Literally “As simple as “Hello”, this phrase is the French equivalent to “as easy as one, two, three”. Except greetings in French are actually quite hard to navigate, and you often feel awkward at first. Trust me when I say, it isn’t because of your inadequacies in French. It’s true for French people too.
Let’s start with “bonjour“. It is necessary to good manners. You simply MUST say bonjour, even for very short conversations, such as asking a supermarket worker where you would find the béarnaise sauce. It acknowledges the other person as a sentient being. I am the first to admit that customer service is not the best in France, but if you miss that crucial first step, then, frankly, what do you expect?
Even when you have had to say “Excusez-moi” to first grab someone’s attention, for example a waiter or waitress, my advice is to then say “bonjour“. You rewind the conversation to give it a fresh, polite start. It can feel like wasting time, especially if the person is very busy, but trust me, you will have better responses. And you want to keep waiters and waitresses on side.
When you walk into any small enclosed space, for example at the baker’s (the world-famous French boulangerie-pâtisserie), it is polite to greet everybody in that space with a general “Bonjour“. You are walking into somebody else’s space (the baker’s in my example, and also the customers who arrived before you), so the onus is on you to greet. Otherwise the other customers may think you will jump the queue, as you did not acknowledge their existence as you entered. And people in general may well think you are an oaf.
If you miss out the bonjour at the start of a conversation, some people will pick you up on your lack of manners. A pointed “Bonjour” and an awkward pause will put you in your place. Only when you return the greeting will they acknowledge your question or demand. After all, if they are not a sentient being, they can’t do anything to help you.
French people have a reputation for being rude. I would say French people are very polite, but that politeness is a matter of culture. Miss out “bonjour” at your perils.
As day turns to evening, bonjour turns to bonsoir. It depends on the time of day (it would be silly to start before, say 5.30 p.m.), but also the light level (it would be silly to say it at 6 p.m. at the height of summer, when it is still day-light bright). It also depends on whether there is scope for spending time together with the person you are greeting: in which case bonsoir is more likely. As long as the time of day makes it appropriate. Still following?
Inevitably, even French people disagree on which word to use. This leads to some awkward moments, when you bump into your neighbour, they say “Bonjour” and almost at the same time you say “Bonsoir“, seemingly shutting the conversation down quite abruptly, before it even started. If you think I am contradicting my previous paragraph, I am not.
Indeed the pitch of the voice is different between the two situations. In the first, bonsoir opens up the conversation for the evening, and in that case, the pitch goes up. It shows openness, enthusiasm, your joy at mingling. I picture opening the door to guests for a dinner party. In the second situation, bumping in the neighbour, the pitch goes down, as you are not planning on it opening up a conversation. In itself, there is nothing rude about it, but combined with the bonjour/bonsoir gap, it does come across as abrupt.
The discomfort is real, including for French people. You can side-step the problem by using “Salut“, “hi”, but only in informal situations, and if you know the person you are greeting. But what if the situation doesn’t allow Salut? Several people have tried to launch bonjoir, but it has never taken hold. My personal theory is that it is because awkwardness is part and parcel of greetings in French.
Take the bise (I am talking about pre-pandemic times here). Between two women greeting, or between a man and a woman, it is customary to faire la bise, “kiss on the cheeks”. Between two men greeting, or in formal situations, such as work, the handshake is more common, serrer la main. Sometimes men will shake hands and kiss on the cheeks. Sometimes men who are close, especially if there is a family link, will kiss on the cheek. All clear? From this description, you would think women have it easier. Bise in informal situations, handshakes at work. BUT there are bises and there are bises. The affectionate, warm kiss on the cheek in family situations is a real kiss, lips to cheek; very different from the friendly mock-kiss you share with friends. You don’t want to spoil your respective make-ups, so a light brush of cheeks and blowing kisses in the air will do. The more fashionable you are, the more affectation, and the more physical distance too between the faces.
Then there’s how many bises do you give. I can’t give you a definite answer, as it depends on where you are in France. Here is a helpful map:
Then there’s which cheek do you turn for a bise first. Here is another helpful map:
… Easy, you see! And if you get it wrong, just be prepared, like the natives, to have a chuckle about it.
Cool teenagers will checke with each other (fist pump), and use various other hand signals as tribal greetings. Interestingly, the pandemic has spread the fist pump to other sectors of the population, as a lesser evil compared to kisses and handshakes. Some people, more cautious, checkent elbows. Others, especially elegant Parisiennes, will blow kisses in alternate hands, as a distant bise ritual. Not sure what that does for aerosols. President Macron has been observed using the Thai “wai” bow, but I have never seen anyone else do it. As fascinating as these new greetings are to observe, it is fair to say they add their own layer of awkward, as you now start an exchange between friends by discussing how to greet each other!
Simple comme bonjour, don’t make me laugh…