6 French table manners that might surprise you

Like people of just about any culture, the French have quite a collection of manners that revolve around eating. Some probably aren’t that surprising – for instance, as in other Western cultures, polite French people eat most meals with a fork, knife, and, when necessary, spoon, and you never start eating before your hosts.

But other aspects of French dining etiquette can be a little more…unique.

Here are six French table manners that might surprise you!

1. Don’t cut the baguette!

In some cultures, bread is cut, either beforehand or when passing it around to fellow diners. Not so in France. Baguettes are an important part of many French meals, and they’re always kept whole and passed around as needed, with each person breaking off a piece.

Restaurants are often an exception to this rule, serving pre-cut pieces of baguette in a nice little basket. But if you’re eating at someone’s home, expect to break off your own piece of baguette.

2. Keep your knife and fork in hand

A person cuts a piece of what appears to be cooked carrots or yams that are on a charcuterie board in the center of the table. The informal gesture and wood slatting of the table make it seem like this might be an outdoor meal at home. But despite the informality, the person's hands are still in the standard French cutting position.

One of the trickiest French table manners for Americans like myself to get used to is how the French use their fork and knife. Americans often cut a piece of food and then put down the knife and switch our fork to our dominant hand.

The French do things differently, keeping their fork in their left hand and their knife in their right hand for the entire time they’re eating (note that this could be reversed for left-handed people).

Additionally, the fork is held in a way we’d consider upside-down, with the curved part facing up. And the knife is never held in a clenched fist; both utensils are gently gripped with neatly extended fingers at all times.

This may seem complicated and clumsy, but it actually looks quite elegant and gets really easy with practice. In fact, after years of living in France, eating this way has become my natural go-to.

In addition to the photo at the beginning of this section, you can see an example of how the French hold their fork and knife in this very helpful short video, which includes a clever way to teach finger placement for each utensil.   

You can also watch this video, where an etiquette expert explains the differences between the American and French/European way of using a fork and knife. One thing to note, though: this expert suggests piling things onto your fork in the European method, but the French tend to do this in a discreet way, allowing for small bites.

3. Hide your napkin

It’s considered good manners to eat with your napkin on your lap in many places, but the French take this more seriously than most. Barring an extremely informal situation, like a bite to eat in a fast food restaurant, French people will almost always keep their napkins on their laps at lunch and dinner, even during informal family meals.

The only times your napkin will be on the table are when you are not: at the beginning of the meal, when place settings are awaiting diners and at the end, when you place your napkin beside your plate to show you’ve finished or that you’ve excused yourself momentarily. Otherwise, keep your napkin out of view as much as possible.

4. Don’t cut lettuce – fold it!

Close-up of hands pushing a large lettuce leaf into a fold, using a fork and knife.

Salad is often served with long leaves of lettuce in France, but you must never, never cut it! Of all the French table manner faux pas I inevitably made when I first came to France, this was probably the most egregious. I was told by one French person that this is because it’s almost seen as an insult to the person who served the salad, as if they didn’t realize that someone couldn’t handle the size of the lettuce leaves, I suppose.

The correct way to handle big lettuce leaves in France is to use your knife (which of course is in your other hand continuously as you eat your salad) to help fold the lettuce leaf onto your fork.  Use the tines of the fork to hold the folds in place.

This will take some practice – trust me. And the result isn’t always very neat. But it is possible.

5. Don’t eat too quickly

The French never eat quickly. Even when my French husband is running late for work, he never just crams a breakfast cookie between his teeth and rushes out the door; he calmly finishes his coffee and biscuits and then hustles. The French believe that food is to be savored and enjoyed, which is one of the reasons drinking coffee on the go isn’t really done here.

If you’re a naturally fast eater, this can sometimes be problematic, but rest assured, while you might get a few glances if you finish well before everyone at dinner, no one will feel angry or insulted. Still, if you can take the time to make yourself slow down, keeping pace with the other diners at the table, you might find that you really do get to savor and enjoy your meal more.

