How not to put a foot wrong in France – especially if you're a woman
Géraldine Lepère lived in England for two years: "I spoke good English but I always felt very much that I didn't belong." Back in her native Grenoble – which, rather surprisingly, claims to be the provincial city with the largest number of expats – she set up a website Comme une Française to help expatriées facing a problem similar to that she'd experienced across the Channel.
Here's a selection of advice she's given in answer to questions:
Forget your Anglo-Saxon notions of punctuality. Arriving – as Brits or Americans often do – five minutes before the hour on the invite will only serve to irritate the hosts, as will showing up à l'heure pile, since they'll likely not be ready for you. You can be up to twenty minutes "late" without risking raised eyebrows.
You're invited for l'apéro in someone's home. Don't show up – as Brits are likely to – with a bottle of Beaujolais. It's a low-grade wine and you'll seem naff. Only a really good bottle would impress. Better offer, for example, a high-end saucisson from an épicerie fine.
Don't make a fuss or expect to be invited somewhere for Bastille Day (July 14th). It's not – as some Americans seem to think – the equivalent of Thanksgiving. Socially, it's insignificant and a Bonne fête nationale will only elicit a puzzled or amused glance.
The French love talking and everyone is expected – including women – to have an opinion about what's in the news. To keep up have a peek at i>TELE (best of the rolling news channels) and grab a free paper (Metro or whatever). One of Lepère's contacts recalled the obvious surprise from other guests when she admitted to never having heard of Jean-Luc Delarue.
Don't dress up too much to accept an invitation. That's not what the French do. As Lepère says, "Nothing too eye-catching ... just simple, sober clothes of good quality and a decent coiffure.”
If you take the critical step of inviting French colleagues or acquaintances to your home (actually, they much prefer to go to restaurants) don't try to show off your skills at French cooking. What you serve will be looked at very critically. However, they will be interested and much more tolerant if you offer them a taste of home! "Ah, c'est ça le Yorkshire pudding!"
Remember you can't over-greet or even say goodbye too much in France. Tiresome as those handshakings and kisses might be if you skip the rituals you'll be put down as une sauvage.
On the other hand, it's dangerous to try to demonstrate your "integration" with a flourish of slang and cuss words. It's true that the French swear a lot but it can be very tricky for a foreigner who doesn't have absolute mastery of the idioms. Clumsy attempts at demotic talk can seem ridiculous or vulgar.
Not all Frenchmen are "hot rabbits", a French slang term for sex pests like DSK.
Anglo-Saxon women from a culture in which almost any word or gesture can be construed as "harassment" may misread the social style of French men. Visiting another couple, an expat woman may feel uneasy and may be hubby too when their host remarks "vraiment, tu es ravissante ce soir". It's just a standard courtesy.