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LEARNING FRENCH

How the French really use Cher and Chérie

Even if you don't speak any French at all you are likely to know the words cher and chérie - but beware, because their use in modern France may not be what you expect.

How the French really use Cher and Chérie
Photo by JACQUES DEMARTHON / AFP

Misconceptions and the changing use of language over the decades mean that cher/chere and chéri/chérie are among the French words most commonly misused by English-speakers.

We asked Camille Chevalier-Karfis, French language expert and founder of the French Today site, to explain exactly how these are used in modern France.

Mon chéri/ma chérie

This means my dear or my darling and is one of the French language’s best known endearments, so much so that it’s frequently dropped into everyday conversation even by non French speakers who want to add a bit of sophistication to their daily language.

Chérie is used in numerous film titles and is such a well-known phrase that there is even a brand of chocolates called Mon Chéri from the Italian firm Ferrero (they contain a cherry, a pun that doesn’t work at all in French where a cherry is une cerise).

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But be careful before you drop mon chéri (for a man) or ma chérie (for a woman) into everyday conversation.

Camille says: “This is really one to use with your nearest and dearest, I use it for my husband, sometimes for my daughter – people I am really close to. I wouldn’t use it with friends.

“But because it’s such a well-known phrase in the English-speaking world I often get emails that refer to me as chérie and it’s just completely inappropriate!

“I know that the sender is just trying to be friendly, but to a French person this comes across as way too intimate. Save it for people you’re in a romantic relationship with, or perhaps family.

“It’s interesting actually because it’s a word that I think changed its meaning in about the 1960s, before that it was used more widely for friends.

“I wouldn’t use it all apart from for people I’m very close to. I think you sometimes hear it from people who are older and very well-off, but to me it comes over as quite pretentious. Of course, there are lots of different ways to use any language though!” 

Use instead – if you’re looking for a more up-to-date endearment, you could use mec for a man (similar to mate or buddy) or the more general les gars (guys) or pote (mate). If you’re in a romantic relationship with someone you’re spoiled for choice in French – we like ma puce (my flea) or bébé (baby) but you can find a full list HERE.

READ ALSO Le bromance: 8 terms French guys use to show affection

Cher/chere

This also means dear, but has some very different usages in modern France.

It’s the standard way to begin a letter or a very formal email – either Cher Jean Dupont/ Chère Jeanne Dupont or Cher Monsieur/Chère Madame depending on the context.

You’ll also see it used in a more formal way by business people and – especially – politicians when they are referring to their colleagues or international counterparts.

For example in the below tweet, president Emmanuel Macron uses cher to congratulate Frank-Walter Steinmeier on his re-election to the presidency in Germany, saying: “Dear Frank-Walter, congratulations on your re-election. Together, let us continue to nurture the precious friendship between Germany and France and to promote our European values.”

In this context it’s a formality, similar to British MPs referring to their colleagues as My Right Honorable Friend. 

Mes chers compatriotes is also the standard beginning for any politician directly addressing the electorate, in the same way that US politicians might say ‘my fellow Americans’.

Cher is also sometimes used by couples, but is quite old-fashioned and not often used by younger people.

Camille says: “Because this is often used in a formal context, it can come over as a bit sarcastic if you’re using it with acquaintances. 

“It’s really too formal and like with many excessively formal words and phrases it can come across as sarcastic or even hostile if you use it in an informal context.

“Younger people no longer use it among friends but I wouldn’t use it with people that you know or work colleagues, unless you are actually the President of the Republic.”

And if you look into the replies to Macron’s above tweet, you come across people who use cher to reply sarcastically to him, such as the person below who replies: “Dear Manu [the shortened version of Emmanuel] I call you Manu and use ‘tu’ with you … you’d better look at what’s going on in the former French Republic and apologise to the people you want to piss off… in any case, we’ve gone to a totalitarian place”

Camille Chevalier-Karfis is a French language expert, and founder of FrenchToday.com. Do you have a language question for Camille? Email [email protected]

Member comments

  1. Just to keep this real, I’d like to share that my French wife is very suspicious of chérie. She thinks I’m about to ask for something. In everyday mode she’d rather be called fish-face.

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LEARNING FRENCH

Explained: When should you greet a French person

In France formal greetings are important if you don't want to be thought rude - and there is a wide variety of situations when you should greet someone.

Explained: When should you greet a French person

We’ve written before about why bonjour is the most important word in the whole French language, and it’s true that in France you will be expected to do a lot more formal greeting than you would in anglophone countries.

In the UK or the US it’s perfectly acceptable to go straight ahead and place your order if you’re in a shop, bar or café without first greeting the staff member. In France that would be perceived as rude, so you should always start with a bonjour (or a bonsoir, depending on the time of day).