6. Use fork, knife, and menu placement to communicate with waitstaff

Overhead view of two old men and a younger person at a booth in a cafe. The man on the right has put down his silverware leaning on his plate, so that he can talk with his hands. The man in the center has finished his food and placed his fork and knife on his plate, parallel to each other, about the three or four o'clock position. The younger man, on the left, has placed his fork and knife facing each other and forming a triangle in the middle of his plate, indicating that he's taking a break.
According to French silverware code, the man on the left is just taking a break, the man in the center has finished eating, and the man on the right has quickly set down his cutlery to talk with his hands.

Although it’s not required, it’s generally known among the French that in a restaurant, you can use your menu and silverware to silently and thus politely communicate with your server. (As opposed to the completely rude stereotype of snapping your fingers and calling them over by yelling “Garçon!” Never do this.)

The three most common “codes” you can use in a French restaurant are:

  • Close your menu (if it unfolds) and place it beside your plate to signal that you’re ready to order.
  • If you need to take a break but plan to continue eating, or if you need to leave the table but aren’t finished, place your fork and knife at the edge of the plate, with their points facing in towards each other, forming a triangle that nearly meets at the plate’s center.
  • When you’re finished eating, place your knife and fork side by side near the three o’clock position on your plate. The fork should typically have its tines downward, curved side towards the ceiling.

In addition to the photo at the start of this section, you can see examples of these fork and knife placements at the one-minute mark of this video. Although the general rule of the fork and knife placed together at the end of the meal is for them to be at the three o’clock position on the plate, as you can see from these two examples, this might vary a little.

Additionally, the triangle that shows you’re not finished yet is a bit sloppy in our example photo, but such is life.

Another thing to note, if you decide to research French table manners farther, is that there are many drawings and diagrams online that show what your cutlery can communicate to servers or hosts. But most of these configurations are not widely used, and some, like placing your fork and knife in a plus-sign arrangement at the end of a course, may look like you’re being childish to the uninitiated.

So, as a general rule, it’s probably best to stick with using only the two cutlery signals I’ve mentioned, unless you see people around you using other ones.

It’s also important to note that these menu and cutlery codes aren’t absolutely necessary to have a successful meal in most French restaurants. Your server will usually come by at least once or twice to see if you need anything or if you’ve finished. And if they don’t, you can politely catch their eye by lifting a hand and gently waving it, or as they pass, saying (not shouting) “Pardon”.

Where can I learn more about French table manners?

It’s easy to learn more about French table manners. An online search of the term should bring you lots of resources. You can also do searches in French for things like “règles de table” or “règles de savoir-vivre.”  

If you’re invited to an incredibly important, formal French meal, I would also advise watching videos about French dining etiquette. These often involve obscure rules that may be helpful. And if you’re worried that you’ll be at a loss, at least be familiar with these rules and then just watch what everyone else at the table is doing and follow suit.

An important thing to keep in mind about French dining etiquette

We see the chest and hands of what seems to be an older person. They are seated at a restaurant table and holding a knife and fork in the French style. They are cutting a piece of meat on their plate. The meal appears to be fusion food, with meat, possibly quinoa, and greens. The person has a water and wine glass in front of them, as well as a bread basket in an unusual shape, a bit like a paper bag, a small dish of olive oil for dipping, and a lit candle.

Whenever you learn about another country or culture’s customs, it’s important to remember that there are probably some exceptions. This is certainly the case for French table manners.

Many of the ones you’ll see discussed online aren’t always followed by everyone in France.  And while some French table manners are common in lots of cultures (don’t talk with your mouth full, don’t put your elbows on the table…), others that I’ve seen on many lists aren’t necessarily practiced at every French table.

For instance, many sources on French table manners will say you’re supposed to keep your hands on the table throughout the meal. They’ll also usually include rules about men serving women. These rules may be practiced in extremely formal dining situations, but of all the meals I’ve eaten with French people of various ages, backgrounds, and social classes, I’ve never particularly noticed them being enforced or followed.

From what I’ve experienced, serving goes in logical order (pass a plate to or fill the glass of the person next to you) and I don’t recall anyone particularly noticing my hands or taking pains to keep theirs constantly on the table, either.

With that in mind, it’s good to be aware of many of these table manners, but not necessarily expect them to be followed. When in doubt,  watch what people around you are doing. And if you can’t manage to do some of these things – for instance, holding a knife and fork the French way – as long as you eat neatly and politely, you should be forgiven, since you’re a foreigner.


