For my other posts about French social customs, please look in Customs under Topics in the right-hand sidebar.
Once you start getting to know French people, they will invite you round. However, your hosts are likely to be mostly professional or retired professional people. None of our farmer neighbours has ever invited us over, either for a drink or a meal. They are not unfriendly – it just doesn’t occur to them. Around here they socialise en famille but rarely with anyone else. This may not be the case everywhere in France.
First off, you will be invited for apéritifs around 18:00-18:30. This is a way of breaking the ice without too much of a commitment on either side. If you find you don’t have a lot in common, you only have to tolerate each other for an hour or so. If they find you congenial, a dinner invitation will follow. It’s not obligatory to take a present, but a small one won’t do any harm, e.g. a small bunch of flowers or a box of chocolates. Don’t take a bottle of wine [more about this in a future post].
The French don’t usually drink wine as an apéro, but are likely to offer whisky, gin, pineau des charentes, walnut wine (usually home made and worth trying) or some other home made beverage. Don’t start drinking until they do, and then not before you have wished each other good health. “A votre santé” is the correct form of words; “à la votre” or “à la bonne votre” is considered vulgar (I know because I said it loudly in front of a lot of people once and was taken aside by one of the French guests, who explained to me that this was not correct).
What should you talk about? The weather is always a good place to start. The French talk about the weather as much as, if not more than, the British. Families and children are also good neutral territory (unless the children are arms dealers or convicts – but you can’t be expected to know that). Food and restaurants are inexhaustible topics of conversation. Unless they ask you first, don’t ask your hosts what their job is, or was. This is regarded as indiscret and potentially embarrassing for people who have been lavatory attendants or dustmen. Keep off politics, especially if you suspect your views differ from theirs. It’s their country and you don’t have the right to vote as a foreigner, unless you have taken French nationality [see my post on Votes for expats?].
Don’t outstay your welcome. 1 – 1.5 hours is about right. This gives you time to exchange pleasantries and get to know each other a little. It also leaves some topics of conversation untouched for the next time you meet.
A votre santé!
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Now I’m intrigued, I’ve never tasted walnut wine. This one definitely goes on my to do list!
Hi and thanks for your comment. Walnut wine is well worth trying – unusual but nice. It’s also very easy to make, apparently (I haven’t done it myself yet). I’m thinking of posting some local recipes here and I will find one for walnut wine. It doesn’t use the ripe nuts but the unripe version still in the green outer casing – the whole lot goes in.