Answers from Our Experts (2)
There aren't really any "quirky local customs" as such in Paris, although there are a few things you can do to fit in better.
1) When you enter a shop of any kind, be it a newsagent's or an exclusive boutique, the shop assistant must be greeted with a 'Bonjour!' and upon leaving the shop, do not forget to thank the assistant even if you haven't had any contact with them whatsoever with a 'Merci, au revoir!'.
2) Like in the rest of France, people who meet for the first time (or the nth time) greet one another with a kiss on each cheek. In Paris, it's the traditional two kisses, although the number of kisses does vary throughout the country - for example, in some regions of the south, greetings can go up to four kisses.
3) Eat bread with anything (even pasta). It's a wonder how Parisians remain so slim when a basket of sliced baguette is served with absolutely every meal; however, if you want to feel like a local, make sure that your pace of baguette-indulging requires you to ask for a refill at least once throughout the one meal.
4) Expect bad service. Don't take it personally if your waitor hardly looks at you while taking your order or whenever he so much as approaches your table. Don't expect waitors to stop what they are doing to serve you either (especially if they are having a fairly enjoyable conversation with a fellow waitor), and expect to be ignored several times before your waitor takes any notice when you call him over. There is no formal explanation for this sort of behaviour - but it's their way or the highway I'm afraid! That said, there are exceptions to the rule - thankfully.
5) Leave Paris as soon as you can. The way you know that you are a genuine Parisian, is when you love to hate the city - any excuse becomes good enough to escape. Most Parisians will indeed disappear beyond the suburbs at weekends either to a holiday home or to visit friends and family. Most people tend to leave from Thursday evening to late on Sunday, and the most Parisian of the lot will even push it until Monday morning.
6) The ubiquitous "apéro" is basically an excuse to drink without necessarily eating. The custom is originally an apéritif in the form of a glass of something (be it an alcoholic beverage or not) preceding a meal; however, the custom has, it seems, adjusted to fast-living and has transformed itself into a toned-down version of binge-drinking. If you are invited to an apéro, bring a bottle of good red to ensure you fit in - and have something to eat beforehand if you don't want to end up with an early hangover. Sometimes you will be invited to an 'apéro dinatoire', which is basically a few hors d'oeuvres thrown in. Apéros can take place anytime after 4pm, can last well until after the last metro and can be on any day of the week.
Someone once told me that when I arrived in Paris, I should be sure to not look anyone in the eyes if I didn’t know them. I found this ridiculous, considering in America eye contact is key. After three years here, I can understand why they told me this, but I don’t think you need to worry about it when visiting the city. This warning was my first introduction to the privacy of the French, which is evident in the way they keep to themselves and don’t like to be asked about their personal lives unless they know you. (I find the privacy of the French kind of ironic considering they are also the culture the most likely to exhibit PDA...but that's another story).
The French culture is very different from the American, and the Parisian culture is even more different from that in the rest of France. Depending on which region you’re in, the local custom of ‘bisous’ or cheek kisses can vary. In Paris, you can generally count of giving or receiving one kiss on each cheek, although it can be as many as four. For the first kiss you head to the right, and the second to the left, however in the South of France, this is often opposite!
Another quirky custom in Paris involves cell phones. Most French people are very private about their phone conversations, and can even be found whispering into the phone while they’re talking- how the person on the other end can hear them is still a mystery to me!
Other quirky customs include Parisians’ tipping policy. While the general understanding is that you don’t have to tip in Paris, the status-quo is actually changing. In France, servers are paid a higher hourly wage than in America, but this is supposed to include the tip. While service in Paris can often be quite abrupt, and not ‘worthy’ of an additional tip, it is welcomed and encouraged to leave something for your server to let them know you appreciate their help. I encourage diners to leave anywhere from 1€ to 20€ depending on the meal (lunch or dinner?), the type of restaurant (a corner cafe or a nice restaurant?), what you ordered (just a drink or a three-course meal?). Tipping here isn’t left as a percentage of your total, but rather as a symbol of your appreciation. If you have a fabulous three-course dinner at a restaurant, I suggest leaving upwards of 10-20€ for your waiter (assuming they were courteous and made your dinner more enjoyable). If you just got a drink at a bar or a quick sandwich, an additional tip isn’t really necessary, but of course, always welcomed.
Another custom in Paris is the habit of saying "bonjour madame" (or monsieur), as well as "bonne journée" (have a nice day) or "bonne soirée" (have a nice evening) upon entering and leaving a store or restaurant. If you are not greeted, or if you do not greet the shop keeper or the restaurant staff upon entering or leaving a place, it is considered very rude. While at first you might feel like a broken record, it does feel nice to make contact and be wished so many 'good days' in a row!