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By guest writer Philippa Campsie, Toronto, Canada

Hotel Costes Paris France Barbara Redmond fine art painting of Paris

Hôtel Costes, Paris by Barbara Redmond

We have sometimes been asked about French etiquette and French table manners. Many women, it seems, want to know “the rules” about how to conduct themselves at a formal French dinner or at an upscale restaurant.

We have good news and bad news for these women. Let’s start with the bad news. There are all kinds of rules, some written (try Googling “French table manners” or “French etiquette” for these) and a lot more unwritten ones. Fact is, that most North Americans are never going to pass for native Frenchwomen. Our table habits will give us away every time.

So here’s the good news: it doesn’t really matter. Manners are not about using the right fork, they are about consideration for others. Manners are about attitudes, not rules. So we are going to talk about attitudes first.

French etiquette: it’s not just about the food

Important attitude No. 1: Enter into the spirit of the thing. If you are going to eat at a good restaurant, or dine with a French family, the restaurant staff or your host will have gone to great effort to make the experience enjoyable. So enjoy. Eat what is put in front of you (unless you have life-threatening allergies to it) and appreciate the care that went into it.

Whatever you do, don’t be like Sally in “When Harry Met Sally,” who could not order food without micromanaging the process (hold this, substitute that). A chef is an artist. Would you say to Monet, “Great waterlilies, but could you hold the pink a bit and substitute some blue for the green over here and make sure the leaves aren’t touching the petals?” We think not. Don’t refuse food, don’t leave large amounts of food uneaten, and don’t take over the host’s job.

Important attitude No. 2: You are not the only person in the room. Chances are nobody will notice if you use the wrong fork, but everyone will notice if you call attention to yourself with endless demands, or overloud conversation. You are part of an ensemble cast in an improv, not the lead in a three-act play.

Important attitude No. 3: It’s not just about the food. A French dinner is about conversation as well. By all means, express polite appreciation for the dishes put in front of you, but don’t make that the sole topic of your conversation. Talk to the people around you. (Movies are often a good choice of topic.)

French etiquette: table manners

So what else do you need to know? Well, here are some bits and pieces we’ve picked up:

1. If you go to a French restaurant, you are expected to order a meal of several courses, not a snack. If you want a snack, find a bistro, brasserie, or café.

2. Most French people drink wine with the meal, not before. Before a meal, they have an apéritif, not wine.

3. Similarly, cheese is part of the meal, not a preamble.

4. Bread is usually placed directly on the tablecloth, not on a special plate. It is considered polite to tear off bite-sized pieces rather than chomping down on a large piece and ripping off a bit with your teeth. (Think about how it looks.)

5. Food should be eaten with utensils, not with the fingers. That applies to frites, among other things, unless you are at McDonalds (“McDo”). But do not use a knife for your salad; this is actually an anachronistic French habit, dating from the days when the vinaigrette would ruin non-stainless steel, but it persists nonetheless.

6. Turn off your cellphone in a restaurant. The cellphone or mobile phone is called a “portable” in French, and we have seen signs saying “Ne soyez pas insupPORTABLE,” which is a French pun that literally translated means, “Don’t be insufferable.”

7. At a dinner party, wait and watch others before embarking on anything. Usually the host or hostess will set the pace and provide the clues to start or stop eating and eventually indicate when it is time to leave. Be alert to these clues.

These general rules, and a willingness to be obliging and considerate will get you through most occasions.

Vocabulary: French to English translations

Apéritif: Alcoholic beverage taken before a meal as an appetizer.
Bistro: Small informal restaurant that serves wine.
Brasserie: Small restaurant serving beer and wine as well as food; usually cheap.
Café: Coffeehouse, restaurant or bar.
Entrée: Appetizer, not the main course.
Etiquette: (Old French, estiquier to attach.) Conventional requirements as to social behavior.
Frites: French fries in the United States or what are called chips in the United Kingdom.
La pièce de résistance: An outstanding accomplishment or the principle dish of a meal.
Le plat principal: Main course of a French meal.
Portable: Smartphone, cell phone or mobile phone.

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Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond
All rights reserved.
barbara@awomansparis.com

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