Hello in France


The bonjour is important in France.

Whether you speak with someone at a store, a ticket booth or on entering a bus, if you don’t say “bonjour” – or, later in the day, “bonsoir” – you won’t get very far. It’s one of the rules of French life: you say “bonjour” to the person you see when you enter a store, a bakery or a restaurant, when you step into an elevator when other people are already in it, when you buy a ticket for a movie or a train, when you greet the ticket seller or the driver. You won’t be punished by saying nothing, but you may receive a look of semi-exasperated gallic disdain.

Not too far into my first stay in Paris, as I was still getting comfortable communicating in my meager French, I was with two French friends to see a forgettable Gerard Depardieu movie, and made the mistake at the ticket booth of simply asking for one ticket and laying a €10 note on the counter.

“Bonjour,” the ticket-seller said, eyeing me with suspicion. I didn’t get the point, and again asked for one ticket. “Bonjour,” he repeated, a bit irritated at my incomprehension. It finally sank in. “Bonjour,” I said. “Alors, on commence,” he said. “Now we can begin.” Jeez, what a jerk, I thought. I mean, I was buying a movie ticket, not entering a discussion about Madame Bovary. But I’ve come to learn that certain types of comportment are drilled into the French early on. Saying bonjour before beginning anything else is one of them.

The bonjour has become more habitual with me, but I still have to remind myself to speak it at odd moments. I sometimes start with “Excusez-moi,” if I need help at a boutique or in the train station. As often as not the person to whom I speak usually responds with “Bonjour,” before saying anything else, which makes me go through the whole “Bonjour, excusez-moi” rigamarole before I can actually get to the point of my request. The other day, I needed to check whether my metro tickets were still valid after having a problem at a turnstile and, being somewhat pressed, I turned to the representative at the information counter at the entrance and asked politely if he could check my tickets. Not politely enough, apparently. He smiled at me and said, “Bonjour,” as if he had all the time in the world. “Oh,” I said, after a moment, “bonjour.” I mean, really. But like the ticket-seller years earlier, only with a friendlier demeanor, the representative was only upholding what he considered to be a valuable French tradition. He said, “Bien, monsieur. Je suis à votre écoute. Que puis-je pour vous?” Now, sir, I’m all ears. What can I do for you?

You’d think there’d be more important things to consider than whether you utter “bonjour” to someone, but in France the little things count for a great deal. Part of me appreciates that, since people can be so vile to each other these days. Part of me gets exasperated with the fake politeness. The thing is, the French are no more friendly or unfriendly than other people, but if you don’t observe the unspoken rules of basic interaction you get nowhere. Well, you get somewhere but more slowly than if you’d simply given up and said hello first.

At the same time, saying “bonjour” doesn’t mean you make small talk. The French have certain unspoken rules of etiquette but they don’t engage in chitchat as many Americans do. It isn’t unfriendliness as much as it is reserve. I hear acquaintances ask of each other, “Ça va?” – or how’s it going? –  but I’m not likely to say that to someone I’ve just met. After just meeting someone, I may occasionally ask, “Comment allez-vous?” But I leave it at that, once the pleasantries are done with. (By the way, the French equivalent of, “Nice to meet you,” is, “Enchanté,” or enchanted – and not in an ironical way.)

Perhaps the French insistence on saying “bonjour” forces people to acknowledge that someone else is there. It may seem like nothing to people like me for whom isolation is second nature and an “excusez-moi” is just a way of getting someone’s attention so my request can be handled. But maybe I need, or we all need, even a microsecond of greeting and eye contact. There’s little enough real connection in life, so I should probably be grateful for a hello.




2 thoughts on “Hello in France

  1. Long story short….many years ago, on my 1st trip to France, my husband and I became lost looking for a notable tourist attraction ( can’t remember exactly what right now) I breathlessly ran up to a gendarme and blurted our in my bestFrench “We are lost and we are looking for “X”. The gendarme looked me up and down and pointedly said “Bonjour Madame”. I got the message and started my question over again beginning with ‘Bonjour’. We got our directions and I learned a lesson I will never forget!


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