There are a number of ways to greet people in French, including saying Bonjour and exchanging la bise (cheek kisses).
Let’s look at the ones you’ll come across most often, and how use these greetings like a native French person!
7 common French greetings
The typical French greeting: Bonjour
As you probably know, Bonjour means “Hello” in French.
There are other ways to say “Hello” in French, but this is the most common way and it works in pretty much any situation, from formal to very informal.
One important thing about Bonjour is that the French don’t just use it with people they know; you should also use it to greet shopkeepers and restaurant staff. This very much includes the person behind the counter at a boulangerie (bakery).
This doesn’t mean you need to seek them out and greet them. But if you step into a shop or restaurant and see someone who works there, it’s customary to give them a polite Bonjour, even if you’re not sure you’re going to buy anything.
The only exception is if you’re in a busy restaurant or huge, impersonal shop (like a large supermarket or department store). In these cases, you may not even see any staff at all. The only time you have to say Bonjour in these cases is if you deal directly with someone who works there – for instance, a cashier who’s ringing up your purchases or someone who’s helping you find an item you’re looking for.
But in smaller shops and calmer restaurants, you’ll most likely catch the notice of someone who works there when you walk in. Make sure you say Bonjour, or else you’ll be considered very rude. And when you leave, you should say “goodbye”, as well. You’d typically say “Bonne journée” (“Have a nice day”). “Merci, au revoir” (“Thank you, goodbye”) could also work.
The “Hello again”greeting: Rebonjour
Rebonjour is “Hello again” in French. This handy word can be used in professional as well as informal situations. It can be used in person or on the phone.
The friendly French hello: Salut
To greet a friend or someone else you’re close to, you can say Salut (Hi) instead of Bonjour if you want.
Note that Salut is only for a friend, relative, or someone else who’s close to you, so don’t use it when greeting a shopkeeper, for instance.
You can find more ways to greet a friend (and other kinds of people, too) in our article on ways to say “hello” in French.
The “How are you?” greeting: Ça va ?
Ça va ? means “How are you?” or “How’s it going?” in French.
It’s somewhat friendly and informal, so if you’re in a professional or formal situation, it’s best to tack on the word Comment to elevate it a bit: Comment ça va ?
You can use Ça va ? as a greeting in some cases, just as you’d say “How’s it going?” in English. But unlike in English, the French do expect an answer, so make sure you have one ready if you’re greeted this way.
Luckily, Ça va can be a question or a response; replace the question mark with a period: Now, Ça va means “It’s going all right.” So if you freeze up, there’s your go-to response!
The French phone greeting: Allô
The most common way for someone to answer the phone in French is by saying Allô.
Note that this word is usually only used for the phone (or maybe a French pop culture reference). It’s not like the English “Hello”, which can be used as a face-to-face greeting, too.
There are some other common ways you might hear someone answer the phone in French. For instance, if you call a business, you’ll probably hear the owner or receptionist say the business’s name followed by “bonjour”. But individuals usually use Allô, or sometimes, if they know the caller and are being informal: Oui ?
The traditional French greeting: la bise
La bise is a cheek kiss or a series of cheek kisses. This has been the typical way for French people to greet each other since at least the 1960’s, and farther back for family members and close friends.
In many situations, la bise is the quintessential French greeting. Here are a few key things to know about it:
– La bise is the rough equivalent of a hug, or in some cases, a handshake, in France.
– The phrase faire la bise means to exchange cheek kisses with someone.
– La bise is typically exchanged between family members and friends.
– It’s also often exchanged in informal social settings when greeting group of people – for instance, a small party at someone ‘s house. In these ways, it’s similar to how the hug is used in places like the US.
– Additionally, in some traditional French workplaces, coworkers may also faire la bise. So in this way, la bise can be a bit like a handshake or friendly hello.
– Women are pretty much always expected to faire la bise, but there are often exceptions for men.
For instance, most men probably won’t exchange the bise with their male colleagues or male strangers at a party. Instead, they’d shake hands or just say hello.
– Numerous articles in sources like French women’s magazines have shown that many French women feel uncomfortable or annoyed with having to faire la bise to coworkers and strangers.
– The various codes associated with la bise, from how many kisses to exchange, to who is expected to exchange it, may seem intimidating to us non-native French people. But don’t worry – usually you can just go along with it. I’ve even had people tell me something like “In my region of France, we do three kisses, not two”, in a friendly way, before we got started!
— If you’re a non-native French person who’s uncomfortable with the bise, you probably won’t have to do it if you really don’t want to. Just act oblivious and say Bonjour instead. You may not even have to act the part; some people may just assume that since you’re not French, you don’t do la bise. I know that’s often been the case for me.
