6 French Greetings Faux-Pas That Make You Sound Rude

Greeting French people the way you greet American, British or even Spanish people is a recipe for disaster.

You see, the French follow a strange greeting ritual and breaking its unspoken rules is guaranteed to land you into the “rude tourist” category.

Luckily, greeting the French like a local is simple once you know a few basic principles. These are the secret rules you’ll discover in this article.

#1 Being overly enthusiastic

French greetings

When you arrive in France, the first thing you will notice is that French people don’t smile as much as Americans.

They’ll greet you with a friendly “bonjour” (hello, good morning) but won’t run to you and say ” “thank you so much for visiting our store, we can’t wait to see you again”.

It’s not you, it’s them.

In France (and in most European countries), treating strangers like friends will raise eyebrows and leave people wondering what you want.

The French enjoy good service as much as you do but they also enjoy privacy and being left alone when they eat and shop.

This doesn’t mean you should expect shopkeepers to be cold, grumpy creatures but simply that they’ll generally leave you more space than American shopkeepers and only come to you if you want them to.

#2 Using the wrong politeness level

French greetings polite

In English, you can ask “what are you doing?” to a child, your boss or your best friend.

Things are more complicated in French.

When you speak French, you choose between the formal “vous” and the informal “tu”.

  • Qu’est-ce que vous faites ? (formal)
  • Qu’est-ce que tu fais ? (informal)

Think of it as the difference between “what are you doing?” and “what’s up bro?”.

You can use the first one with anyone but the second sentence, used in the wrong context, would offend people.

you in French

#3 Entering a shop without greeting the seller

French greetings in shop

On my first trip to Russia, I was surprised to see that many people enter shops without greetings the sales person.

At first, I thought “wow Russian people are so rude!”.

Then I realized that’s simply normal in Russia and isn’t considered rude at all.

In France, it’s the opposite.

You should always greet the seller when you enter a shop.

If the person is on the phone or seems busy, simply nod.

When you leave, make sure you say “au revoir” (goodbye).

#4 Saying hello instead of bonjour

Want to bring a smile to French people’s faces?

Speak their language!

You don’t need to speak perfectly, you don’t even need to be able to hold a conversation.

You just need to say “bonjour” (that’s French for hello).

It sounds obvious but I hear lots of people enter French shops and say “hello”.

Sure, that’s better than nothing but it also screams “I care so little about your country and culture that I’ m not even going to bother learning how to say “hello” in French”.

People are much friendlier when they see you make an effort to speak their language. A few basic words go a long way.

I saw how true this was when I was teaching French in Korea.

Every time I entered a shop, the sales person had a look that probably meant something like “great I’ll have to speak English now and sound ridiculous”. But as soon as they heard me speak Korean, they would suddenly relax and become super friendly.

It’s important to remember that many French people are as terrified at the idea of speaking English as you’re at the idea of speaking French

When you greet them in French, you make yourself vulnerable and show you care, this is often all it takes to convince them to try to speak English.

#5 Using how are you as a greeting

In the US, it’s common to say “how are you” when you greet someone…without expecting an answer.

When French people ask “how are you”, they usually expect an answer.

I say “usually”, because young French people who have watched lots of American movies and speak English well (yup they exist) sometimes use “ça va ?” as a greeting too.

#6 Hugging instead of kissingFrench hug

When you meet someone in France, you have three options:

  • Shake hands (with strangers)
  • Faire la bise (kiss on the cheek) (friends, acquaintances and family members)
  • Simply say “Bonjour” (hello, good morning) or “bonsoir” (good evening)

If you’re a woman, you usually kiss friends, family members and sometimes acquaintances.

If you’re a man you only kiss people of the opposite sex.

These are of course general rules and depend on your environment.

For example, I always kiss members of my family on the cheek, whether they’re men or women.

Hugging is only an option with close friends and family.

If kissing is awkward for you, remember that hugging is equally awkward for French people.

In France, you hug your special one, sometimes close friends, but that’s it.

Most people will feel uncomfortable if you try to hug them. It’s considered too intimate. 

In fact, there is no word for “hug” in French. The closest French word, “câlin”, has a romantic meaning and is closer to “cuddle”.

Have you ever made faux pas while greeting French people?

French greeting mistake

Greetings French people without offending anyone may seem like a daunting task, but you’ll quickly get used to it after only a few hours in France.

And don’t worry, people know how intimidating the greeting kiss can be, they won’t be mad at you if you avoid it.

Have you ever made faux pas while greeting French people? What do you find the most intimidating about French greetings?

Answer in the comments below this post! I look forward to reading you :).

