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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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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LIVING IN FRANCE

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer's here and the time is right for national celebrations, traffic jams, strikes, Paris beaches, and ... changing the rules for new boilers.

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer holidays

The holiday season in France officially begins on Thursday, July 7th, as this is the date when school’s out for the summer. The weekend immediately after the end of the school year is expected to be a busy one on the roads and the railways as families start heading off on vacation.

READ ALSO 8 things to know about driving in France this summer

Strikes

But it wouldn’t really be summer in France without a few strikes – airport employees at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports will walk out on July 1st, while SNCF rail staff will strike on July 6th. Meanwhile Ryanair employees at Paris, Marseille and Toulouse airports will strike on yet-to-be-confirmed dates in July.

READ ALSO How strikes and staff shortages will affect summer in France

Parliamentary fireworks?

Prime minister Elisabeth Borne will present the government’s new programme in parliament on July 5th – this is expected to be a tricky day for the Macron government, not only does it not have the parliamentary majority that it needs to pass legislation like the new package of financial aid to help householders deal with the cost-of-living crisis, but opposition parties have indicated that they will table a motion of no confidence against Borne.

Parliament usually breaks for the summer at the end of July, but a special extended session to allow legislation to be passed means that MPs won’t get to go on holiday until at least August 9th. 

Fête nationale

July 14th is a public holiday in France, commemorating the storming of the Bastille which was the symbolic start of the French Revolution. As usual, towns and cities will host parades and fireworks – with the biggest military parade taking place on the Champs-Elysées in Paris – and many stores will remain closed.

As the national holiday falls on a Thursday this year, many French workers will take the opportunity to faire le pont.

Festival season really kicks in

You know summer’s here when France gets festival fever, with events in towns and cities across the country. You can find our pick of the summer celebrations here.

Paris Plages

The capital’s popular urban beaches return on July 9th on the banks of the Seine and beside the Bassin de la Villette in northern Paris, bringing taste of the seaside to the capital with swimming spots, desk chairs, beach games and entertainment.  

Summer sales end 

Summer sales across most of the country end on July 19th – unless you live in Alpes-Maritimes, when they run from July 6th to August 2nd, or the island of Corsica (July 13th to August 9th).

Tour de France

The Tour de France cycle race sets off on July 1st from Copenhagen and finishes up on the Champs-Elysée in Paris on July 24th.

New boilers

From July 1st, 2022, new equipment installed for heating or hot water in residential or professional buildings, must comply with a greenhouse gas emissions ceiling of 300 gCO2eq/KWh PCI. 

That’s a technical way of saying oil or coal-fired boilers can no longer be installed. Nor can any other type of boiler that exceeds the ceiling.

As per a decree published in the Journal Officiel in January, existing appliances can continue to be used, maintained and repaired, but financial aid of up to €11,000 is planned to encourage their replacement. 

Bike helmets

New standards for motorbike helmets come into effect from July 1st. Riders do not need to change their current helmets, but the “ECE 22.05” standard can no longer be issued – and all helmets sold must adhere to a new, more stringent “ECE 22.06” standards from July 2024

New cars

From July 6th new car models must be equipped with a black box that record driving parameters such as speed, acceleration or braking phases, wearing (or not) of a seat belt, indicator use, the force of the collision or engine speed, in case of accidents.

New cars II

From July 1st, the ecological bonus for anyone who buys an electric vehicle drops by €1,000, while rechargeable hybrids will be excluded from the aid system, “which will be reserved for electric vehicles whose CO2 emission rate is less than or equal to 20g/km”.

What’s in a name?

Historically, the French have been quite restrictive on the use of family names – remember the concern over the use of birth names on Covid vaccine documents? – but it becomes easier for an adult to choose to bear the name of his mother, his father, or both by a simple declaration to the civil status. All you have to do is declare your choice by form at the town hall of your home or place of birth.

Eco loans

In concert with the new boiler rules, a zero-interest loan of up to €30,000 to finance energy-saving renovations can be combined with MaPrimeRénov’, a subsidy for financing the same work, under certain conditions, from July 1st.

Rent rules

Non-professional private landlords advertising properties for rent must, from July 1st, include specific information about the property on the ad, including the size of the property in square metres, the area of town in which the property is in, the monthly rent and any supplements, whether the property is in a rent-control area, and the security deposit required. Further information, including the full list of requirements for any ad, is available here.

Perfume ban

More perfumes are to be added to a banned list for products used by children, such as soap-making kits, cosmetic sets, shampoos, or sweet-making games, or toys that have an aroma.

Atranol, chloroatranol (extracts of oak moss containing tannins), and methyl carbonate heptin, which smells like violets, will be banned from July 5th, because of their possible allergenic effects.

Furthermore, 71 new allergenic fragrances – including camphor, menthol, vanilin, eucalyptus spp. leaf oil, rose flower oil, lavendula officinalis, turpentine – will be added to the list of ingredients that must be clearly indicated on a toy or on an attached label.

Ticket resto limits

The increased ticket resto limit ended on June 30th, so from July 1st employees who receive the restaurant vouchers will once again be limited to spending €19 per day in restaurants, cafés and bars. The limit was increased to €38 during the pandemic, when workers were working from home.

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