If you don’t say bonjour in these situations the French will think you’re very, very rude

Bonjour is the first word we learn when starting the long, arduous path to being Francophone, and the one word most people can say even when they don’t speak French. It’s a word that’s incredibly important to the French, as anyone who has seen a maman badger her reluctant child into saying it will know. Bonjour is the keystone to politeness in France. In saying it you are acknowledging the other person as an equal, a person deserving of respect. Saying bonjour is so important that they really should give a warning to visitors on signs at the frontier.

But even if you know this, there’s a good chance that you’re still not saying bonjour enough. You see, French people say bonjour far more frequently than British people say hello, and in situations it wouldn’t occur to us to say it.  Let’s look at some of these to make sure you’re not unintentionally giving the impression that you’re a rude foreigner.

People, places and situations where you should say bonjour

1. In the boulangerie

If you only say bonjour in one of these places, make it the place where you buy your bread. It is almost (almost) as important as your money here. In Britain it’s perfectly acceptable to walk into a bakery, smile a little, then say, “4 baps, please” without causing any offence. In France, you don’t need to smile but adding bonjour is mandatory.

2. Actually, any place you buy stuff

Say bonjour when you’re paying for things in supermarkets, chemists, market stalls… Anywhere money is exchanged basically. I’ve never used the services of a prostitute but imagine you would say bonjour/bonsoir in that situation too.

3. When you enter shops

Sometimes it’s not enough to say bonjour when you pay for things, sometimes you need to say it when you walk into the shop as well. This is usually reserved for small, privately owned places, and clothes shops. If you’re not sure whether to say bonjour or not, just wait for the staff to make the first move. You’ll probably have to say au revoir as well. Exhausting, I know.

This is an actual sign from a cafe in Nice

4. To waiters

Unless you want to sit next to the toilet and be ignored all night, say the magic word. One café owner in Nice was so fed up with the rudeness of his customers  that he decided to vary the price of a coffee depending on  how it had been ordered; the cheapest coffee is the one ordered with a s’il vous plait and a bonjour.

5. To any ‘gateway’ person

By this I mean principally receptionists but this includes anyone who has the power to let you go places. Security guards, secretaries, personal assistants are also on this list – think people with clipboards and you won’t go far wrong.

6. In waiting rooms

So you’ve said bonjour to the receptionist in the doctor’s surgery. Job done, right? Wrong. Because now you need to say it to the people sitting waiting too. To a British person this is as natural as stripping naked and attempting to pirouette while covered in custard but if you want to be polite you need to suck up the shame and say it.

7. To your neighbours

In 10 years of living in London I knew precisely zero of my neighbours. The most interaction we had was the exchange of slight nods/tight smiles. You can’t get away with this in France: you must say bonjour to them. If they’re older, then “Bonjour madame/monsieur” will score you more points.

8. To your concierge / gardien

It is impossible to overstate the importance of bonjouring the person that looks after your building. Sure, they may be nosy/interfering/a source of irritation but the moment you need shit done they will remember that morning 3 years ago in June when you didn’t say bonjour and it’s over.

8. To your colleagues

At a minimum you need to stick your head round the door of each office to say your morning hellos. Now if you work in a huge company, you’re not expected to say bonjour to everyone, just the people you work with. However, there is a caveat because you are expected to say bonjour

9. To people you pass in corridors

Again, this is alien to Britons. But if you work in a huge building and you pass someone in the corridor you don’t know, you should say bonjour to them. If it’s a group of people deep in conversation you can give your bonjouring a miss but otherwise, say hello to that complete stranger!

10. In lifts

Enter the lift, say bonjour to whomever is inside, then say either bonne journée or au revoir each time someone gets out. This is super fun if you’re in a really tall building with loads of difference companies like in La Defense. To complicate this already unnatural behaviour, you don’t need to do this in all lifts, just in residential or work buildings. You don’t need to bother in, say, shopping centre or airport lifts.

Got that?  If in doubt, say bonjour!

via GIPHY

Have I missed any people, place or situations off the list? Do you like saying bonjour or find it annoying? Maybe you find it more friendly in France than back home? Tell us your experiences in the comments. And please share if you’ve enjoyed!

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8 Comments


  1. Diane

    8th January 2017 at 7:30 pm

    Yup, so incredibly important. Such a simple word and so often forgotten. Sharing on FB!

    Reply

    • BFF

      9th January 2017 at 1:53 pm

      It’s funny how there’s such a difference in how it’s used! And thanks for sharing 🙂

      Reply

  2. Camille

    8th January 2017 at 11:13 pm

    I don’t know if you do the same but in France it is usual to say “bonjour” when you’re having a walk un the countryside and you meet someone, even if you don’t know this person.
    I’m sorry if my english is not good : my understanding is ok, but not yet my speaking

    Reply

    • BFF

      9th January 2017 at 1:52 pm

      We do say hello when walking in the countryside – in Scotland anyway. I’m from a city so I always find it a little strange – though nice! – when people say hello to me in the countryside.

      Your English is great! And thank you for taking the time to comment 🙂

      Reply

  3. Richard

    12th January 2017 at 11:47 pm

    This is wrong. How do we stop it from happening? Hello to people in lifts?????

    Now i know why i always feel like everyone is upset with me when I’m in France

    Reply

  4. Laure-Line

    8th June 2017 at 12:45 am

    I am French, and this is so true ! In our country, children are taught how to wave their hand or kiss ‘hello’ even before they can speak, and the same goes for ‘good bye’ and ‘thank you’. In the French mind, you must be the rudest person on earth not to do it… but once you have said ‘bonh-jouw’ with your adorable English accent, we are adorable creatures as well.

    It seems many people think we are rude, but when they explain the situation, they actually breached some of our most important rules of politeness just before being mistreated. We have an enormous number of codes that would scare many tourists !
    For example, people who have very open and friendly manners also think us rude because we don’t, but in France , engaging in that form of relationship is considered as quite close and intrusive (except in the south), so when Frenchmen just keep a straight face and don’t follow up with questions, they are actually getting out of their way to be polite and considerate by not satisfying their curiosity in order not to embarrass the person they are talking to.
    Another example : in restaurants, requiring specific ingredients that are not on the menu is not only rude, it is also seen as childish because children are taught to eat what is on their plate without complaint since they were born. If we really crave something specific, we just go to a restaurant that offers it the way we like on the menu.

    Reply

  5. Vicki Anderson

    6th September 2017 at 2:31 am

    I found this very i interesting. Yes, it’s mandatory to greet shopkeepers and waiters. I haven’t been to the doctor and maybe not taken lifts, so I haven’t experienced these situations. I’m surprised to hear one must greet strangers in corridors and waiting rooms.
    My question is: why is it taboo to greet or even have eye contact with peole sitting or standing very close on the metro? Similarly, French friends have expressed surprise when in Australia we say good morning to strangers we pass in the street or park. My impression has been that French peole are less likely to greet each other than we are. This article has left me thinking.

    Reply

  6. Catherine Berry (But you are in France, Madame)

    6th September 2017 at 6:35 am

    Not long and arduous for me (learning French). I love the learning journey!
    As for saying ‘bonjour’, yes, it is true that this is frequent, but it becomes a habit that you don’t even think about. So much so that when returning to my home country of Australia, I found it odd not to say ‘hello’ to everyone that I saw.

    Reply

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