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.
- 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’).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!