Image credit: cienpies / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: artisticco / 123RF Stock Photo

64 thoughts on “6 French Greetings Faux-Pas That Make You Sound Rude”

  1. Bonsoir Benjamin, Please all these about greetings. Is it a culture of all French speaking countries or just France ?

    Indeed I have learnt a lot from this.

    Reply
  2. I’ve gone to France before and we visit some friends we know there. They live in the North West of France, in the Vendée area. Well, every time we see them, they hug us all the time! Doesn’t matter the gender, and they are the ones to hug us, not the other way around! Is it because of the location they live in… or are things changing in France?

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    • My guess is your friends are likely being hospitable to you. With my female french friends, we make the kiss. However, my male friends don’t make the kiss with other men. They know that for me, simply shaking hands feels distant and so they hug me when we see each other or say goodbye. Your friends are probably similar to mine in wanting you to feel welcome and take steps to do so.

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  3. I got a sever reprimand from a gendarme when I asked him for directions. I started with Excusez-moi but before I got much more out he said. “Je ne suis pas electronique. On commence par, Bonjour monsieur, ou Bonsoir monsieur, puis on peut continuer a demander ou exiger ce qu’on veut savoir.
    It was the last time I greeted anyone in France that was not prefaced with Bonjour, Monsieur, Bonjour, Madame ou Bonjour, Mademoiselle. It has made a big difference in the conversations. I guess I have not been as diligent with the “au revoir “so I will be intent on adding this to all conversations as well. BTW, I have heard so many French people say “au revoir” like it was the infinite of to have “avoir”. Is that as common as it sound?

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    • Yes I, too, have found this in the pronunciation of aurevoir. I rarely go to Paris, but I visit the south-west of France, the French Alpes and the French speaking part of Switzerland.

      I often think that my ear is so tuned to trying to pick up every sound in the pronunciation I may get it wrong, so I am never sure. This happens even when I have heard a work 100 times, as in the case of aurevoir and another is oui sounds like “way”

      Great tip about the greeting of salespersons. Never have I heard this before…. merci

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    • That Gendarme probably had a bad day or was really old school lol I don’t I’ve ever heard anyone reprimand me like that.
      When I need to ask for directions or just any information, in the streets, a shop or whatever, I usually say “excusez-moi” to get their attention then follow up with a question. Sometimes I say “bonjour” after getting their attention then I ask the question. I don’t really have a rule for this.
      I think it’s more polite to say “excuse me” before asking something to a stranger because you’re actually disrupting their activity, even if they weren’t doing anything special or if it’s their job to help others.

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    • About “au revoir”, most of us pronounce it somewhat like “aurvoir” or “orvoir” (“au” and “o” don’t sound quite the same) because we’re so used to saying it that we say it quickly and we cut into the syllables. People might actually find it a little strange if you fully pronounce “au revoir” because we’re not used to hearing it anymore but it’s not a big deal since it’s the correct way to say it, so you shouldn’t worry too much about it.

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  4. I never knew how different it is between us and people in France, and how they hug and kiss each other to greet one another but here we shake hands/bump chests and say “Wassup”. Also how the French don’t smile as much as we do they’re more serious.

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    • I didn’t know they considered it rude when you don’t say hello to the sales person and that you say bonjour to people you barely know and salut to family and friends ?I love French

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      • Saying “bonjour” is much more than saying “hello”. It is the linglistic channel to further interaction. Without this channel, all interactions will be impaired, perhaps fatally.

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    • Just say, “au revoir, bonne journée”, without the “a”. First of all, the imperative of “avoir” is “aie” or “ayez”. “A” is the third person singular of the indicative. But more importantly, it is just not said.

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    • No, you can’t use “a” (has) or “avez” (have) in this context, it just doesn’t work in french. You could say, je vous souhaite une bonne journee (I wish you a good day) but I think it’s a bit too fancy.

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  5. I asked an attendant at the train station for directions to Disneyland using French. When she answered, I was unsure that I understood, so using French again, I asked her to repeat the directions in English. I was quickly reprimanded. “Non! Ce la meme.” I still made it to Disneyland, but for the rest of my trip I always sprinkled in English and everyone responded to me in English.

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    • I relate to this in a way – once in Paris, I asked a serving person in French if she spoke English & she replied with a charming laugh, “But you’re already speaking French!” and proceeded to take my order in English! The effort to try to speak French is definitely noted.

      Reply
  6. I didn’t know how important it is to greet the people in their native language. Also I didn’t know how awkward hugging for us is to the French.

