We’ve already covered the topic of doing business in France in our “Business Etiquette Guide: France” post, but we’d like to delve a bit deeper and provide some tips on language and proper conduct that will help you become a savvy tourist—or at least give you a reputation as a conscientious and courteous visitor. Ultimately, if we can help you avoid just one roll of the eyes or disapproving shake of the head, then these tips have been a success.

French is the official language of France—I know, your mind has been blown! While almost everyone across France speaks French, there are a number of regional dialects where language has permeated through the borders and remind you that this country has many diverse neighbors with differing languages. These dialects, with Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Celtic or even Chinese influences, are mostly used for traditional purposes and not for conversing with tourists.

Generally speaking, the French are very polite. Don’t be surprised if you enter a restaurant or shop and you’re greeted by, not only the employees, but also by other customers as well. Return the courtesy and address your hellos and goodbyes to everyone when you enter or leave cafes and small shops.

It is considered rude to begin a conversation without a proper introduction and pleasantries. “Bonjour” is a start but here are a few everyday phrases to help the conversation along.

  • “Excusez-moi monsieur/madame”: Excuse me (ex-CUE-zeh-mwah mih-SYOOR/muh-DAM)
  • “S’il vous plaît monsieur/madame”: Please (SEEL-voo-PLAY)
  • “Merci monsieur/madame”: Thank you (mare-SEE)
  • “Au revoir monsieur/madame”: Good Bye (Ore-vwar)
  • “Je ne parle pas [bien] français”: I can’t speak French [well](zhuh nuh PAHRL pah [byang] frahn-SEH)
  • “Parlez-vous anglais?”: Do you speak English? (par-lay VOO ahng-LEH?)
  • “Je ne comprends pas”: I don’t understand (zhuh nuh KOHM-prahn pah)
  • “Comment appelle-t-on ceci/ça?”: What is this/that called? (koh-mahn tah-pell-TONG suh-SEE/SAH?)

It should be noted that even if you’re very familiar with these phrases, French spoken with a hard English or American accent can be very difficult for the average French person to understand. In some cases it may be best to write down what you’re trying to say. However, just attempting to speak the language is usually appreciated and shows you are willing to make the effort. Just don’t be offended if your waiter or a store clerk responds to your fractured or fluent-but-accented French in English. This is more common in areas that receive tourist traffic, especially in Paris.

Tourists should learn when to use “tu” and “vous” when addressing people. It’s confusing when the formal version should be used and when to switch to the informal. As a general rule, address people using “vous” (formal version) until you are asked to use “tu” or their first name. While this may appear a bit old fashioned it is better to err on the side of respect. So, use “vous” unless:

  • The person is genuinely your friend.
  • The person is under 16.
  • You’ve been explicitly told to use “tu.”

Hopefully, these language tips can help you avoid embarrassment during your next trip to the world’s most popular tourist destination.

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