Flip-flop France: To 'bonjour' or not to 'bonjour'?

Flip-flop France: To 'bonjour' or not to 'bonjour'?

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Rather than commit a French social faux pas, Sasha explains how and when to say 'bonjour' while out and about in France.

I was walking with a friend today in Genas and I started my daily routine of bonjours. Bonjour to the woman with the stroller. Bonjour to the group of old ladies. I was going about my bonjour business when my friend mentioned something I never thought about – how intricate the bonjour etiquette can be in France.

There is a certain set of social rules that come along with the simple word bonjour, pronounced 'bawnnn-jooowwwrr'. When walking through the streets you don't say it to everyone, but there are certain people you must say it to according to social norms. If you don't say it you could come off as a snob, but on the other hand, if you say it to everyone you would potentially be labelled as crazy. We got to discussing some run-downs of who exactly to say bonjour to.

The rules of bonjour apply to:

  • When entering into any store – magasin, boulanger, fromagerie, charcutier, etc. – including all the shops where you buy clothes and accessories. Usually you make an effort to smile, say, "Bonjour," and then continue with your shopping. Note that it is not an invite to divulge how your day is going, just an expected social courtesy.
  • If you live in the same area you must say 'bonjour', for example, when passing any one in your apartment building. Even if you have your earphones in and you think it's non-important, making the effort to say bonjour tells a lot about your character.
  • If you recognise the person. If it's someone who owns a store you frequent, you just say 'bonjour' and move on with your life. If it's a closer acquaintance, you have to stop, give the bise and exchange some words, before moving on. 
  • When entering into a classroom.
  • At the marché (the one in public).

Social greetings: France versus America

It sounds simple, but sometimes I am completely lost in the complexity of social rules in France. I find it ironic that we shove each other into the metro, but yet we only say bonjour in certain cases. I don't even know the name of my neighbour, but every day I'm basically waving and saying 'hey over there, good day!'

It's even more strange for an American like myself because back home the word 'hello' is an invitation for conversation. I never even said hello to my neighbour in the states. If I said anything when going into a shop it was simply to ask a question. Saying hello, for myself, is something reserved for a conversation; not a gentle passerby way of saying, "Have a nice day' – the only time we hear that is when passing through the drive-thru. Ironically, in France we say bonjour to our shop owners but we never make small talk.

Saying your bonjours to the appropriate people can make you pass as a local – that is until one day someone asks you a question and you give the deer-in-the-headlights look as you grapple with your French.

What other situations would you add to the bonjour rules?

Reprinted with permission of Flip-Flop France.

Sasha Steiner: Flip-Flop FranceSasha Steiner is a young American who moved 3,360 miles to Lyon, France, then to Paris a few years later. She's a blogger and specialist in international business and culture shock. After three years abroad in France, she repatriated to her home town Portland, Oregon, in late 2013. Sasha continues to spend her free time sharing stories and advice about international living through her blog Flip-Flop France.

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