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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
Photo by FRED DUFOUR / AFP

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. 

Member comments

  1. 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’.

  2. 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.

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For members

TAX DECLARATION

Late fees, fines and charges: What you risk by missing French tax deadlines

The deadlines for the annual French tax declaration are upon us, but what are the penalties if you either miss the deadline or fail to file your return at all? We take a look at the sanctions.

Late fees, fines and charges: What you risk by missing French tax deadlines

The annual Déclaration des revenues – income tax declaration – involves virtually everyone in France filling out a form giving detailed information on their income to French tax authorities.

If you live in France, it’s almost certain that you will have to complete this – even if you’re a salaried employee and your tax has already been deducted at source, or if all your income comes from outside France (eg a pension received from the UK or USA).

There are only a very few exemptions to the requirement to fill out the tax declaration and they are listed here

Declarations for the 2021 tax year opened in April 2022 and the deadline is either late May or early June, depending on where you live – find the full calendar here

But what happens if you miss the deadline?

For most people there is a staggered system of late charges.

If you are less than 30 days late your overall tax bill can be increased by up to a maximum of 10 percent.

Once you receive a notice of late payment, the overall bill can increase by up to 20 percent, or 40 percent if you have still not filed within 30 days of receiving the later payment notice.

You will also be charged interest on late payments.

What if I don’t pay income tax in France?

If you have no taxable income in France – for example your only income is a pension from another country – then you still have to fill in the declaration.

If you file late the increases cannot be applied, since your tax bill is €0, but you can instead be liable for a late fee of €150.

What if I have exceptional circumstances?

If you know that you will not be able to file in time, you can ask the tax office for a remise gracieuse (remission) in order to avoid late fees and penalties.

You will need to outline your reasons for not being able to file in time and while there isn’t a list of accepted excuses, the reason must be exceptional circumstances such as serious illness or the death or a loved one.

If you have previously missed deadlines, the tax office will be less likely to accept your request.

The request should be made by June 29th either in person at the tax office or through the messaging system in your online tax page.

What if you don’t declare everything?

If you have not declared income which is subsequently discovered by authorities, the increase in your overall tax bill can be up to 80 percent – the maximum penalty is usually reserved for people who have deliberately tried to hide parts of their income.

We have a full guide to what you need to declare HERE, but the basic rule of thumb is that you need to declare everything, even if it is not taxable in France, eg income from a rental property in another country.

France has dual taxation agreements with countries including the UK and USA so if you have already paid tax on income in another country you won’t need to pay more tax in France – but you still need to declare it.

What about foreign bank accounts?

Another item that frequently catches out foreigners in France is overseas bank accounts.

If you have any non-French bank accounts, you need to list them on your tax declaration, even if they are dormant or only have a very small amount of money in them.

This also applies to any foreign investment schemes you have, such as life insurance policies. 

The penalty for not listing accounts is between €1,500 and €10,000 and that applies for each account you fail to declare. 

What if I made a mistake on my declaration?

In 2018 France formally enshrined the ‘right to make mistakes’, giving people the right to go back and correct their declarations without attracting a penalty.

So if you realise you have missed something off or added the wrong info you can either go back into your online declaration and correct it or, if you file on paper, visit your local tax office.

However the ‘right to make a mistake’ does not extend to late filing.

What if I didn’t make a declaration?

The French tax system is often confusing for foreigners, with many people wrongly assuming that if they are not liable for tax in France then they don’t need to fill in the declaration.

For people who persist in not making the declaration, even after the arrival of the notice of default, tax authorities can make an estimate, based on earnings and lifestyle, and present the bill.

However for new arrivals in France it’s likely that they will not be registered with the tax office and will therefore never receive a notice. 

In this instance it’s always better to come clean – if you have made a genuine mistake and you approach the tax office  (rather than waiting for them to watch up with you) you will usually be dealt with quite leniently. 

How can I get help?

If you’re struggling with the system, there are ways to get help.

The tax office has an English language information page here, and a dedicated helpline for internationals on + 33 1 72 95 20 42.

You can also visit your local tax office, every town has one and you can simply turn up without appointment and ask for help (although if the office is small and your query is complicated you may need to make an appointment for the full discussion). Surprising as it may sound, employees at the tax office are generally pretty friendly and helpful and can guide you through the forms you need to fill in.

If your tax affairs are complicated and/or your French is at beginner level, it may be better to hire an accountant to ensure that everything is in order. You can find some tips on getting professional help HERE.

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