What do you think of these French table manners? Are any of them similar to etiquette rules in your own country or culture?

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

39 thoughts on “6 French table manners that might surprise you”

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  1. Hi Alysa:
    First of all I should congratulate you on presenting a wonderful, meaningful article on French food culture. Tres bien.
    I am hoping to visit France. I learn French as well as trying to get familiarized with the cultural aspects of food, table manners, behaviors at restaurants etc.
    You have explained very well the fine details of mannerism. With other comments, I can see a few things have changed with Covid pandemic like taking food items from the restaurants as takeaways. Similarly there can be changes to the manners maintained at restaurants with the use of digital devices like mobile phones. These two aspects have changed the world forever, without any doubt, everything.
    Would you please advise the impact and what restrictions the restaurants may have on those digital devices, if any. Merci beaucoup

    Reply
    • Hi Kit, I would say that it’s still considered rude to be on your phone during a meal – with the exception of an emergency or something like that.

      The biggest change is that most people will have their phone checked or scanned before entering a restaurant because you’re not allowed to dine in one (including outdoors) without the passe sanitaire – that is, a certificate that says you’ve either been fully vaccinated against COVID, have recently had COVID (and are thus immune), have had a negative PCR test within the last few days, or are medically exempt from getting the vaccine. The passe is usually saved on your phone and scanned by restaurant employees (there’s a QR code) before you enter the restaurant.

      I hope that helps and I hope you’ll have lots of delicious meals when you come here!

      Reply
  2. an additional fine detail. Artichoke scallops (the outside bits) are stacked on the plate face down in N France and face up in S. I found out the hard way. It’s another example of the seriousness with which the French address everyday events, which is both charming and extraordinary. To act like a Southerner in the North is so rude, and vice versa.
    I love your article.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your kind words, harry, and for this very interesting detail about French table manners. As someone who’s not a big artichoke fan, I have to admit I did not know about this!

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  3. Fascinating and useful post. Two things I have always wondered about: Do the French ever ask to take home uneaten food in a restaurant? So common in New York City, but I realized I’d never seen it done in France. Is it proper to do so?
    Second, I was having breakfast alone one Sunday morning at the Cafe de Flore. The Parisienne at the next outdoor table had a small jar of confiture with her breakfast, but never opened or touched it, and when she left it was sitting on the table. I would have enjoyed having it, and in NYC i would have had no trouble politely asking if she planned to eat it; if not, she would have offered it to me.
    Now I’m assuming in Paris one does not ask strangers for their jam, nor even take it from the table if it’s left there. Correct? Thanks in advance!

    Reply
    • joan, that is another manners issue I should have tackled, now that I think of it. The concept of doggie bags is generally a no-no in French restaurants, with the exception of informal places that offer takeaway, or sometimes restaurants from other cultures. For instance, I’ve eaten in Chinese restaurants where we’ve asked for the rest of our meal to go. Because Chinese restaurants often do takeaway, they have the packaging and are fine with doing this. On the other hand, traditional French restaurants and restaurants in France as a general rule, will consider asking for food to go as rude, and may not have the means to allow you to do this, even if they were okay with it on a moral level.

      The reason it’s considered rude is that the food is meant to be enjoyed when it’s freshly prepared; leftovers would be inferior, and somehow that’s considered an insult to the chef. I have no idea why.

      That said, in recent years this has started to change, at least in Paris. Food waste awareness campaigns have stretched even to restaurant dining. And during our several pandemic lockdowns, offering takeaway was the only way for restaurants to survive, since on-site dining wasn’t allowed. So nowadays, many more restaurants do accept and even offer takeaway as an option, although they may not love someone who has opted to eat on site asking for the rest of the food to be packed up. But if you ever wanted to chance it, now is the best time in modern French history! 🙂

      And here’s a travel pro tip that I admit I’ve used in France as well as in other countries where takeaway or doggie bags may not be an option: I pack several large Ziploc freezer bags and when the waitstaff isn’t looking, I just slide whatever is left on my plate into one of those bags I’ve brought and then discreetly hide it in my purse. This way, I don’t have to ask for a doggie bag and I can just take home what’s left on my plate. No waste, no scandalized looks (well, unless someone catches me doing this).

