Before I start off explaining French culture let me say this, my experiences and opinions are not here to generalize all of the French populace. This is just what I have experienced and how I feel the culture works here. Your experience with the French may be completely different than mine, so keep an open mind and be able to adjust.
Alright, welcome to French Culture 101. I have been here for around a month and a half and besides the language, I have a good sense of how things work in France. Let me get started slowly with some of the simple stuff.
There are a lot of different rules here. The first thing to take note of, and what will get you farther than anything with the French, is “bonjour.” When entering a shop, café, restaurant etc. always start the conversation with this greeting. If you do not do this, you will be thought of as rude and may not get served or treated properly. With just “bonjour,” you are already ahead with the French. The next important thing is street etiquette. In the United States, to smile and say hello to strangers on the street is perfectly normal. In France, it is really strange. This is where I believe the stereotype of “the French are rude” comes from. Also, for girls and boys, it means something different, if you catch my drift. Anyway, just walk straight with your eyes forward. You know where you are going, go there. Also when eating, keep both hands above the table, elbows off. As the saying goes “you never know what they are doing under the table.”
Lastly, when in public, always dress appropriately. It is weird to wear sweatpants or gym shorts in a public setting and you may be removed from certain places if you do.
The Culture and the People
The culture is what is hardest to understand. The French are very private about their lives and will only discuss personal items with their closest friends. To befriend a French person is an art in itself. It may take a long time before a person here completely trusts you, giving the French a cold demeanor. Once this hurdle is leaped, the French are generally nice people who are loyal to their friends. The French also like to discuss off-color topics and have a dark sense of humor. Things like homosexuality, religion, government, philosophy, and art are all available subjects and finding humor in racism or a disabled person are common themes. Now all of this looks pretty bad, I know, but it is always in good fun or to have an intellectual conversation.
Food is a huge part of French culture. Lunch and breakfast are usually small, but dinner usually involves a three to four course meal. The French eat slow, enjoying their meals and always converse about the food, wine, or other topics present at the table. These dinners can last around an hour and a half easily.
French homes are also very different. As I said before, the French love privacy. There is usually a door separating everything from something. The French will not openly show you their home, so to be given a tour is an honor and you should always ask before doing anything.
Well, that is about all I can say for the culture. There is a lot more to cover, but I hit the main points. Remember, always keep an open mind and be prepared for anything while traveling. Also, do not worry if you make a mistake, you can always redeem yourself. Most people are pretty forgiving.