– Due to the Covid pandemic, it’s become significantly less common to do la bise with coworkers.
Since Covid, it’s become increasingly rare for people to exchange la bise with coworkers or strangers. Many French people see this as a sad thing, and I remember that at the height of the pandemic, there was a sense of loss that you couldn’t greet someone – especially a friend or family member – this way.
Now that the pandemic is less in the spotlight, most people are once again exchanging la bise with family and friends, but it’s far less common among coworkers.
For instance, in this recent survey, a whopping 90% of respondents said they no longer faire la bise with coworkers.
– This fascinating article (in English) talks about the surprisingly recent origins of la bise and points out that the #MeToo movement (also called #Balancetonporc (“Tell on your pig”) in French) might have contributed to la bise’s fall in popularity in the workplace, as well.
– So, should you faire la bise with someone in France? Personally, I think it’s best to see what other people are doing. If the person you’re talking to leans in for it and you’re comfortable with that, then why not? But don’t assume that it’s expected or wanted – especially if you’re a man greeting a female coworker. And, again, if you’re not comfortable with la bise, as a foreigner you should be able to easily get out of it.
You can read our article about la bise, and kissing in France in general, for more facts on this French greeting.
The professional or friendly-but-distant French greeting: a handshake
For coworkers who see one another frequently and don’t exchange la bise, a simple Bonjour or a Ça va ? is the way to go.
But when greeting colleagues that you don’t see very often, or clients, a handshake is the typical greeting.
Handshakes may also be used among male acquaintances (close male friends are more likely to faire la bise).
The French greeting faux-pas to avoid
Whichever French greeting you use, here are a few extra things to keep in mind in order to avoid any faux pas.
ALWAYS greet shopkeepers in small shops or if dealing with them directly.
Yes, I already said this in our section on Bonjour, but I can’t stress it enough because if you don’t do it, you’ll seem really rude (unless you’re in a huge supermarket or department store and don’t deal directly with anyone). The same goes for greeting someone you come across when you enter a not-so-busy restaurant or cafe.
Don’t expect (or exude) extreme enthusiasm.
As we’ve discussed before, the French are generally less demonstrative about their emotions than many other cultures. So even though you’ve gone out of your way to say Bonjour to a shopkeeper, they may only give you a polite nod, and they probably won’t come over and try to help you if you don’t ask.
Greeting colleagues and even friends is the same. It’s rare to see a French person give a huge smile, yell out your name, or make huge gestures to show their happiness at seeing you. You just have to trust that it’s there.
With this in mind, you may also want to be careful to tone down your own enthusiasm a little, especially when greeting someone you don’t know well. Let a smile and a warm expression and tone do the work of yelling excitedly and gesticulating joyfully. From personal experience, I know that this may not be the easiest thing to do, but you will get used to it with time – and if you slip up, your French friends and others close to you probably won’t mind too much, at any rate.
French people don’t typically hug one another. In fact, there isn’t even a general word for “hug” or “to hug” in French. Usually, words used for this tend to have a romantic or erotic context, or could mean multiple other things.
Remember that the French faire la bise (give cheek kisses) instead of hugs.
If you’re thinking kissing is too intimate to do with friends or colleagues, you may be surprised to learn that French people feel this way about hugging! Part of the reason for this is that hugging brings bodies very close, whereas you could exchange la bise with just a light touch of the lips to the cheek and no other close physical contact. In fact, people in romantic relationships in France don’t greet each other with la bise because it’s considered friendly and not sexual or romantic (they would usually greet each other with a kiss on the lips).
There are some exceptions to this – for instance, some French parents or grandparents might give their children/grandchildren a hug. Or romantic partners could also hug. I’ve also heard of French people who like American culture giving American friends hugs instead of la bise.
But in general, la bise is the standard French physical greeting…although, as I mentioned previously, because of Covid and possibly #MeToo, it’s become a bit less common among coworkers.
Yes, foreign languages can be intimidating, but trust me, even if your accent isn’t perfect, French people will hugely appreciate your making an effort. So when you greet someone in France, say Bonjour instead of “Hello”.
Why is it important to know French greetings?
As we’ve seen, the purpose of French greetings ranges from politeness to showing friendship or affection.
Depending on your level of French and your level of interaction with French-speakers, you may not use all of the French greetings on our list, but it’s a good idea to know them anyway, since they’ll crop up in French TV series, movies, and books. In fact, the next time you watch, listen to, or read something in French, pay attention to how people greet one another. This is an easy way to get more comfortable and familiar with French greetings.
Do you have a favorite French greeting? Feel free to share in the comments!