You don’t have to spend more than a couple of days in France to notice that bonjour is said all the time and for good reason. A simple hello is the magic word that starts every interaction off on the right foot. The absence of a bonjour in certain situations will let people know you’re out of touch with cultural norms in France at the very least and that you need to brush up on your French manners.
French manners: Bonjour in France
Before we get into the specific instances of when to say bonjour in France, let me recap what I wrote in a post earlier this year about my favorite French social norm:
“These days, when back in the USA observing non-French people, it is almost jarring for me to see how some Americans address each other. We don’t always say hello before ordering at a restaurant or asking a store employee a question. We most certainly don’t always say thank you and goodbye. And how many times have you seen customers wish employees a good day? Yeah, it happens but it’s not as common in the USA as it is in France. Now, it’s my home culture that surprises me.
It goes without saying that of course not everyone in the USA is rude, short, or forgets polite greetings — I’m not saying that at all. Many Americans were raised to be super polite and do always address others politely. But the difference is that in the USA, it’s not a social norm across the board to say hello, thank you, and goodbye. Every time. You can get away with less.
While it’s not the most polite thing, in the USA it’s more accepted to be less polite in social interactions and just say to a waiter, “I’ll have the steak.” Or “I’ll have the steak. Thanks” instead of “Hello, I’ll have the steak please. Thank you,” like you’d hear in France.”
That’s the major difference. In France, it’s a sign of respect. It’s not optional to forgo the greeting if you want people to know that you understand French manners. You’ll come across as impolite if you don’t say it and that’s not the first impression you’ll want to make. It’s even seen as insulting to not say bonjour and then French get the reputation for being rude or snobby… but that’s a conversation for another day.
When to say bonjour in France
Now let’s get into the specific situations where you need to say bonjour in France (regardless of the region). If you are in France, make sure to speak up and say bonjour before any of the following:
Note: If it’s in the evening, you’ll want to say bonsoir instead (good evening)
Say bonjour in all of the situations you’d say hello to someone in the USA PLUS:
-Entering a doctor’s waiting room with other patients
-Seeing co-workers first thing in the morning at work
-Boarding a bus, say bonjour to the driver as you pass by
-Before asking someone a question (random person on the street, shop employee, customer service phone line, etc.). This includes asking someone if they speak English. Be sure to say “Bonjour, parlez-vous anglais ?” and NOT “Parlez-vous anglais ?” It makes a difference.
-Greeting a shopkeeper upon entering a small store
-When a waiter comes to your table to take your order
-Any time you interact with an employee of a store, so a cashier, a bakery employee, etc.
-Upon entering an elevator with other people
Many of the situations above might seem like common sense depending on where and how you were raised, but in France none of these is optional if you want to be perceived as someone who is socially educated with good French manners. Nothing will go your way in a service interaction if you leave out the obligatory bonjour.
To that point, I’ve seen shopkeepers and cashiers lightly scold tourists who launch right into their question without a bonjour. The French person won’t respond to the question and instead says bonjour, sometimes multiple times, until their hello is reciprocated. Only then can the conversation move forward. Within two or three repetitions of the cashier saying bonjour, the foreign tourist gets the point and I’m sure that’s the last time they’ll make the same mistake.
When to NOT say bonjour in France
Do not say bonjour to random people you pass in the aisles of a grocery store or on the street (unless you know them, that is). In some small towns, people do say bonjour to other adults they pass in a park but that’s at your discretion and can be regional. If you’re constantly saying bonjour to ever single human being you see in a day and shouting it across a park to people you don’t know, that would be seen as bizarre, so don’t go overboard. When in doubt, do say bonjour to be on the safe side.
Another thing to keep in mind is that bonjour is not a come-on or pickup line. It’s also not an invitation to deep dive into smalltalk. Saying bonjour is a social reflex and people do it because it’s required, not because they want to date you or have a conversation with you about the weather or what’s going on in the world. Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking, when you say bonjour to a stranger, it’s simply that, a necessary and polite greeting that says, “Hello, I see you, fellow human being, and I’m acknowledging your presence first and foremost.”
Even though I know to expect it at this point, it can still catch me off guard when I hear a child say bonjour in the park when walking Dagny. They are usually between 5 and 10 years old and about half the time, I can expect a bonjour from a child who passes us by. In the USA, I don’t feel like kids say hello to adult strangers quite as often. Kids are taught about “stranger danger” and seem more shy, in my experience.
Why foreigners don’t say bonjour
There are three main reasons I’ve come across where foreigners forget their French manners. The first is because it’s a cultural difference. As I mentioned, while it’s not the most polite thing, we can get away with skipping over the bonjour in the USA especially in a busy store, when we’re stressed, or just because. I’ve heard people approach customer service desks in the USA and launch into, “Yeah, this toy isn’t working right, so I’d like a refund” and no one bats an eye. In France, it would need to be, “Bonjour, this toy isn’t working right, so I’d like a refund please.” If you aren’t aware of cultural norms in France (or are impacted by what I mention next), our default setting is what we know from our home country.
The second reason why a foreigner may not say bonjour is because of distractions. Everything can be new and overwhelming in a busy French bakery or store. It’s a bit of a sensory overload at times, so when it’s your turn to order or pay, the very first rule of French conversation might go out the window. It’s not intentional and you don’t mean to be rude, but you’re fumbling with your coins or are so enamored by the selection of pastries behind the glass that in the moment, bonjour slips your mind. It happens.
The last reason is one I’ve fallen victim to and has to do with nerves around speaking French. Sometimes we are so focused on getting the French words correct that come after bonjour that we inadvertently skip over the easiest word of all. We rehearse the big phrase we want to say in our head and are so anxious to just blurt it out that bonjour doesn’t always factor into the picture.
If you feel confident with bonjour, then feel free to use merci and s’il vous plait liberally as well. These are polite French words to know that’ll make a good first impression.
As a foreigner, if you’ve ever forgotten to say bonjour, don’t sweat it. It’s not the biggest deal in the world if you’re a tourist but is something to be aware of for next time. If you live in France, I don’t think we get much of a pass beyond one or two slip-ups, so now that you know when to say the magic word, use it. If you have made a mistake with it, no worries. You’ll get it right la prochaine fois.
Tell me below in the comments, have you ever forgotten to say bonjour in France? What’s your experience with the magic word and French manners?