The roast chicken comes crackling and steaming out of the oven just at 7, the time our dinner guests were invited to arrive. Just then, my phone buzzes: “We are leaving now! French timing.”
Thwack! The oven door thuds closed. The chicken must go back into his arid prison, punishment for being a Canadian animal, ignorant of French customs.
When my Parisian friend and her husband arrive, I wave aside their apologies. “It’s okay, you’re fashionably late,” I say. “No,” she says. “It’s le quart d’heure de politesse“—the quarter-hour of politeness.
When we sit down to dine—the chicken no worse for its extra 15 minutes in the oven—she elaborates. People think French customs are silly or snobbish, she says. (That’s the assumption behind “fashionably late,” which implies you are too important and busy doing other things to show up on time.) But, in fact, these customs are grounded in care and consideration for others. The problem is, modern etiquette teachers usually don’t explain the reasons behind the rules.
Le quart d’heure de politesse, for example, ensures that the hostess has extra time to get ready and doesn’t end up half-dressed when the doorbell rings. As beauty blogger Linda writes:
“This quarter of an hour allows hosts to fine-tune their preparations, to add a little extra that will make all the difference, to perfect their appearance, or simply to breathe a little before the guests arrive” (translated).
This rule applies when visiting family or friends at their homes—not for work appointments or rendez-vous in public places. It’s so expected that, according to etiquette enthusiast Hanna, you need not send a message or apologize. Et voilà: What’s rude to some is polite to others, thanks to the great hilarity of cultural exchange.
This French tradition is also called le quart d’heure de courtoisie, I discovered, or, alternatively, le quart d’heure vaudois (in Switzerland) or le quart d’heure parisien or toulousain (depending on the French city you live in). In the provinces, a professor of savoir-vivre explains, you should err on the shorter side of the quart d’heure: 5-15 minutes. But in Paris, you can stretch it to as long as 30 minutes without fault.
My friend goes on to explain other seemingly ridiculous rules of French etiquette that are also quite thoughtful and kind. What’s wrong with bringing your host a bouquet of flowers? The extra work of cutting and arranging takes her away from her guests. Why cut the Brie cheese just so? So everyone gets a tasty bit of rind.
Apparently the Dutch like to joke that arriving late makes them French, which is (of course) the joke I plan to make next time I find myself running behind schedule.