No other city has more complex etiquette than Paris. If you overlay an intellectual capital on an artistic and fashion capital in a former royal capital, all of it in the country that invented how to eat, the number of codes governing behaviour approaches infinity. The only field of Parisian endeavour in which no rules apply is driving. One reason Parisians can appear uptight is that they spend their lives trying to follow these codes, and expecting other people to as well. Worse, almost all the codes are implicit, never explained to outsiders. What follows is a user manual for visitors and new residents. It’s based on my 18 years living in Paris, supplemented by much reading and many interviews with Parisian insiders. These codes broadly apply in the city itself — the Paris of 2.5 million people inside the Périphérique ring road, as opposed to the 10 million people who live in the Parisian suburbs.
Rising property prices over the past 20 years mean the main social divide in the city now runs between two well-off social groups: the relatively informal bourgeois bohemians (bobos), or hipsters, who tend to work in the creative industries or academia and congregate in eastern Paris, and the more formal bourgeoisie, or BCBG (“bon chic bon genre”, meaning “good style, good class”), who predominate in western Paris. There is one other large class in the city: 22 per cent of Parisians, most of them not well-off, live in social housing. The harsh truth, however, is that newcomers in professional circles are unlikely to run into them very often. To paraphrase Marx, the codes of Paris are the codes of its ruling class. A large share of the city’s inhabitants are foreigners, suburbanites or provincials who have “monté à Paris”, or come up to Paris, and live their lives there feeling like imposters as they try to decode the codes. But most still feel obliged to abide by these codes. You might find the codes of Paris ridiculous, or immoral. On the upside, they help maintain standards of conversation, sensuality, beauty and general elegance. Greetings.
The French-American anthropologist Raymonde Carroll identified a key difference between her two nationalities: whereas the French only have conversations with people with whom they are already intimate, Americans only touch people with whom they are already intimate. This means no-touch Anglophones can find Parisian greetings invasive. In a small-scale social setting, it’s normal to greet members of the opposite sex with a kiss on each cheek, even if you’re meeting for the first time. A handshake would usually be considered frosty. La bise, the kiss of greeting, is best delivered as a gentle brush. It typically has no sexual connotations, but it can, between the right people. Handshakes are fine at work — and indeed are often delivered daily — but once colleagues get to know each other well, they too will generally do la bise. Male friends (especially bobos) will also often kiss each other. Hugs, by contrast, are reserved for special occasions, such as funerals, exam triumphs or releases from jail. Conversation Parisians rarely initiate conversation with strangers or distant acquaintances. There’s no obvious etiquette for doing so, and no generally agreed small talk. This makes Parisian parties where you don’t know anyone a trial. Expect to spend much of your life here being ignored. Learn to appreciate it.
When you do speak to someone, start with “Bonjour” (“Bonjour, madame” or “Bonjour, monsieur” if the Parisian you are addressing is no longer in the first bloom of youth). Then wait for the other person to reply with “Bonjour” before you continue. Nicolas Le Goff, author of the guidebook Another Paris, adds that at this early stage you can disarm Parisians with a smile, because it’s so unexpected. It is safest to address any adult with whom you are not intimate by the formal “vous”, but the informal “tu” is gaining ground in bobo Paris, where it is sometimes used to address youngish strangers. “Vous” serves as the main expression of politeness, which means French has fewer thank-yous and apologies than English.
It’s acceptable to interrupt, but don’t speak loudly, use superlatives or smile excessively. You’re also free to voice disagreement. In a society that values thought, this will be admired more than clichés, expressions of insecurity or attempts to mirror the other person’s emotions. Don’t talk too much about yourself or your life journey; politics, society, the arts and holidays are more acceptable topics. In northern countries you might be expected to speak plainly, but in Paris transparency isn’t valued at all. Elegance is, though — and that requires a certain opacity about one self. English. The cliché that Parisians refuse to speak English is a good 20 years out of date. President Emmanuel Macron — himself a provincial who “came up to Paris” — stands for a generation who take it for granted they will only be heard by foreigners in English. If you speak a little French, open with it as a gesture of goodwill. If your interlocutor switches to good English, don’t read this as rudeness. The individual versus the coupleIn Paris you will usually be expected to present in social life as yourself, rather than as a partner or parent. Don’t always say “We”, don’t tell long stories about your children’s school, and don’t always bring your spouse along when meeting people — including members of the opposite sex. Money. This is a taboo topic. It is considered vulgar even to ask someone at a social event what their job is. Mercifully, too, house-price conversations are rarer in Paris than in London. When Parisians do touch on financial matters, then far from boasting of their wealth, they will often claim to be poorer than they are.