Simple comme bonjour – as easy as saying hello – is the French equivalent of the American idiomatic expression « Easy as Pie ». For a French person, nothing is easier than saying hello (the French way of course!). But for those unfamiliar with French customs and culture, it’s far from simple. If you don’t grow up knowing the rules, it’s pretty hard to figure it out on your own (and you’ll probably get some perplexed looks along the way). So, in an effort to get you off on the right foot, here are the 6 Basic Rules for saying Bonjour.
1) ALWAYS say ‘Bonjour’, or it could cost you!
If you don’t say hello to those you’re supposed to say hello to, you will quickly be categorized as anti-social (at best) or snob (at worst). BTW, did you know that the word snob is the contraction of the two French words sans noblesse (without nobility)? Well, if you forget this number 1 rule, a snob you are. Start your conversations with bonjour! A café in Lyon had no problem putting these above items on their menu – proof that not saying bonjour can cost you, as much as five euros!
2) Well, erm, don’t say ‘Bonjour’ ALWAYS always. Otherwise, you may get a look that says:
Now this is where it gets tricky… You ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO SAY HELLO, but only to those you’re supposed to say hello to. But of course! So *scratch head…*, who are you supposed to say hello to? It’s easy as pie (if you’re French)! If not, here it is in four bullet points:
You have to say hello to:
- everyone you already know,
- all of those who are in the same (small) room as you (waiting room, bakery, doctor’s office…),
- people you ask assistance from (ie. directions, requesting to be seated at a restaurant or a café…),
- people you pass, or those near you, when sharing in a specific activity (climbing up the Sainte Victoire Mountain, cheering on the sidelines of the Tour de France…) But careful! Walking down the street or sitting at a sidewalk café are not considered « sharing in a specific activity ».
Attention! The French are taught to limit their greetings to those people mentioned above. So if you’re in France and start saying hello to people you don’t know when you’re just walking down the street, don’t be surprised if they turn around and follow you (especially if you’re a pretty girl and the stranger you’re ‘bonjouring’ is a guy). Smiling and saying hello to strangers can also be interpreted as an invitation to get to know them better. If this is what you want, fine – but beware! Sending out unintentional messages can get you into an uncomfortable situation.
3) The person arriving has to say ‘Bonjour‘ first.
When you buy a bus ticket, ask for directions, walk into a boutique, or meet up with friends at a restaurant – YOU will be expected to say bonjour FIRST (and this, before you utter any other word). Excusez-moi or s’il vous plaît just won’t do. And here’s why: For the French, Bonjour is considered the simplest form of respect and politeness. It’s a way of telling others « I recognize you as a person »- like turning on a flashlight in the dark – that person suddenly exists. Without Bonjour, they will feel invisible and snobbed – as though you had deliberately chosen to ignore their presence. So, if you – god forbid – forgot to say bonjour, don’t be surprised if the person gives you an icy stare, and responds with a stern Oui…bonjooouuuur?, the underlying code being – « You’re lucky that I’m even talking to you, you uncivilized person, you… »
4) You should say ‘Bonjour‘ plus the person’s name.
This is old school etiquette. If French children forget, they’re scolded with a « Bonjour QUI ?! » (Hello WHO?!). Mademoiselle Manners always says: « Bonjour Pierre » (if you’re already on a first-name basis) or Bonjour Monsieur (if not). Bonjour Mesdames encompasses a group of women, and in certain situations, some old-timers still say « Bonjour Messieurs-Dames » englobing all of those present in a colloquial contraction of the more proper Bonjour Mesdames, Bonjour Messieurs, when walking into a small shop or a boulangerie.
5) You can only ‘Bonjour‘ someone once a day.
As if it couldn’t seem more complicated…you can say Bonjour to the same person ONLY once a day. If you say Bonjour twice, you’ll most likely get a perplexed look accompanied by the admonition « But we already said Bonjour! ». (OK, so sorry – I didn’t mean to offend you!) This can seem hard to understand at first, but it’s not as complicated as you may think. It’s like saying Good Morning. You would never say Good Morning twice in one day to the same person, would you? Non, but of course not! So, what do you say the second time you see someone you’ve already Bonjoured ? Re-bonjour ! Yes, it sounds a bit funny to re-hello someone, but it’s completely normal in France. Otherwise, Salut! Coucou! Comment allez-vous? Ca va? are good alternatives. (And just a note: Bonjour is used until dusk, when the greeting Bonsoir takes over).
6) Hello and goodbye – pretty much the same.
Saying bonjour and au revoir (goodbye) is an outward sign of respect. Whether coming or going, you will be expected to take the initiative and show these signs of respect all day long. Sound laborious? It won’t be once you get used to it. Practice makes perfect, and in no time at all it will seem easy as pie!
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Mastering the Ritual of Bonjour is part of Savoir Vivre à la Française, a presentation on French etiquette and table manners, given to all AUCP students during their first week of orientation at the AUCP.