There’s a reason that faux pas is a French phrase. As a non-French person, I’m constantly making mistakes with both the language and the culture. I reckon they invented it for foreigners.
As mortifying as it can be to mix up ‘chiot‘ (puppy) and ‘chiottes‘ (toilets), or ‘canard‘ (duck) and ‘connard‘ (idiot), failing at French cultural etiquette can be equally as bad.
For example, a French breakfast with friends is no fast meal. Expect to spend hours absorbing your food — dunk your croissant into your bowl (yes, bowl) of coffee and break off a bit more baguette while you all catch up. That butter, jam and Nutella is on the table for the baguette, not the croissant. Do not apply these products to the croissant! They might not say anything, but they’ll think you’re weird: croissants are eaten without spreads in France.
In a restaurant, the staff will think you’re equally as weird if you ask for a doggy bag. It’s just not the done thing.
When it comes to cheese, don’t expect any smiles if you cut across the wedge. Cut it like a slice of pie or risk future dinner invitations. And if it’s your dinner party, remember to serve the cheese before dessert.
Most importantly, do not offer chrysanthemums as flowers.
Chrysanthemums are popular in France at this time of year, and it’s not just because they’re in season. The 1st of November is All Saints Day — a public holiday that French people use to leave flowers on the graves of the departed loved ones a day in advance of the 2nd of November, which is Commemoration of the Dead Day, but not a public holiday.
The flower of choice for graves is the chrysanthemum. At least two of my friends have accidentally handed over a bunch of chrysanthemums to French friends as a gesture of thanks. With florists overflowing with chrysanthemums at this time of year, it’s surprising more of us haven’t made the same mistake. The initial reaction both times was a gasp of shock. Fortunately for one friend, the French friend explained the significance of the flower. The other friend wasn’t so lucky, and she may never buy a chrysanthemum again.
So, to recap: plain croissants; pie-shape when slicing cheese; cheese before dessert; and, no chrysanthemums. Otherwise, remember not to laugh when you think they’re calling you a duck. They’re not.