What is a Faux Pas?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Faux pas is a French expression that means “false step.” It is used in English to indicate a social blunder or error, made unintentionally by someone who is unaware of social conventions in the area he or she is visiting. French speakers typically use the word gaffe to describe a similar situation, while the other term is used slightly differently by native French speakers.

In some cultures, the thumbs up is a rude gesture.
In some cultures, the thumbs up is a rude gesture.

Typically, when someone commits a faux pas, he or she is gently corrected by someone else in the vicinity. When correcting someone because they have made such a mistake, it is conventional to take them aside, rather than embarrass them in front of the entire company, unless the offense was egregious and needs to be corrected immediately. Generally, most people recognize that someone does not commit this type of error out of malice, especially when an act of attempted kindness accompanies the mistake.

In most cases, a faux pas is either related to a figure of speech that violates good manners or a foolish action. For example, many languages have formal pronouns that are used to address people who are older or in a position of authority. Using a casual pronoun with one of these individuals would be considered a faux pas. In French, for example, the informal tu would not be used to address a person's superior at work; the correct pronoun would be vous. Another common language error is neglecting social greetings. In many Middle Eastern and Latin American cultures, an individual entering a room should individually greet everyone in the room to avoid causing offense.

When someone commits an action which is termed to be a cultural faux pas, it is often unfortunately attached to a gift. In China, for example, giving someone a time piece is considered to be in poor taste, just as bringing a bottle of wine to a dinner in France is offensive. Usually, a mistake related to gift giving violates a cultural taboo surrounding death or other cultural rituals. Another common error is related to body gestures, which can indicate various offensive acts or suggestions, depending on the county. In Greece, for example, facing someone with the palm and fingers spread out is a rude gesture, not the number five.

To avoid this type of error, people should watch their language and their bodies when they are in a different country and follow the lead of their hosts. They should not be afraid to ask a host in private about a situation that has confused them, especially in a culture that is alien. Until a visitor is familiar with the area, it is safer to err on the side of caution by addressing everyone formally and using gestures sparingly until he knows what the gestures mean in the culture.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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