French Etiquette Fails

A French executive invites his American counterpart to a business dinner at his home in the center of Paris. The American executive reciprocates several months later in the suburbs of New York.

Both individuals wish to make a positive impression and do everything “right” to welcome and impress their guests. Both fail miserably. Why?

Pierre invites Jack and his wife, Susan, to his home, where he and his wife Madeleine have prepared a phenomenal 5-course meal, with impeccable wines and after dinner digestifs. While the dinner is certainly lovely, the American is left with the feeling that the evening was cold, impersonal, and unnecessarily over-the-top.

To reciprocate, Jack and Susan decide to treat their French friends to a real home-style BBQ, invite some of their dear neighbors to help welcome them to America, and enjoy an informal but heartfelt meal of grilled cheeseburgers, potato salad, and locally-brewed beer.

You can just imagine how insulted the French couple felt, after pulling out all the stops when they hosted, only to be served burgers – mon Dieu – and beer?! Also, what on earth were all those people doing there that they didn’t even know?

This is a classic example of how behaviors in one culture can mean something completely different in another. Just when you think you’re doing the “right” thing, you find out you insulted the very people you were striving to impress.

I myself have made such a wide variety of cultural faux pas that I have lost count.

There was the time when I had first moved to Paris at the tender age of 20-something and was invited to dinner by lovely friends of my parents.  A student at the time, I bought something like a 5-euro bottle of wine to their home, content in the feeling of how very savvy I was to know that the French love their red wine.

Rule # 1

if you don’t know good wines either get a recommendation from someone or bring flowers or chocolates instead. 


Not only was it embarrassing to be given the equivalent of wine-in-a-box to a luxurious home-cooked dinner. But also a French host will generally strive to pair the meal with a complimentary wine, often a different fine wine to go with each course. Best to confirm in advance that you will be bringing one of the wines if that’s what you’d like to do.

But then, my second error.  I had neglected to tell my lovely French hosts that I had given up drinking for a period of time. So when they ceremoniously decanted their magnificent bottle of 1980 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Bordeaux and I declined to even have a sip… well, it was the equivalent of telling them that their cordon bleu sucked and I’d rather eat a burger and fries.

Rule #2 

never refuse a meticulously selected glass of wine when invited as a guest to a French person’s home. If you don’t drink, let them know in advance (alcohol allergies tend to be accepted with no questions asked).


My 20-year old self was trying so hard to be sophisticated and oh-so-French, doing what I thought I needed to do to assimilate in my newly adapted cultural environment…. And failing; impressively consistently.

Until little by little, embarrassing mistake by humiliatingly embarrassing mistake, I started making fewer cultural gaffes.

Now those faux pas that I continue to make, I take in stride… chalking it up to lessons learned.

Which brings me to Rule #3.

Rule #3

Living in a foreign country is like playing a game, the rules of which nobody has explained. The trick is to enjoy the game, without missing too many plays, learning and growing as you go along. 

A votre santé (and to your sense of adventure too) !

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