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    • I’m glad to know about this as well to save myself from future embarrassment.
      In Tokyo, I once hugged an older Japanese man who was a close long time friend of my husband – in front of his family!
      I still cringe at this faux pas – not sure how you say that in Japanese…

      Reply
  7. In Brittany I was most interested in a situation that unfolded in front of me. An elderly family friend arrived to visit the French family (with whom I was staying) . He greeted two young children (about 6 and 8 years old) and then commented to their aunt that he found them rude as they only kissed on one cheek. She shrugged and said that they were not so well bought up. I asked him more about who they do and don’t kiss and he was HORRIFIED to find that in Australia we do not always kiss friends and relatives. His response was, in a scandalous tone, “Do you even say hello, then”!

    Reply
    • One kiss on one cheek, two kisses on alternate cheeks, three kisses one on left, one on right, one on left … or the opposite starting right-left-right:
      it depends on families, on age, and where in France you are: unfortunately there is no ‘iron’ rule. Sorry.

      Reply
  8. Wonderful article! Always look forward to your mails! Oh and I love the language a lot! Taking baby steps, of course! Keep up the great work!

    Reply
  9. The thing that always confuses me is when you start the kissing dance is whether to start on your friend’s left cheek ie my right or vice versa. I thought I had mastered it but either one or the other seems possible. One feels such a fool if you dance to the left and your friend turns the other way! Added complication is always how many. Snooty Paris just one, more generally two and then here in the Gard three.

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  10. Excellent blog, merci Benjamin!
    Une petite erreur en #4:
    It’s important to remember that many French people are as terrified at the idea of speaking English as you’re at the idea of speaking French.

    Ici, on dit “as you are”, on ne peut pas utiliser la contraction ici. Merci pour tout,

    Reply
  11. What a great article. Whilst it is easy to say I know all this but it is also good to get a refresher. Thank you very muck.

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  12. Bonjour, Benjamin Could you please tell me which verb to use for a child to cuddle a soft toy or teddy bear? Merci!

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  13. I’m in Paris as a first time visitor. I made a faux pas when I greeted the woman in charge of the tickets to one of the national monuments.

    I said with a smile, “Salut.” She frowned and acidly said, “No, you do not say salut to me! It is bonjour or au revoir.” She repeated herself twice.

    Goodness gracious. I was so embarassed because there were others around me and I held up the line for her lesson. I only used salut because I heard them greet me that way in a few Parisian cafes and stores.

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  14. In my younger days, when I was a student in Paris(1950-57), there were two things I was told I could do when greeting an elder;y lady :
    1. To say “Mes hommages, Madame”” when I was being introduced.
    2. When shaking hands with an elderly lady, to kiss the top of the hand ( near the base of the middle and ring finger).
    Are these two practices “out-moded”these days ?

    Reply
      • “Je t’embrasse ” means “to kiss”, not “to hug”. “Prendre quelqun dans ses bras” would be the closest translation of “to hug” but it’s way less common.

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  15. I live near Perpignan with my wife.It is normal here to “Faire la bise” with male friends you have known for a long time as well as female friends. Some anglophone acquaintances of ours are unsure when to begin doing the bise. Unless the new people are close friends of close friends the first greeting is more formal (bonjour and handshake). One would not faire la bise with a new female acquaintance until you are friends and it would take much longer with man to man. If you are not sure it is safer to let them take the lead and offer just a handshake. Children of close friends here will always offer a bise – it is best to let them decide.

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  16. I never thought our greetings were so complicated ! It’s easy when you are used to of course 😀
    The translation of to hug is the verb enlacer. But yes it’s not very usual to hug in France 😉

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    • I agree that “enlacer” is technically the translation of “to hug” but it sounds much less casual so I feel that this wouldn’t be a good translation in most situations.

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    • It really depends on how close you are to your boss. As a general rule, I would say no. But if you also meet your boss outside work, regularly eat together etc, then kissing your boss is perfectly fine.

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      • That was my mistake! I went for an interview and greeted la madame with double bises! She did a double take and just about corrected me but let it go. I realized as the interview continued that I had overstepped the protocol. A handshake was all she wanted. (I did get the job and was happily teaching in a French American school for four years, where I learned a LOT about idiomatic French!) (And now, bien sûr, when I see her, we faire le bise.)

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    • In America, one would never kiss a boss, even in a social situation away from the work place.

      It would be a terrible faux pas and would almost surely be misunderstood, unless the person who initiated the kiss were French and the person being kissed understood the French custom. Otherwise, a kiss on the cheek could have negative career and social consequences.

      In these times of #metoo, it could end up in the company’s Human Relations Department with at least the initiator being reprimanded and warned, maybe even disciplined. Some of our politicians have been in the past and are now under fire for that very thing.

      That’s because kissing on the cheek is not a common greeting here and indicates a level of familiarity that would be unacceptable between boss and subordinate, even though in other ways we are probably more egalitarian between hierarchies than is common in France .

