EXPLAINED: Why bonjour is the most sacred word to French people

If greetings may not be so much of an integral part of anglophone culture, in France, the word bonjour is sacred. French writer Gwendoline Gaudicheau explains why.

EXPLAINED: Why bonjour is the most sacred word to French people
Photo: AFP

C’est simple comme bonjour (it is as simple as saying hello) is a popular expression that says a lot about what we, French people, think about greetings.

Bonjour is not just about saying hello, it is much more, almost a sign of respect. Knowing this will often give you a better service when entering a shop or a bakery and that otherwise you will just be perceived as a bad-mannered person.

“If you come to me with just a request, I am clearly going to think you see me as a robot that is just here to satisfy your needs and not as a human being that deserves a little respect,” warns Laura, a 24-year-old shop assistant.


Saying bonjour implies that you are entering a new place that is most likely not yours and that you are aware of that. 

“Personally, I feel like you can’t never say too much bonjour in a day. I probably hear and say it more than 20 times each day, but if we don’t it’s just rude no?”, asks Eric, 41.

Indeed, when you first discover France without being aware of this tricky bonjour thing, you are probably going to appear as the rude foreigner who does not bother to greet the people you are meeting.

In some Parisian cafés, the cost of the drink you order even varies depending on how polite and pleasant you were with your waiter, so don’t forget the (nice) bonjour before ordering an espresso!


In the professional world, skipping the bonjour part will also make you look snobby. If you start working in a French business, know that each morning you will have to go and say hello to your co-workers before starting your day.   

“Honestly, it may be terrible to say, but if a colleague does not greet me in the morning, I’ll think he’s mad at me or in a bad mood and then, I will be the one in the bad mood, having been offended”, explains Laurie, a 33-year-old hairstylist.

Don’t worry if you work in a very big company, no need to go and see every employee, but pay attention to say bonjour to the people you work with on a daily basis.

The issue of bonjour has even reared its head in the recent case of British artistic director Ruth MacKenzie who has was abruptly dismissed from her job at the Theatre du Châtelet in Paris. While this is clearly a complicated case with a lot going on, one of the issues that staff had apparently complained about was that she did not say bonjour enough.

Slight exception: if you meet someone in the corridor or in the elevator say hello or at the very least, nod and smile, that you know the person closely or from afar, otherwise it can quickly become awkward.

Same thing goes with your neighbours, don’t forget to say bonjour when you stumble upon them to maintain a cordial relationship.

“I like that it’s something we still have, even young people carry this tradition because it is implicitly taught at school, it’s a very natural thing to say, more than merci I think”, tells Ariette, a retired History teacher.

It's worth noting that the bonjour also depends on the time of the day! Anytime, before 6pm use it, but after that, you'll have to switch to bonsoir.

[Although not all French people agree with this time rule, see here for why even the French can't explain when bonjour becomes bonsoir]

Technically the only place where a bonjour is not needed is in the streets (if you don’t meet anyone you know).

So, when you know you are going to interact with another human being, say hello before asking anything and when in doubt, just say bonjour.



Member comments

  1. My property is in the Vendee, where tradition is important. It is not acceptable just to say ‘Bonjour’ if you are familiar with the person you are addressing; it has to be ‘Bonjour Alain’ or ‘Bonjour Jacqueline’; our French neighbours are absolutely meticulous in this respect and we try our best to live up to the local expectations.

  2. We say ‘bonjour’ to anybody we cross in the street, or to passers-by when we are dead-heading and watering the window box in the street. It is generally well-received, and leads on to appreciation for the flowers (town has to get its 3 fleurs somehow) and in these days of masked non-communication, it’s a welcome relief.

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France to roll out ID cards app

Technology is being rolled out to allow people to carry their French ID cards in an app form - and could be rolled out to other cards, including driving licences and cartes de séjour residency cards.

France to roll out ID cards app

Holders of French carte d’identité (ID cards) will soon be able to carry certified digital versions of them on their smartphone or other electronic devices, a decree published in the Journal Officiel has confirmed.

An official app is being developed for holders of the newer credit card-format ID cards that have information stored on a chip. A provisional test version of the app is expected at the end of May.

Users will be able to use the ID card app, when it becomes available, for a range of services “from checking in at the airport to renting a car”, according to Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for the Internal Market.

All French citizens have an ID card, which can be used for proving identity in a range of circumstances and for travel within the EU and Schengen zone – the new app will be in addition to the plastic card that holders already have.

Under the plans, after downloading the app, card holders will need merely to hold the card close to their phone to transfer the required information. According to officials, the holder then can decide what information is passed on – such as proof of age, or home address – according to the situation.

The government has not given any examples of situations in which the app would need to be used, but has set out the main principles and the ambition of the plan: to allow everyone to identify themselves and connect to certain public and private organisations, in particular those linked to the France Connect portal.

READ ALSO What is France Connect and how could it make your life simpler?

Cards will continue to be issued for the foreseeable future – this is merely an extension of the existing system.

Only French citizens have ID cards, but if successful the app is expected to be rolled out to include other cards, such as driving licences, cartes de séjour residency cards or even visas. A digital wallet is being developed at the European level – Member States have until September to agree what it could contain.

READ ALSO Eight smartphone apps that make life in France a bit easier