Sometimes learning the language is not enough! Four Faux Pas not to make in France.
I have always been a Francophile, and some years ago I was fortunate enough to realise my dream of buying a second home in Uzès in the south of France. I immediately decided to brush up my French language skills and immerse myself in the local culture. I started to read the local paper, visit the cinema, hang out in the bars and cafés, attend the local festivals and, of course, shop in the wonderful markets. As friends came to visit, I could show them around like a tourist guide, taking them to places off the beaten track, and they would be impressed by my local knowledge. I learned to cook local dishes (with considerable help from Eric at Cook’n with Class) and I took to the Languedoc wines like a native (!) and gradually I started to make a few French friends.
Soon I was invited to a party by a French neighbour. As I was one of only two English guests at the party, my hostess kindly took a great deal of time introducing me to the other guests. . I started to relax and enjoyed practising my schoolgirl French, making polite small talk as easily as at home. Numerous toasts were made and my glass was constantly refilled by my hostess. The evening passed quickly and enjoyably but I could tell that some of my fellow guests seemed a little startled at times and I wondered if I had perhaps inadvertently caused offence. I shared my concerns with the one other English guest and was politely but firmly informed that I had committed no less than four social solecisms!
So what heinous crimes had I committed?
Faux pas #1 – To Drink or Not to Drink
Well the first unwritten rule that I had broken was one known by every French woman. You never actually drink your wine, you just spend all evening with the glass dangling elegantly from your bejewelled hand. The reason? French women are famously self-disciplined when it comes to maintaining their figures. They exercise restraint in what they eat and what they drink. Yes, you will see them tucking into enormous plates at lunchtime, but note how they are mainly eating lean protein and vegetables or a huge mixed salad, and you rarely see them drink a second glass of wine. By allowing my champagne glass to be refilled, I had shown myself to be a typical Anglo-Saxon.
Faux pas #2 – Playing Taboo
The second unwitting error that I had made was during the small talk. During the initial introductions I had told other guests where I came from, how I knew our hostess and what I did for a living. I asked reciprocal questions of my fellow guests and this was where I had come unstuck. It seems that certain topics are, if not taboo, certainly not regarded as subjects for discussion on a first meeting and one such topic is the world of work. I asked my French penfriend about this, some years later, and her explanation was that the other person may be unhappy in their job, or unemployed and so talking about work might be awkward or embarrassing for them. She also said that the French like to meet to discuss ideas, and that they prefer to judge others by what they say, rather than by the job that they do. Not everyone can benefit from an elite education and a top job, but we are all entitled to express ourselves and be valued for the contribution we make to intellectual life. Similarly the question of where someone lives is irrelevant. In France most social interaction is carried out in public spaces, bars or restaurants and the home is a private space reserved for family and intimate friends. You could live in an apartment or a mansion, and only your closest friends would ever know.
I found her response very shaming, as I realised how much of the easy chitchat that we have with new acquaintances in the UK is precisely about helping us to “place” people in some way with all the inbuilt prejudices that this brings.
Faux Pas #3 – Hands On/Hands Off
The third mistake was to keep my hands off the dinner table. In the UK we are taught from childhood not to put our elbows on the table, and we frequently sit with our hands in our lap during meals. I am reliably informed that in France, your hands should be visible above the table at all times during a meal. I will leave you to work out why this should be.
Faux pas #4 – Cheers/Santé
My final mistake was perhaps the most awkward. I had not learned the ritual of the toast. In England we may clink glasses, or simply raise our glass and say “cheers” and this is often done, almost without thinking. In France the toast is almost a sacred moment. You raise your glass to each member of the group individually, all the while maintaining eye contact, before clinking your glasses and then, finally, taking a sip. I had failed this test on so many levels, and I think that I now understand the look of panic on my fellow guests faces……… apparently, there is a superstition that failing to toast in the correct manner leads to seven years bad sex! (Do you think that they will ever forgive me?)
Next time you’re coming to Uzès, be sure to inquire about Louise’s lovely rental and of course if you’re looking for a French cooking class in Uzès we’d be happy to assist you.
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