Monday, November 3, 2014

French-Time: A Guide to Dealing with the Subleties of the French Timetable

In the past, I have dedicated a post to discussing what "Cuban-time" entails. This cultural analysis was only a warm-up aimed at the task of deciphering the rhythm of French life.

While living in France has its undeniable advantages, it's not all fun and games for any new Expat flung into the throws of this sometimes confusing culture.

*BADUM-PSSH* (Seriously, though, wine is said to be reserved for lunch and dinner to complement the meal. Drinking wine outside of those hours makes you look like an alcoholic.)

The general unspoken rules involved in what I call French-time can have some rather elusive features. However, thanks to sheer cultural immersion, I have through my observations learned the slew of nuances involved in French-time.

Throughout this post, I will make use of several acronyms, because that is the French way.

Let's start off with the most obvious of them all: "Bonjour-Time."

1) Bonjour-Time* (BT): The small window between 00.001 and 2 seconds it takes for you to establish the vital greeting with a person from whom a particular service** is or may be expected (bus drivers, store clerks, cashiers, SNCF workers), acquaintances or friends**.

Failure to act within this brief time frame may result with the interacting French person to exhibit a silent, glacial glare or to state an ironic reprimand of how polite you are. 

2) Au Revoir-Time (ART): It must be enacted at all costs, preferably 3 seconds prior to leaving the premises. May be used, at a bare minimum, 00.001 second before exiting through the door.

The punishment for neglecting ART will result with you being shamed from ever showing your face again. For, lo, the French have a rather impressive talent for remembering every single person who has slighted them for not engaging in BT and ART.

3) New Year Greeting-Time (NYGT): the crucial moment in which you wish your friends, family, work colleagues, potential lover, boss and pet goldfish "Bonne année!" the first time you encounter or communicate with them within the new year. This window of greeting is understood to occur during the month of January yet may extend well into February.

The faux pas of failing to enact on this expected duty will result in ostracism, broken friendships and lots of finger pointing at the village idiot (you).

4) Apéro-Time (AT); The thirty to sixty minutes before dinner in which it is acceptable to have an alcoholic beverage and snack foods. Usually better if done in the company of friends and family at the end of DPT. Otherwise, it's just a little sad to be having a conversation about existentialism by yourself.

5) Dinner Party-Time (DPT): Guests are promptly expected to arrive a minimum of fifteen minutes after the designated time. Try to avoid arriving early or on time lest the dinner host happens to not be French. AT will take place shortly upon arrival.

6) Coffee Break-Time (CBT): occurs in two or three intervals throughout the day (10 a.m., after lunch and 4 p.m.). CBT may also finalize a wonderful session started by DPT.

7) SNCF-Time (SNCFT)***: The fifteen to twenty minutes it takes for the electronic boards to display the train's track number.

8) Strike Season (SS): The period between September 1st to July 31st in which French unionists become disgruntled with government/company policies and remind them who's in charge by disrupting or withholding crucial societal functions (transportation, education, distribution of pharmaceutical goods).

"Pharmacy on strike." I can't make this stuff up. 

9) Off-Strike Season (OSS), a.k.a. Les Vacances: The period between August 1st to August 31st in which no-one bothers to go on strike because the weather is too nice.

*The same standard applies to Bonsoir-Time (not to be confused with BT) should you need to greet the French person within the evening hours.

**As a general rule, you only need to use BT once throughout the day, especially with colleagues. Repetition of BT will garner a series of funny, wide-eyed looks in which your fellow Frenchies will wonder if you are being rude, if you are unfortunate to have short-term memory because you forget that you already saw them, or, at a push, are irreparably brain damaged. 

If, by some reason, there is a situation which requires you to return to see a particular person after you've applied ART, the phrase "Re-bonjour" may be used. 

***Delays or abrupt cancellations with SNCFT are to be expected as the majority of the train schedules coincide with SS. 

Learning this guideline by heart will make your way of navigating through the cultural minefield of faux pas a little bit easier. 

Barb the French Bean


  1. Wait, so alcohol is only acceptable during lunch, dinner, or AT? It's times like these I appreciate the American Freedom™ of being able to drink at any time of day or night. Like, us drinking at 11 AM isn't alcoholism, it's a business meeting. Now if only the IRS would see it our way.

    1. Fair points, although I should mention that it is quite common among French 20-somethings to allow a jolly session of AT to devolve into a noisy, raging, blind drunk house party.

      American Freedom (TM) is no match for French Stringency (TM), even in the quest to become inebriated.

  2. I don't see how I could commit faux pas any bigger in France than i already do in the US. I've alienated almost everyone her.

    In Texas, the biggest mistake you can make is getting anywhere early. If you get somewhere at 3:38 for a 4:00 appointment, you will be told 3 times, "I specifically said 4:00."

    At least in France, the time rules occasionally involve wine. And strikes!

    1. Yes, strikes and wine are one of the upsides to being here.

      I think I just heard half of the nation gasp in horror over your habit of arriving early. You'd quickly become a persona non grata regarding DPT. :P

  3. Thank God I now understand so many time differences. I grew up in Kansas with parents from Minnesota and North Dakota. That meant we left at least six hours early for anything. The waiting was hideous, and I wasn't given any wine.


    1. Not even during AT or DPT? You poor, poor soul...

      After spending six hours leaving for a place early, I would definitely seek to over ride the tendency to respect French Stringency (TM) and have alcohol whenever I felt like it.

    2. Well, I was a kid when I was dragged around too early by my mom and dad. Technically, I guess I wasn't supposed to have alcohol, but I needed it.

  4. I like the idea of not striking because the weather is too good. It's like a reverse siesta. I think you can get by in any place as long as you have good manners and know what to say and, perhaps more importantly, when to say it. Having said that I would be shunned immediately in France because I tend to only bid adieu to cafe/restaurant owners if they do it first.

    1. Well, you're in luck: if they spot you leaving the premises, they'll sometimes shout a goodbye at your back. It is then that you have engaged in ART and that you MUST return the goodbye lest you want to become the village idiot.

  5. I'm surprised that strike session is not all year around. Or is it kind of like Christmas? It might only be for a short period of time but the French keep it in their hearts all year around.

    1. That's exactly how it is, Stu. Strike Season is so brief that the French feel the need to conserve it in their very souls.

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  7. It's been a while- sorry I have been out of the blogging/commenting for a bit. Computer issues. - It sounds like I would be in big trouble in France. I hate following rules, unspoken or otherwise. For sure, I would be snubbed indefinitely. Sounds like you have the rules all figured out. Are you still loving it- living there? Or does all of the cultural differences make you feel more like a fish out of water?

    And my little Franchesca, is still in love with all things France. We just purchased her a huge Eiffel Tower for her bedroom. She says, now her room is complete! Ha.

    1. Hi, Jay! I'm always glad to see you swing by the blog. :)

      Yes, I am still living in France. I moved a few months ago from the small country city to the city of Le Mans. I'm loving France even more these days, even if, at times, I pine for the comfort from back home of knowing how things work.

      I bet that Franchesca will end up living in France someday. That way, she can have the real Tour Eiffel in her backyard!


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