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A guide into French culture: Language, arts, and etiquette

When you think of France, perhaps the sparkling Eiffel Tower at night or the aroma of freshly baked croissants in the morning comes to mind. But there's so much more to experiencing French culture. Unveiling the depths of French culture is like peeling an onion (or perhaps enjoying layers of a mille-feuille.) Every layer has a story, a taste, a sound, and a memory.

In this guide, we'll weave through the cobblestone streets of French history, take a pit stop at French etiquette (yes, there’s a correct way to enjoy that cheese), and revel in the sounds of French arts and music. Let’s get started!

French history

France's history is a testament to its enduring spirit and influence on the world stage. From its early days as the Celtic land of Gaul, confronting the might of the Roman Empire, to the transformative Age of Enlightenment, the nation has consistently been at the forefront of pivotal moments in global history.

Figures like the complex Napoleon Bonaparte, a military commander and political leader, reshaped Europe's landscape. The turbulent times of the French Revolution echoed the people's cry for change, shaping modern France. Today, with its rich cultural heritage, France stands as a hub of art, science, and democracy, continuing to inspire and lead in the ever-evolving global narrative.

French society

France's society, rich with historical influences and regional idiosyncrasies, reflects the nation's long-standing values, beliefs, and traditions. Here's a closer look at French culture when it comes to the structure of its society:

Social hierarchies: France, while firmly grounded in the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, has its own set of social hierarchies. While not always overtly visible, these hierarchies are deeply rooted in history, regional affiliations, educational backgrounds, and professions. Understanding these nuances is essential for anyone looking to immerse themselves in French society.

Education system: France prides itself on its rigorous and competitive education system. From primary schools to the esteemed “Grandes Écoles,” French education emphasizes critical thinking, debate, and the arts. The country has produced a plethora of philosophers, writers, and scientists, making it a global beacon of intellect and culture. Students are often exposed to a comprehensive curriculum that balances science, literature, and the arts.

Work culture: Contrary to popular stereotypes, the French take their work seriously. While they indeed value work-life balance, leading to a shorter workweek (~35 hours) compared to other countries, they also emphasize productivity and efficiency while at work. The idea is to work smart, not necessarily long. Lunch breaks are often longer, allowing employees to relax and often enjoy a meal with colleagues. Loyalty to one's company is also highly valued, and it's not uncommon for employees to stay with a single employer for a significant portion of their careers.

French language

Ah, la langue française! The language of love, diplomacy, and some truly mind-bending cinema. But there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Let’s break down some of the basics.


Common greetings: The sun's up, and it’s "Bonjour" (Hello) for everyone. As night envelops the City of Lights, switch to "Bonsoir" (Good evening).

Formal vs. informal greetings: Meeting an elder or someone new? Respect shines through with a "Monsieur" or "Madame." But among buddies? Just a cool "Salut" (Hi) will suffice.

Kissing on cheeks: Enter "la bise." Not just a mere greeting but a ritual that exudes warmth. However, the number of kisses can vary based on the region, so be observant! COVID-19 has also changed this custom for some French residents. Take your cues from the person you’re greeting to gauge their comfort level.

Response to greetings: Post the initial hello, and be ready for "Ça va ?" (How are you?). A breezy "Bien, merci!" (Good, thanks!) or just "Ça va" is your cue.

To learn more about French greetings, head over to our comprehensive French greeting guide.

Body language

French culture’s conversation is a performance. It's about words, true, but it’s also about the rhythm of eyes, hands, and expressions.

Eye contact: The French communicate with their eyes. Holding a gaze signifies attention and genuine interest.

Personal space: While warm and expressive, the French also respect boundaries. Familiarity dictates how close you stand or how touchy you can get.

Facial expressions: A tilted head, a playful smirk, or a contemplative frown — each expression adds layers to the spoken word.

Posture: Try to carry yourself with grace. A drooping shoulder or a slouched back might send the wrong message.

Faux pas to avoid

Thumbs up: While in many countries it means "great" or "okay," it's less commonly used in France. Overusing it might seem odd or overly touristy.

