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 the first part of this article.
Once you know the basics, check out the second part of this article to learn the essential French greeting words that’ll help you unlock French people’s hearts.
5 essential aspects of the French greeting etiquette
1. The French won’t greet you as warmly as Americans do
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 right politeness level is essential
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.
3. Not greeting a seller when you enter a shop is rude
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. Even if you feel that your accent is terrible, make sure you say “bonjour” and not “hello”.
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”.
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. Don’t say “how are you” if you don’t want to know the answer
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. Kiss, don’t 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”.
4 ways to say “hello” in French
Bonjour (hello, good morning)
“Bonjour” is the most common French word and a word you probably already know.
More than a simple greeting, “bonjour” is the key to being considered a friendly and polite person in France.
Use it whenever you meet someone new or enter a shop and people will happily help you.
Forget to use it or say “hello” instead and people will wonder where you got your manners and remember you as a rude tourist.
Bonsoir (good evening)
Literally “good evening”, “bonsoir” is the magic French greeting word people use when the sun goes down.
Like “bonjour”, “bonsoir” is a safe word you can use with everyone without fearing faux-pas.
Open a French-English dictionary and you’ll see that “salut” is the French “hi”.
Except that it’s not.
Not exactly at least.
While you can frequently hear sellers say “hi”, you’ll only hear French sellers say “salut” if they’re talking to kids or teenagers or work in a shop trying very hard to be cool and trendy.
Think of “salut” as a relaxed version of “bonjour” you use with your friends, family, and people you know well.
More informal than “salut”, “coucou” is the French equivalent of “hey there”.
A cool and relaxed greeting you use with friends and people you’re close to.
Salut ! ça va ?
Hi! How are you?
To which your friend could answer:
ça va très bien et toi ?
It’s going great, what about you?
Used mostly on the phone to check if there is someone on the line; “allô” is a word you can use in every situation.
Allô? Tu m’entends ? (informal)
Hello? do you hear me?
Allô? Qui est à l’appareil ?
Hello? Who is on the line?
Allô? Je vous entends mal
Hello? I don’t hear you well
It was also famously used by the reality TV star Nabila to show how terrible her grasp of the French language is her disbelief when she learned that another candidate of the show didn’t have shampoo (yeah such a drama).
4 ways to say “goodbye” in French
Literally “to seeing again”, “au revoir” is the most common way to say “goodbye” in French. You can use it with people you’re on a “vous” basis with.
The French tend to eat words and letters when they speak and you’ll quickly notice that “au revoir” often sounds more like “anrvoir” in real life.
More than a relaxed way to say “hi” in French, “salut” is the perfect way to say “bye” to your friends, family and other people you know well.
A plus tard
The equivalent of “see you later”, “à plus tard” is a phrase you use when you know you’ll meet someone again soon.
Make sure you pronounce it right though as “plus tard” tends to sound a lot like “putain”, a word with an embarrassingly different meaning.
“A plus” sometimes written “à+” on social networks is an even less formal version of “à plus tard”.
This is a greeting you should only use with friends.
“A demain” simply means “see you tomorrow”. You can easily modify it and replace “demain” (tomorrow) by a day of the week:
See you on Monday
See you on Sunday
“A bientôt” means “see you soon” and you can use it exactly the same way as “à plus tard”.
A la prochaine
This means “until next time” or “until we meet again” and has the same meaning as “à bientôt” and “à demain”.
It’s a bit more informal, though, so only use it with people you know well!
“Adieu” is the word you use when you know you’ll most likely never see someone again.
Since you rarely get to know whether you’ll see someone again or not, “adieu” mainly serves as an ironic way to say “goodbye“.
The kind of “goodbye” you say to the co-worker who just threw away important documents by mistakes and now has to talk to his boss about it or to the friend who failed his exam and didn’t tell his parents yet.
Have you ever made faux pas while greeting French people?
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 :).