      As for the confiture, I don’t think you could take it from the table of someone else. I mean, like the Ziploc bags, you might be able to do it discreetly, but technically it might be considered stealing, since you didn’t pay for it and who knows – the restaurant may re-use it? Personally, I wouldn’t risk that one. That said, if the person was eating and you dared to ask them for the jam, they might be okay with it. I would never ask an older or super fancy-looking person, but a relaxed person or younger person maybe would be all right with it. Still, my instinct says, though, that you might be looked at as rude or even mentally unstable. So I probably wouldn’t ask.

      I love that you ask this as a New Yorker! I lived in New York for a while and loved the way strangers would sometimes just exchange commentary, like when a streetlight was taking too long. It was always a fun surprise.

      Reply
    • V, it’s true that most Americans will find many French table manners to be a bit different from their native culture. That said, because Americans come from many different cultural backgrounds, not all of these table manners will seem strange to every single American.

      Also, there are other countries and cultures that will find some of these rules to be strange, as well – for instance, cultures where forks and knives aren’t used.

      If you weren’t impressed by this list, I’m happy for you – it means that it will be that much easier for you to act like a French person when you come to France! 🙂

      Reply
  4. Another important rule is never to cut the “nose” off a wedge of cheese. Cut alongside it to maintain a point at the end of the wedge. Cutting across the tip is one of those things that just isn’t done… doing it could evoke “Mais ca ne se fait pas” from a shocked observer.

    Reply
    • Homer, I had never thought about this, but you’re right! Cheese is sacred to the French, and that includes how to cut it!

      For anyone who read your comment and/or my response and feels nervous now, remember that you can learn by watching. If you notice that the cheese plate is going around and everyone is cutting themselves a slice a certain way, do the same. That’s why I’ve never cut the tip of the cheese wedge off when I first came to France – I just cut the same way everyone else did.

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  5. As an Australian I was criticized decades ago, while visiting wealthy relations of my American friend, for ‘eating like a child’ ie in the European/British style. I have always wished I could go back and tell them what I learned later – that the table manners they so prided themselves on evolved out of a shortage of knives during American settlement. Forks and spoons could be whittled out of wood, but knives needed metal. So people would cut their food, transfer their fork to their dominant hand and pass the knife on to the next person.
    Am glad to learn that I haven’t been offending any French people with my manners.

    Reply
    • Sue, that is so fascinating! I had no idea why Americans typically don’t eat as much with knives! Thanks for this historical tidbit!

      I’m sorry you had to be mocked for your good manners. As a foreigner living abroad, I find that it’s so strange how we take for granted the way things are done in our own cultures and don’t always try to understand why other people do things differently.

      At least you know now that your table manners would definitely be okay with the French!

      Reply
  6. Growing up in Germany, the conventions on etiquette were the same as those described here. I also remember being coached on keeping my elbows close to my body, so as not to poke the people next to me in the ribs. Posture was also emphasized: straight spine and neck. On occasion, I was told that in the “olden days,” children had to hold one book under each arm, and a third one on the head, and god help you if a book fell to the ground, or worse, on your dish!

    Reply
  7. I grew up in Germany with the same conventions as described here. Having lived in the US for 40 years, one aspect of etiquette that seems to be missing in the US and in this article is to keep your elbows close to your body (so you won’t poke the person next to you in the ribs) and to keep your back and neck reasonably straight.

    Reply
    • That is a very practical rule, Clemens! Maybe we don’t do it as much in the US because things tend to be spaced out more? It’s rare to find very small restaurants where people are crammed close at tables, and most American homes have a spacious dining space as well. Just a thought – or it might just be the way we wield our forks and knives quite forcefully….

      Reply
      • I grew up in Portugal. I was also made to keep a book under each arm, but none on my head. This was to do with table manners, as I had a whole side of the table to myself. This would be classed as cruelty nowadays, of course, but I don’t regret I had to do it.

        Reply
    • George – I appreciate the joke (I think it’s a joke?), but it’s my duty to say that just because things are different doesn’t mean that they’re rude or uncouth. It’s just what you perceive, based on your native culture.