“OK” Sign: Making a circle with your thumb and index finger and extending the other three fingers means "zero" or "worthless" in France, not "OK."

Tapping your forehead: This gesture, used to suggest someone is crazy or not thinking straight, can be considered rude if used inappropriately.

Pointing with a single finger: It's more polite to gesture with the whole hand rather than pointing with one finger.

Beckoning: Calling someone over with your palm up and repeatedly folding your fingers can be considered rude. It's more polite to call someone over with the palm down.

Avoiding hand gestures when talking: Interestingly, not using your hands when talking can seem odd to the French, who are expressive communicators.

Remember, understanding the French language is not just about words. It’s about rhythm, nuances, gestures, and a shared cultural understanding.

French etiquette 101

Whether you're wandering the cobbled streets of Paris or attending a business meeting in Lyon, understanding these unwritten rules can elevate your experience from that of an outsider to someone genuinely in tune with French sensibilities.

Social norms and manners

Beyond the customary greetings of "Bonjour" or "Bonsoir," there's a cadence to social interactions in France. It's not uncommon to greet with a kiss on both cheeks, although the number of kisses can vary by region. Also, a handshake can be a common greeting in more formal settings. When expressing appreciation, the warmth behind a heartfelt "Merci beaucoup" can make all the difference.

Business etiquette

The French business world is a blend of formality and relationship-building. While punctuality, sharp attire, and polished presentations are valued, so too is the time spent over extended lunches or dinners, where real connections are forged. Don't be surprised if business discussions weave in and out of personal stories, art, or even philosophy.

Dining customs

There’s an unspoken choreography at the French dining table. Wait to begin eating until the host says, "Bon appétit." Bread, a staple, isn't typically served with butter for dinner but is often placed directly on the tablecloth beside your plate.

Wine is poured from the youngest to the oldest, and remember to leave your wine glass nearly full if you don't want a refill. When you’re done, place your utensils parallel to the plate to signal to the host.

Most importantly, dining is as much about the company and conversation as it is about the cuisine. So, revel in the moments and the memories being created.

French cuisine

Don't be fooled; French cuisine isn't just about gobbling down cheese, sipping wine, or munching on croissants — though they're all delicious! The gastronomic landscape here is a kaleidoscope. We're talking Coq au Vin, Ratatouille, and Quiche Lorraine. Each region brings its flair to the table. Normandy is famous for its apples, Provence brings you aromatic herbs, and let's not even get started on Bordeaux's wine.

Here are some staples to know about French culture:

Popular dishes

If you've never indulged in a Duck à l'Orange or had a spoonful of authentic Bouillabaisse, you're not just missing a meal; you're missing an experience. And don't forget the pastries! From delicate madeleines to intricate éclairs, French patisseries are an adventure of their own.

Wine and cheese culture

Let's get one thing straight: wine and cheese aren't just food items; they're a lifestyle. Imagine yourself sipping Bordeaux, your taste buds dancing as you nibble on Brie or Roquefort. Whether you're a wine novice or a seasoned connoisseur, there's always a new bottle to uncork.

Mealtime rituals

Dining in France isn't a rushed affair. Meals are often multiple courses, starting with an apéritif to whet your appetite and ending with a digestif to aid digestion. And yes, there’s often cheese involved — just before dessert!

Communicating in French

Don't skimp on the "Oui" and "Non," but don't stop there either. The French language, rich in nuance and idiom, is worth your full attention.

It doesn't matter if you're ordering a meal or trying to catch a train – a few phrases go a long way. Start with basics like "S'il vous plaît" (please) and "Merci" (thank you). Learning how to pronounce food items can save you from awkward moments at a restaurant and make the experience more enjoyable.

Use iTranslate for your travel needs

We get it: mastering a new language isn't easy. If you're stuck or need a quick translation, iTranslate can be a lifesaver. From ordering that perfect croissant to finding your way around the Metro, it’s your go-to travel companion to experience French culture in real life. Try iTranslate for free today!

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