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Explained: When should you greet a French person

The Local France
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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.


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.


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.


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.


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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Anonymous 2022/09/18 09:30
All great advice re France, but I can't agree that in the UK it would be "acceptable to go straight ahead and place your order if you’re in a shop, bar or café without first greeting the staff member." The greeting may be an informal "Hello" or "Hiya" but no greeting would be extraordinarily rude.
Anonymous 2022/04/15 23:38
I’ve become accustomed to greeting people and in fact enjoy doing so. I find it an appealing piece of life in France. The lesson of it’s importance was driven home the other day. On a call to 3430 I was placed on hold for what seemed like forever. I hung in there, however, and someone did answer. The wait had irritated me and, to get oriented, I said, “Parlez-vous Anglais?” and heard in reply, “Non”, plus the sound of the handset hitting the cradle. I’m pretty sure if I had started with, “Bonjour”, waited for him to reply and then asked the question, my wait would not have turned out in vain.
Anonymous 2022/04/15 22:01
Your message re 'bonjour' in shops and supermarkets is particularly well-made. In our local Super U, if I forget my manners and move straight into placing my order at the 'deli' counter, the staff member will pause and look me straight in the eye and say, very pointedly, 'Bonjour Monsieur' and then continue the pause until I respond with my 'pardon, Bonjour Madame'. It's impossible to take offence! Something similar happens with my neighbour; if I simply say 'Bonjour', he will pause and wait for me to correct myself and say 'Bonjour Alain'.

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