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Essential French for Conscientious Travelers: First Impressions

Welcome to the second installment in my language series, Essential French for Conscientious Travelers! This series of posts highlights the vital words and phrases needed by any traveler in France, as well as the different social contexts in which the words and phrases should be used.

These insights are all based on my personal experiences as a traveler and second language learner in Paris, and I can assure you: a little bit of language knowledge will take you far! As I shared in the first installment of this series, you absolutely don’t need to be fluent to feel comfortable, connect with the culture, and show respect for the people you engage with. The hardest part of the equation (and what will earn you mega brownie points from the locals!) is understanding when and where and with whom it’s appropriate to use the language tools you’ve learned. Social situations can be confusing and messy to navigate, but they can also be really exciting if you’ve done a little cultural research ahead of time.

So, without further ado, let’s talk about first impressions!

Photo by Roman Kraft / CC BY 1.0

If you are heading to France for a weeklong vacation, chances are that nearly 100% of your social interactions will be with people you don’t know well or at all — store clerks, servers and bartenders, your hotel’s concierge, to name a few. Because of this, French social etiquette demands a certain degree of formality as you interact with these less-familiar people. Some of these formalities might seem a bit cold or impersonal at first, but I have truly come to appreciate the intentional politeness that is, by default, offered into even the simplest of conversations.

A prime example of the lovely side of French formality is in the world of retail. Upon entering a shop, be it a bakery, clothing store, bank, etc., it is considered polite to amicably greet the salesperson before shopping or ordering. Nothing fancy; just a simple hello will do. The following vocab can be used to form your greeting:

Bonjour [bɔ̃ʒuʁ; bawnjore] | Hello (good day; used before dusk or 6 PM)

Bonsoir [bɔ̃swaʁ; bawnswar] | Hello (good evening; used after dusk or 6 PM)

Both bonjour and bonsoir can be used to say hello. But, take note that bonsoir, which translates to “good evening,” is only to be used after the sun has gone down (or, when the days are longer, after 6 PM or so). While native French speakers just seem to know when it’s appropriate to make the switch from bonjour to bonsoir, it’s a little more ambiguous for us transplants and tourists! Just go with your gut and if the salesperson responds in the same way, you’ll know you’ve made the right choice.

If you want to be especially polite (which I highly recommend), tack either Madame or Monsieur onto your greeting depending on the gender of the salesperson.

Madame [madam; madam] | Ma’am

Monsieur [mɔ̃sjœʁ; mesyer] | Sir

>>> A word of warning: Avoid using Mademoiselle to address young or unmarried women. As of 2012, the title, which translates to “Miss,” has been removed from all French legal documents to satisfy feminist pleas. While people have differing opinions on the way this legislation has affected spoken language etiquette, I err on the side of caution and, with the exception of small children and teens, use Madame to address women across the board — married or not.

So, all of that said, your complete greeting would either be “Bonjour, Madame/Monsieur,” OR “Bonsoir, Madame/Monsieur,” contingent on the time of day. And, the person you were addressing will most likely respond in the same way back to you. Maybe even with a smile! Voila.

Keep in mind that this same greeting etiquette can apply to other social situations as well. For example, if you’re staying in a vacation rental (Airbnb, perhaps) and you pass another tenant in your building, go ahead and greet them! While it would be weird and unnecessary to say hello to random people on the street — in Paris and most larger cities, anyway — acknowledging your neighbors is the friendly thing to do. (Side note: notice I did specify that this street etiquette is only true in Paris. I took a walk in a quaint Paris suburb a few months ago and felt almost uncomfortable by the number of people who acknowledged me on the street! In addition to a handful of hellos and a tourist asking for directions (Uhhh, je suis une touriste aussi!), an older gentleman tried to have a full-blown conversation with me as I passed his home. Unfortunately, my French was less than super at that point so our conversation was very sad. Oh well…)

I will say briefly too that greeting etiquette changes in more informal interactions (i.e. with your French friends). Salut! (hey!) and ça va? (how’s it going?) may replace bonjour. And, of course, you wouldn’t address a friend as Madame or Monsieur! Your greeting might also include la bise, France’s iconic cheek kisses! Read Pucker Up: Navigating La Bise Française to learn when this greeting is appropriate.

Photo by Artificial Photography / CC BY 1.0

So, you’ve greeted the store clerk, browsed through the racks of expensive, high-end clothing, maybe even bought something (hurray!), but now, you’re ready to move on. Surprise, surprise: saying goodbye is just as rooted in the social etiquette as is your salutation. Unless the salesperson is steeped in other customers, it is considered polite to make eye contact, thank him or her, and then say goodbye as you’re headed to the door. The following vocab can be used to form your farewell:

Au revoir [o ʁəvwaʁ; oh revwar] | Goodbye

Bonne journée [bɔn ʒuʁne; bawn jorenay] | Goodbye (good day; used before dusk or 6 PM)

Bonne soirée [bɔn swaʁe; bawn swaray] | Goodbye (good evening; used after dusk or 6 PM)

The same time-of-day rules apply to farewells as they do greetings, with the exception of au revoir which can be used all day. I don’t typically feel the need to include Madame or Monsieur when saying goodbye, but it wouldn’t hurt if the interaction seems extra formal (or, perhaps if the salesperson is clearly much older than you). Use your discretion!

Many times, the salesperson will catch you first: “Merci beaucoup ! Au revoir ! Bonne journée !” and you’ll respond back in the same fashion. It is formal, yes, but it is also quite refreshing coming from a culture where these niceties are not often exchanged between strangers.

Final Thoughts

Well, there you have it… you’ve made it through your first basic social interaction! Sure, it’s only a few words, but your ability to integrate yourself into the culture even slightly will speak volumes about you and the kind of traveler you are. And, like it or not, you’re also saying an awful lot about Americans in general. Let’s make it a positive message, shall we?

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