Bonjour is the first word we learn when starting the long, arduous path to being Francophone, and the one word most people can say even when they don’t speak French.
British writer in Paris Jackie McGeown, who runs the blog Best France Forever, explains why the word is so crucial to everyday life.
“Anyone who has seen a maman badger her reluctant child into saying it will know how important saying bonjour is to the French,” says McGeown.
“In saying it you are acknowledging the other person as an equal, a person deserving of respect. Saying bonjour is so important that they really should give a warning to visitors on signs at the border.”
Here’s her list of when you really need to say it.
In the boulangerie
If you only say bonjour in one of these places, make it the place where you buy your bread.
It is almost (almost) as important as your money here. In Britain it’s perfectly acceptable to walk into a bakery, smile a little, then say, “4 baps, please” without causing any offence. In France, you don’t need to smile but adding bonjour is mandatory.
Actually, any place you buy stuff
Say bonjour when you’re paying for things in supermarkets, chemists, market stalls… Anywhere money is exchanged basically.
When you enter shops
Sometimes it’s not enough to say bonjour when you pay for things, sometimes you need to say it when you walk into the shop as well. This is usually reserved for small, privately owned places, and clothes shops. If you’re not sure whether to say bonjour or not, just wait for the staff to make the first move. You’ll probably have to say au revoir as well. Exhausting, I know.
Unless you want to sit next to the toilet and be ignored all night, say the magic word. One café owner in Nice was so fed up with the rudeness of his customers that he decided to vary the price of a coffee depending on how it had been ordered; the cheapest coffee is the one ordered with a s’il vous plait and a bonjour.
To any ‘gateway’ person
By this I mean principally receptionists but this includes anyone who has the power to let you go places. Security guards, secretaries, personal assistants are also on this list – think people with clipboards and you won’t go far wrong.
In waiting rooms
So you’ve said bonjour to the receptionist in the doctor’s surgery. Job done, right? Wrong. Because now you need to say it to the people sitting in the waiting room too. To a British person this is as natural as stripping naked and attempting to pirouette while covered in custard but if you want to be polite you need to suck up the shame and say it.
To your neighbours
In ten years of living in London I knew precisely zero of my neighbours. The most interaction we had was the exchange of slight nods/tight smiles. You can’t get away with this in France: you must say bonjour to them. If they’re older, then Bonjour madame/monsieur will score you more points.
To your colleagues
At a minimum you need to stick your head round the door of each office to say your morning hellos. Now if you work in a huge company, you’re not expected to say bonjour to everyone, just the people you work with.
To your concierge / gardien
It is impossible to overstate the importance of bonjouring the person that looks after your building. Sure, they may be nosy/interfering/a source of irritation but the moment you need something done they will remember that morning three years ago in June when you didn’t say bonjour and it’s over.
To people you pass in corridors
Again, this is alien to Britons. But if you work in a huge building and you pass someone in the corridor you don’t know, you should say bonjour to them. If it’s a group of people deep in conversation you can give your bonjouring a miss but otherwise, say hello to that complete stranger!
Enter the lift, say bonjour to whomever is inside, then say either bonne journée or au revoir each time someone gets out. This is super fun if you’re in a really tall building with loads of difference companies like in La Défense. To complicate this already unnatural behaviour, you don’t need to do this in all lifts, just in residential or work buildings. You don’t need to bother in, say, shopping centre or airport lifts.
Got that? If in doubt, say bonjour!
(And if you’ve already seen the person that day? That’s what rebonjour – hello again – was invented for).