow the lead of the French with les bises, and don’t kiss anyone unless they kiss you first.
  7. Don’t point when you want to cross
    Nope. Not done in France, even at cross-walks. The cars will not stop anyway unless you’re already crossing. They will laugh, even honk, at how ridiculous you look while standing there pointing.
  8. Don’t ask, don’t tell
    Avoid giving away too much information or asking too many questions. People here don’t want to hear your life story, and they don’t want to tell you theirs. The French reveal little about themselves to anyone who’s not close friends and family.
  9. Don’t swear or use slang
    Remember when your parents said ‘Do as I say, not as I do’? This is kind of a double standard, especially coming from an admitted gutter mouth. But you have to be very fluent indeed to get away with curse words and use the local jargon in French. If you must use an expletive, the safest is probably merde.
  10. Don’t leave without saying goodbye
    This presumes you should also say hello but it ain’t necessarily so. Somehow, while the French rarely introduce themselves and often neglect to say hello, to leave any shared space (whether an elevator or a shop) without saying a vague ‘au revoir’ is universally accepted as rude.

So there you have it, my tried-and-true list of easily avoidable French faux pas. Feel free to ignore and stumble on…or even better, please share any of your own!


  1. BigLizzy · September 27, 2013

    Bonjour, mon ami! I thought of another social faux pas. Asking someone what they do for a living. The French hate this, non? When we Americans talk with each other, it’s standard operating procedure to ask “What do you do for a living”, but in France, NO! Do not ask a French person what they do for a living. It’s considered rude and not relevant to social situations. Instead, start a passionate argument (in French, of course) over any topic (other than work) and the French will love you, though they might not show it. 😉 God, I love that country and its people so, so much.

    • MELewis · September 28, 2013

      You got it, Lizzy! I guess it’s a matter of public vs private, and the line in France is so very different from what expect as North Americans…where we come from, if you don’t ask people what they do, how many kids they have, etc, you’re considered cold and stand-offish. But can certainly win friends in France through passionate discussion — as long it doesn’t get too personal around politics and religion! Merci pour tes commentaires…et a très bientôt!

      • BigLizzy · October 2, 2013

        You’re totally right, my friend. Of course! 🙂 I love the French. I really do. And, you’re most welcome for the comments, honey. Thanks for visiting me on my blog, too. Hugs (because we’re North Americans and we can do that–LOL!), BigLizzy

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  3. emmakayr · April 4, 2014

    I love number 7! It’s so true – it takes a lot of guts to cross the roads here!

    • MELewis · April 4, 2014

      Yes, it reminds me of a game of chicken…you have to go before anyone even considers stopping. I imagine in the southwest it’s even worse!

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  7. Chuck Sanders · September 18, 2021

    French preconceptions about les américains ? We also have some about them as illustrated in the joke. “If you want to know how to get to Paris, ask a German”

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