French Etiquette for Dummies

Etiquette book

It has recently come to my attention that etiquette is alive and well in France.

As an outsider, I have to constantly check myself to avoid committing any serious social faux pas.

Take the aperitif for example. Pre-meal, the standard offers are beer, muscat (a close cousin of the sweet, fortified wine which we Australian’s drink with dessert), kir (white wine with creme de cassis) or pastis (an alcohol that evokes tortured childhood memories of mistaking a black jellybean for a purple one).


But garden-variety white wine? For aperitif? Mais bien sûr que non. It’s simply not done.

Then there is the subject of cheese. Even in my childhood as an extremely picky eater, cheese was always on the menu. I could (and still can) happily eat it morning, noon and night.

But not in France. The cheese course comes after the main, before the dessert, and often, not at all.

Cheese course

The other night we were invited to a dinner to celebrate a friend’s birthday. It was a lovely evening, but it brought to my attention two facets of French life. The first, was when we arrived. Late. There were six of us who couldn’t make it until 45 minutes after the allotted start time. We had warned the host and she had assured us it wasn’t a problem. We assumed we would arrive in time for the entree.

When we finally made it inside, we were greeted by thirty people seated at two long tables, each with a full glass of kir before them, and apero snacks, completely untouched. I was mortified.

Surely they hadn’t sat like that for 45 minutes waiting for our arrival? Mais oui. And, we couldn’t simply slink to our seats, grab our glasses and put everyone out of their misery. Instead, etiquette dictated that all six of us squeeze ourselves between the chairs and say hello to each person. Individually. Two cheek kisses each. Then, we had to fight our way to our seats and wait for the somewhat apathetic wait staff to bring us our drinks, so finally, everyone could raise their glasses together, and start the evening.

La Bise

Later, with my dessert spoon halfway to my mouth, the lights in the restaurant went out, and were immediately replaced by a disco ball and the Black Eyed Peas at full volume. It was exactly midnight, and therefore, time to dance.

They played a good mix of current hits and the obligatory French nostalgia (think Claude Francois and Michel Sardou), along with the French version of ‘Oh What a Night’.

Then they played the Madison.

For those who haven’t had the fortune to come across this dance phenomenon, it’s a sort of line dance which was popular in the United States in the 50s and 60s, and for reasons unknown, is still a favourite of the French population today. No matter which part of France you find yourself in, everybody knows the steps. From the moment the first few bars float down from the speaker, the previously disorganised dance floor suddenly finds itself in neat, equidistant lines.

Thanks to my time spent working for Club Med, unfortunately I too, know the steps. And though I didn’t want to, because we were in Rome, I danced the Madison. And with each faux-jovial half-turn I liked myself a little less.

As the song finally drew to a close, and I heard the next one begin, I made a resolution there and then.


They can take my pre-dinner sauvignon blanc, and my mid-morning cheese break.

But they can’t make me dance the macarena.

Etiquette image courtesy of Neal Gillis on Flickr.
Ricard image courtesy of ledanois on Flickr.
Cheese course image courtesy of Muy Yum on Flickr.
Hello kiss image courtesy of bottlerocketprincess on Flickr.
Macarena image courtesy of chrissam42 on Flickr.


2 thoughts on “French Etiquette for Dummies

  1. Ali !! Who forbid you to have white wine at apéro ? WHO ? What about champagne ? What about Meursault, Chablis, Aligoté… ? What about Tariquet (Céline’s favorite) ? What about Rhône’s valley white wines made from Viognier ? And even red wines ! My dear Beaujolais, my beloved Loire’s valley gamay… Porto can do the job as well. And this is just about wines ! Did you try Suze (gentiane) with cassis (that’s what my Grandma takes at apéro, and belive me she’s etiquette made human) ? Spritz and Vermouths (Martini) from Italy ? Long drinks cocktails are also totaly ok, even in big fancy restaurants ! Ali, free yourself from people that want to keep you drinking low quality beer. You need a life to review everything french apéro can bring you 🙂 and why not having cheese at the same time ? I promess I won’t say anything to Nadine de Rodschild. The good thing I’m sure you already noticed about France: rules are everywhere, but they exist so you can break them, in the name of pleasure. If you enjoy, then you can’t be wrong 🙂

    • Haha thank you very much Fred! I feel much better now. Whenever I ask for wine at aperitif I receive shocked looks and whispers! I clearly need to have apero with you and Celine more often 🙂

      I have tried Suze (although not with cassis) and it wasn’t my favourite! I don’t love things that are bitter, so Martini isn’t my first choice either. But cocktails? Yes please!

      Thanks for your comment, I might just go and have some Chablis and cheese now… 🙂

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