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.
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“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.”
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 ?
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.
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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.