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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

The French greetings and farewells that foreigners commonly get wrong

You might think saying hello and goodbye is pretty basic French, but there are lots of social nuances to greeting people and bidding them farewell that newcomers often get wrong, as French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis explains.

The French greetings and farewells that foreigners commonly get wrong
Shaking hands is out for now, so how should you greet people in French? Photo: Ina Fassbender/AFP

Bonjour – the most common French word of them all and the one that generally forms lesson 1 of any language class, so what’s to get wrong? Simply not saying it enough! Bonjour is incredibly important in French culture and almost all interactions begin with a bonjour. If you’re out and about you can easily rack up 30 or more bonjours in a normal day.

Camille, founder of the language-learning company French Today, says: “The big faux pas here is when people don’t say it. In the USA and the UK it’s not as important to greet people, and it’s perfectly OK if you’re in a shop to just smile and say ‘Excuse me’ and then begin your request without saying hello first. In France that would be considered very rude, you must start by greeting the person you are talking to.

READ ALSO The French hello

“Even if you don’t speak any French at all, start your request with a bonjour. It’s perfectly OK to say ‘Bonjour, do you speak English?’ The bonjour is just showing a little respect for the person you are talking to.”

Bonjour is also the correct written greeting in most circumstances. Unlike in the UK where your bank might start an email ‘Hi’, in France written communications will always start with a bonjour unless you are writing to someone you know well.

Bonjour monsieur/madame/mademoiselle – this is a slightly more formal greeting, but not excessively formal and will often be heard in shops, for example.

Camille says: “This is a way of showing a little more respect in your greeting, but it’s not overly formal and it’s perfectly OK to use in most situations where you don’t know a person. Mademoiselle is no longer used in written or administrative forms, but it’s still used in speech for girls and young women.”

READ ALSO Why bonjour is the most important word in the French language 

Ça va ? – asking someone how they are doing in France is really limited to people who know. Whereas in the US and the UK saying ‘hello, how are you’ is really just an extended greeting, in France you would not ask ça va ? to someone you don’t know.

Camille says: “I picked up the habit of asking people how they are a lot when I lived in the USA and then I came back to France and started asking people ça va ? in shops, for example, or when greeting neighbours that I didn’t know and I got a lot of funny looks. I could see people thinking ‘why is she asking me how I am, do I know her?’ 

“But ça va is a friendly thing to ask, and there’s nothing wrong with being friendly if you want to get to know your neighbours, for example.

“But if someone asks you ça va ? you must respond by asking them in return. Simply replying that you’re fine would be very rude.”

If it’s a brief exchange you will often hear simply

Ça va ?

Ça va, ça va ?

Ça va.

If it’s a slightly longer conversation you can simply say that you’re fine and add Et toi ? or Et Vous ? depending on whether you are on tu or vous terms with the person.

Comment allez-vous ? – this is the slightly longer and more formal way of asking people how they are.

Camille says: “This is not necessarily a particularly formal phrase, but you would use it if you were speaking in a slightly less casual way, for example asking an older relative how they are. It’s also plural so you can use it for groups.”

Comment vas-tu ? – another variation of asking people how they are.

Camille says: “I would use this one if I wanted to open up a conversation. While ça va can just be a simple exchange – You OK? Yeah, fine thanks – comment vas-tu ? implies that you really want to know how the person is doing, for example if you’ve heard they have been unwell or you want to ask how they’re coping with the health restrictions, you might do the greetings and then say Alors, comment vas-tu ? – So how are you doing?

Salut – the more casual version of saying hello is really only used with people you know well. If in doubt, go for bonjour.

Camille says: “Salut does not mean hi, as many English-speakers think it does. While in the UK or the USA it’s perfectly acceptable to say hi to people in shops, neighbours, colleagues, even your boss, salut is only for friends. I generally translate it as ‘hey’ or ‘what’s up’ – a very casual greeting that’s only appropriate for people you know well.”

Coucou – another very casual one, popular among younger people and used for friends and family members (although some people really don’t like it and think it’s childish).

Camille says: “This is for your friends, for family members, for kids. It varies really, some people like it and some people don’t, personally I think it’s nice and I use it. People who use it tend to use it a lot. Be careful with the pronunciation though, it can sound like cucul, or the longer phrase cucul la praline, which is used in reference to items, especially clothes, which are naff, tasteless or overly cutesy.” 