One French boulangerie worker told us: “If you don’t start with a bonjour I will think that you don’t see me as a person, you’re treating me like a robot.”

READ ALSO Why bonjour is the most sacred word to French people

In a normal day, you can easily clock up 50 bonjours.

Here are some of the situations in which you would be expected to greet someone – and, by the way, ‘excusez-moi‘ is not counted as a greeting.

Colleagues

With colleagues you know well you would normally greet them in a more informal manner (salut) and then start chatting, just as you would in any other country.

But if you work in a big company or a shared workspace you would be expected to greet colleagues that you don’t know well or even don’t know at all if you see them in a corridor, kitchen or meeting space.

When the employment of a British theatre director working in Paris was abruptly terminated, among the complaints made by her staff was that she did not say bonjour in the morning.

However, Emily in Paris fans can rest easy – it is not expected to do la bise (the cheek kiss greeting) in the workplace.

Shop/café/bar/restaurant staff

If you’re in a boulangerie, pâtisserie, fromagerie or other food store, once you get to the front of the queue you should start with a bonjour before placing your order.

Likewise in a bar or café greet the serving staff when they show you to your table, or come to take your order.  

At the supermarket give a greeting to the cashier on the checkout (unless you’re using self-checkout, it’s not necessary to greet French machines).

If you’re in a clothes shop or boutique staff will usually greet you when you enter and may come up and offer to help. If you would rather shop alone, it’s perfectly acceptable to say that you’re just looking, thank you.

If you need to attract the attention of a member of staff, start with a bonjour and not an ‘excuse me’.

Office workers/fonctionnaires

If you’re going into the préfecture or an office such as the tax office, definitely greet staff members and then either explain that you have an appointment or ask if anyone can help you.

READ ALSO The times to avoid when calling a French office

Elevator buddies

If you’re getting into an elevator it’s considered polite to greet the other occupants, even if you don’t know them, and to greet people who join at different floors.

When you get out, the fellow travellers will usually say goodbye or wish you bonne journée/bonne après-midi/bonne soirée (have a nice day/afternoon/evening), and you should return the compliment.

Waiting room companions

If you’re in the waiting room at the doctor, dentist or other you should definitely greet the other people in the waiting room. If you’re in a busy medical establishment expect regular choruses of greetings whenever new people arrive.

In good news though, the greeting is all that is expected. Once you have greeted your room companions there is no need to start exchanging small talk or swapping symptoms, so you can go back to ignoring those around you and reading a book, messaging friends, or scrolling Twitter.

Obviously greet the doctor/nurse/dentist once you are called for your appointment.

School gates

If you’re dropping off/picking up children from school expect to exchange a lot of greetings with other parents who are waiting at the school gate, plus of course the teacher if you see them.

In smaller places, a kiss-greeting was often performed at the school gates, but since the pandemic many people have been scaling back la bise and keeping it only for family and close friends.

Classmates

It’s not just the kids who are learning, if you start doing a regular class such as a French language class you should greet your classmates when you arrive.

And always, always politely greet the teacher, otherwise they will call on you to explain the plus que parfait in front of the whole class.

Gym buddies

If you’re doing a solitary gym routine you can get away without greeting fellow gym-users, but if you’re doing an exercise class it’s normal to greet other people in the class when you arrive.

Exercise classes are a great way to make new friends and start chatting, but even if it doesn’t progress this way, still greet your classmates.

Swimming is blissfully anti-social so you can just put your head underwater and ignore your fellow pool-users.

Neighbours

If you live in a small town or village you’re likely to know your neighbours and stop for a chat whenever you see them.

In the cities things are a little more anonymous, but greet neighbours if you see them in the hallway or the stairs.

If your building has a concierge or guardienne, definitely greet them if you want to receive your parcels in a timely fashion.

And the informal greetings

The above situations are all for people that you either don’t know at all or don’t know well. In this instance you would give a formal greeting of bonjour or bonsoir.

Obviously with friends it’s different, you would greet them either with bonjour or one of the more casual options – salut or coucou – and add a ça va? (how’s it going?) and then start chatting.

So when don’t you need to greet people?

This is a much shorter list. In general you don’t need to greet fellow passengers on public transport, but if you’re on a long journey on a plane or train it’s not unusual to greet the person sitting next to you.

If you’re in a city there is no need to greet people you see in the street, but if you’re walking in a small village or in the country it’s quite normal to greet fellow hikers.

If you walk into a café or bar there is no need to greet all the customers, unless you feel like creating your own French version of Cheers.

If you’re trapped in a burning building and the emergency services turn up you can probably forego the bonjour, although maybe add a merci once they have rescued you. 

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