      In most parts of the US the kiss on the cheek is rare, with the exceptions of family members and lovers.

      The other exception is what we call an “air kiss,” which may or may not be on both cheeks. That is sometimes seen in New York or other large cities among close “girl friends.”

      Many Americans find air kisses silly and pretentious. It’s as if they are saying, “I really want to kiss you, but I don’t want to contaminate you or myself by actually touching you.” But air kisses are perfectly OK among consenting female friends and relatives.

      However, men would not initiate an air kiss, some because they think it is effeminate, most because they don’t want to risk the trouble it can cause professionally and socially if the recipient doesn’t like it. It can even be used against them in sexual harassment lawsuits.

      Those who don’t like and know the kisser very well will also probably not like a kiss on the cheek, regardless of gender.

      We don’t disrespect the French faire la bise. We think it’s charming. Most of us think it’s delightful for the French, just not for us.

      It just isn’t something we are accustomed to and it makes us uncomfortable because of the possible implications here. And, frankly, we don’t know how to act.

      So I hope the French will forgive us for mistakes. It’s probably harder for us to get faire la bise right than responding to a close hug would be for the French.

      No offense intended to the wonderful French people, their wonderful country, or their customs!

      Vive la France!

      Reply
  17. I’m gonna meet my French host family and their kids in a few days. I have talked to the parents before, but not the kids. I’m assuming I have to kiss the parents on the cheek, but what about the kids? (I’m a teenage girl by the way if that matters)

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    • You can also kiss the kids on the cheek but don’t worry, they will most likely come to you anyway and tell you what they prefer.

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  18. Merci :). Although we would rather say “bon article”. Joli is about physical beauty.

    “ça va” already implies you’re doing fine, so “ça va bien” kind of means “it’s going well well”. “ça va très bien” is better because the “très” makes it stronger. It means you’re feeling great.

    There is no clear rule that I know of when it comes to accents on capital letters. I heard they’re mandatory in Canadian French though.

    I see the proofreader in you :).

    Reply
  19. Nice article! Joli article ! I like the way how you literally translate «bonjour» and other French greetings. It’s such a commonly learnt word that foreigners don’t realise that it’s actually «bon + jour».

    A French person replied to my comment on Facebook and he said that «Ça va bien.» as a reply to «Salut ! Ça va ?» is uncommon and the French rarely uses it. But how about «Ça va très bien.», which is not too different?
    Shouldn’t «A plus tard», «A demain», «A bientôt», and the rest have a capital ‹À› with an «accent grave» on top? Do the French close one eye on this? 😉
    In your article, «ça» should have a capital ‹Ç› when it begins a sentence. It’s spelt as “environment” in English.

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  20. Great post, a complete guide of french greetings. There’s been an important american influence these last years, for example, you could hear “hey” instead of “salut”, though it’s practiced by the younger, teens essentially.

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  21. I agree. The reason your teacher didn’t teach you “bonjour messieurs-dames” is that many people consider it to be incorrect.

    But I honestly believe it’s important to speak they way people speak, and not necessarily the “correct” way.

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  22. I have noticed that when my husband and I enter a shop together, the salesperson will say “Bonjour monsieur-dame” as one word. We have learned to always say “Bonjour madame” and “”Au revoir Madame” when leaving.
    I strongly feel that foreign language teachers should always teach their students to say some variation of “Excusez-moi” before they ask for directions, information, etc.

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    • There isn’t any word for that, because French people generally don’t hug. The closest thing would be “prendre dans ses bras”.

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  23. Wow…the French really have a lot of restrictions on their greetings
    Thanks a lot…I’d have really messed up if you hadn’t published that.

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    • That’s true. But câlin has a more romantic meaning than “hug”. If you say “faire un câlin”, people will assume you cuddled with your lover or maybe a family member.

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        • Nice song :).

          But “serre moi” would be around the lines of “hold me tight.” It wouldn’t be used for a friendly hug.

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      • I don’t know about “câlin” being particularly romantic. To me (and I am not French, merely francophile ) the connotation is more affectionate, with none of the sexual implied by romantic. Yes, I would say “faire un câlin” for a love, but also for a child, a pet, etc. As I said, I am not French, so please correct me if I am wrong.

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  24. moi, un coreen qui fait beaucoup d’effort a etudier la langue francaise, je trouve votre blog vraiment utile. merci 🙂

    Reply
    • 안녕하세요 🙂

      Je suis content que French Together te soit utile. Si un sujet t’intéresse, n’hésite pas à me le dire.

      Reply
  25. My French belle-fille corrected me when we skyped last for saying “au revoir” when we ended the conversation. She indicated that it was too final and she much preferred a bientôt or “a tout a l’heure.”

    Reply

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