So with greetings covered, let’s move on to farewells, which also have several options including one that follows the sacre bleu rule – something that foreigners think French people say all the time but which is in fact very rarely heard in France.  

Adieu – literally translated as ‘to God’ this is a phrase that anglophones are frequently taught and it also appears in a lot of English language headlines about France but in day-to-day conversation is very rarely heard.

Camille says: “I don’t think I have ever said this in my life.

“I think it dates from around the 1930s, certainly it’s very old-fashioned. It also has a sense of not knowing when or even if you will see someone again, it’s the kind of thing that soldiers might have said if they were going off to war and didn’t know if they would survive, so it’s not the kind of thing you say when saying farewell to your work colleagues at the end of the day. It is a little more used in Canada, but in France definitely not.”

Au revoir – this is the all-purpose goodbye that can be used in any situation, formal or informal

Camille says: “You can use this in a formal situation, at the end of a job interview perhaps, but in informal situations too, you often hear shop assistants say it as you leave the shop for example. It’s definitely the most common farewell.”

À bientôt – see you soon. Another frequently used one if you have the expectation of seeing someone again. It’s friendly but wouldn’t be inappropriate in a formal setting either.

À plus tard – until later, another friendly one for if you expect to see someone again.

Camille says: “I would usually use this if I have the expectation of seeing the person again the same day, for example for family members I expect to see again that evening.

“The shorter version is à plus, if you are saying à plus tard you don’t pronounce the s of plus, but if you’re saying à plus then you say the s. In texts you will often see this shortened to A+”.

À tout à l’heure – see you soon. Again used if you have the expectation of seeing someone again shortly, for example if you’re just popping out to the shop and expect to be back soon. 

À tout de suite – roughly the same as à tout a l’heure, for when you expect to see the person again shortly. 

À la prochaine – until next time. This is for when you think or hope you will see the person again, but you don’t know when. It’s more like ‘hope to see you again soon’. 

À mardi/à demain – until Tuesday/tomorrow – if you have a specific time or date lined up to meet you can say ‘until whenever that date is’. This is handy for people you see on a regular day eg people in your exercise class or if you have just arranged a time and date to meet up. Oui, 19h, ça marche. À jeudi ! – Yes, 7pm works for me, see you Thursday!

Bonne journée/bonne soirée/bon après-midi – have a good day/evening/afternoon. It’s common at the end of a conversation or brief exchange to wish the other person a good day, afternoon or evening, depending on the time of day.

Bon weekend/bonne fête – it’s also quite common to wish someone a good weekend if you are parting on a Friday night, or a happy holiday if you’re heading into a public holiday or long weekend.

Camille says: “Make sure you get the gender right if you are adding bon/bonne to something, it’s one of the examples where you can really hear the difference when you talk between a bon as in bon weekend and a bonne as in bonne fête.”

Bonne nuit – literally translated as ‘good night’ this is not used in the same way as the English phrase goodnight, which is often said as a farewell during the evening.

Camille says: “This really means ‘sleep well’ it does not mean goodnight. You say it to someone who is just about to go to sleep, so usually someone in your family, it’s not at all something that you would say when you’re saying goodbye to friends at the end of the evening.”

Bye bye/ciao – OK you’re in France but that doesn’t mean that you won’t hear these, it’s common for French people to use foreign farewells. Bye bye (which sounds very cute in a French accent) is common as is the Italian ciao.

Camille says: “A lot of people in France like to use these, you will hear them a lot but it doesn’t mean that the person saying them speaks English or Italian, they might just like the word.

“And the fact that you will hear these does not mean it’s OK to thrown in random other words from different languages.

“I’ve heard a few times tourists greeting French people with buongiorno or saying buenos dias when they say goodbye thinking it’s funny and just don’t do it! We do not appreciate it at all.”

And finally . . . Camille says: “Don’t get too worried about your French! If you are foreign French people will make allowances for you and really anyone who is learning any foreign language should be proud of themselves because it’s a hard thing to do.”

Camille Chevalier-Karfis is a French language expert, and founder of FrenchToday.com

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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