      And vice versa, as you can see from a previous comment by Sue, who was mocked for her bad table manners by Americans, even though hers are close to the French/European way of eating. And of course, other cultures have manners we might consider rude or uncivilized, as well, but that those who practice them might judge us for not doing. For instance, in some places it’s considered polite to slurp your soup or noodles, whereas in both France and America this is considered rude. So all that to say, who decides what’s rude and not rude? It changes all around the world. The most important thing is to be kind and open-minded.

      Reply
  8. Apart from ‘do not break the baguette’ and ‘always fold the lettuce’ these rules are pretty identical to how we eat in New Zealand, which I suppose must have come from the UK originally.

    When ‘making’ salad, as opposed to eating it, there is a bias against cutting the lettuce, it is supposed to be shredded by hand, but I always cut it 🙂

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing this, Pete. It’s interesting to read these comments and see how some other cultures relate (or not) to the manners on this list.

      And on behalf of anyone who’s ever struggled with a giant lettuce leaf in polite company, THANK YOU for cutting your lettuce before serving it!

      Reply
  9. Excellent advice, and especially welcome because all visitors will eat in France; lucky ones will dine with French people. I lived in Paris long ago and never knew why, at one of my first meals with my boss’s lover and the office manager (and a few others) actually said she was shocked and disturbed by my cutting my lettuce! She was the only one to comment, ever, but then again, I probably assimilated the French style (I’m told so, anyway). And YES re the baguette!

    Reply
    • Steve, your story made me laugh, especially the juxtaposition of something that many cultures would find shocking (dining with someone’s lover as opposed to their spouse) and something the French find shocking: cutting lettuce! 🙂 It just goes to show how different we are…and how that lettuce rule is really important in France!

      Reply
  10. I agree with David and Rosie, above. It’s almost the same in Britain apart from the cutlery geometry and not cutting your lettuce!

    Reply
    • James, researching this article, I found that most of Europe apparently holds their fork and knife in roughly the same way as the French, and I had never really thought about that. Thank you for confirming that there are similarities. And I’m glad for our European (and, from these comments, Australian and New Zealand) readers that it will be easier to eat like a French person if you come to France!

      Reply
  11. I came across some colorful children’s plates in a French château shop : each had a picture of a child practicing good table manners, accompanied by a description of what they were doing. I could not resist buying the one that says
    « Je ne mets jamais mon couteau à la bouche. » Owwww !

    Reply
  12. I am English but have lived in France for 18 years. The knife and fork etiquette here is, to me, standard English. I know now manners in the UK have degraded, but this is what I was taught when young.

    Reply
    • Same for me, having been born and initially raised in England. Emigrated to USA as a 10 year old, but still use the French/English table manners and proud of it! 😄

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    • Same in the Netherlands where I was born (live in the USA since 1998). It is presented here as French table manners, but European table manners would be more accurate in my opinion. As a matter of fact, Americans are more of an exception as far as Western hemisphere table manners are concerned. Although I have observed the same in some parts of Italy.
      Everything that was frowned upon during my upbringing seems to be “normal” in the USA. In my opinion it is not ignorance, but dates back to the time of the immigrants who were largely blue collar and “uncultured”. It is a historic representation of European table manners. As a matter of fact, Americans never changed. It is just that Europeans all started mimicking the upper class.

      Reply
    • Paul, wow, I’ve never really thought about it – I always say “fork and knife”. I’m wondering if it’s an American or regional thing? I grew up in the northeastern USA. Maybe people in other regions – or people in other Anglophone countries/cultures say “knife and fork” instead?

      Reply
  13. The main difference I find in French meal eating from English eating is that they generally keep the same knife and fork used for the starter for the main meal.
    The knife is placed between the fork tines at the side of your plate ready for the next course.

    Reply
    • Rosie, that is such an astute observation! I’ve also found this to generally be true, although there are certain exceptions, for instance when a course requires special utensils (as with escargot) or when dessert is being served.

      Reply
  14. Concernant le pain, et surtout la baguette, il ne faut jamais mettre la baguette sens dessus dessous. (i. e. á l’envers). Apparemment, ça porte malchance…

    Reply

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