15 extremely French customs that make no sense to the rest of the world

French customs can be difficult to navigate. While there’s nothing more French than pairing a crusty baguette with a soft brie and crisply chilled Chenin Blanc, taking a bottle of wine to a dinner party is considered an absolu non-non in France. Peculiar to say the least. But, there certainly is a method to their ‘madness’. These are our favourite, somewhat unusual French customs:

1. Never take wine to a dinner party

Your host has carefully chosen the wine for the evening. By bringing your own wine, you may inadvertently imply that you don’t trust the host’s taste in wine, or that you would prefer your own.

Interestingly, flowers can also be controversial. Moreover, if you decide to go down the flower route, avoid chrysanthemums as the French associate it with death.

Person holding a bottle of wine and flowers

2. Try and arrive at least 15 to 20 minutes late

While in many countries this is considered rude, in France it’s an unspoken rule. Guests will always arrive a little late – lest they surprise their host in the middle of the preparations. Of course, this only applies to dinner parties though. Please be punctual for restaurant reservations.

3. Kiss, kiss

In France, most residents practice the double kiss greeting, i.e. a glancing kiss on each cheek. And, there are regions, particularly in northern France, where people favour four kisses – even five. This can catch visitors off-guard, as can potential awkwardness around which cheek to present first!

4. Always say hello and goodbye

The French will always say hello and goodbye. And, this includes greeting the shopkeeper as you enter a store, a quick hello to everyone in the waiting room as you arrive for an appointment – and a warm goodbye when you leave a conversation or exit a store.

5. You’ll have to ask for ice

The French prefer to drink their water and soft drinks at room temperature, or lightly chilled. Of course, this means you’ll have to ask for ice. And diluting wine with ice? Close to sacrilege.

6. The art of downplaying a compliment

The French never want to appear conceited or egotistical. So, there is a particularly French way of accepting a compliment, which is to downplay it at all costs. For example, acceptable responses to a compliment include: “No, not at all! You’re too kind”, “This old thing?” and “Think nothing of it, it was no trouble at all”.

7. Chivalrous to the end

French men are often quick to leap to a lady’s aid, whether it’s opening a door or helping her with her coat.  Very importantly, this unsolicited (and sometimes surprising) assistance should only ever be interpreted as an example of French galanterie.

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8. Grab a baguette

From ficelle to brioche and pain de campagne, France’s famous boulangeries are filled to the brim with fresh loaves, croissants and pastries. In a country where classic baguette dough is actually defined by French law, you know the residents take their bread very seriously. In addition, in France, bread is often placed directly on the table rather than a plate.  

stack of French baguette

9. Drink tea from a bowl … but only at breakfast

There are some French customs that continue to baffle and confound visitors. Of course, none more so than the habit of drinking tea out of a bowl. The French enjoy drinking their morning beverage (tea or coffee) out of a small, cereal-sized bowl.

10. Enjoy a long, leisurely lunch

Spend a restful hour in a Parisian café, sipping an espresso and watching the world go by, and you’ll soon realise that the French believe life is best enjoyed slowly. Instead of bolting down food to ‘refuel’, the French approach is to slow down and connect with friends and colleagues over a leisurely lunch.

Bistro Parisien

11. Talk politics and religion

What do the French talk about over their long lunches and relaxed dinner parties?  In contrast to the rest of the world, no topic is taboo. While foreigners may shy away from discussing politics, money or religion, the French love frank, intellectual debates – and nothing is off the agenda.  

12. Forget children’s menus

France’s love affair with good food is another cornerstone of French customs and culture. And the kids start young. Therefore, don’t expect a children’s menu if you’re travelling around France. No chicken nuggets or fish fingers in this part of the world, French children eat off the main menu.

13. Say no to plastic bags

France is leading the world in terms of banning single-use plastic, including plastic carrier bags, plates, cups and utensils. In fact, expect to pay extra for paper bags or recycled plastic bags – or carry your own. And you’ll be expected to ‘bag’ your own groceries.

14. France’s April Fools’ Day pranks are a little fishy

In France, April Fools’ Day is best-known for the poisson d’avril (April Fish), one of the French customs that dates back to 1564. Not only does this delightful and uniquely French tradition see young children pranking adults by sticking a paper fish onto their back, they also dash away swiftly and yell “poisson d’avril!”

15. Celebrate “Old Maid’s Day” in a frightfully fanciful green hat

During November, every year the French celebrate Saint Catherine’s Day. Saint Catherine is the patron saint of unmarried women, lacemakers, milliners, drapers and craftspeople.

So to mark the day, the French give single female friends or colleagues a decorative hat (often in green or yellow). Of course, this is for them to wear as a token of good luck in their quest to find a husband.

What are your favourite French customs?

What are your favourite encounters with French traditions that came as a complete surprise? Share them in the comments below…

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