Amid the myriad other challenges of French – wrestling with tenses, remembering to make your adjectives agree and keeping a wary eye out for ‘false friends’ – how you order your coffee is probably not something that most people pay a lot of attention to.
As long as your waiter brings you what you wanted and doesn’t spit in it, then there’s no problem, right?
Well in a sense no, but certain ways of asking can make you appear older than you are, excessively formal or just like a tourist.
So we asked language expert and Paris native Camille, founder of French Today, to give us her run-down of some of the most common phrases.
Just to emphasise – none of these are wrong, all will get you a coffee and none will make the waiter hate you, so there’s no need to worry too much about your phrasing.
READ ALSO How much should you tip your waiter or waitress in France?
Coffee on a terrace watching the world go by is one of the great pleasures of life in France. Photo: AFP
Bonjour, un café s’il vous plaît
This is the basic request for coffee that’s probably the most commonly heard. Quick note – un café in France specifically means a short, black coffee. If you want yours with milk or cream in you can order un café au lait, un café crème (or just un crème) or un double crème if you want it really milky.
Camille says: “This is the standard request if you’re ordering at the counter or on a busy terrace in a city.
“Some English-speakers think it sounds a little abrupt, but as long as you have the bonjour and s’il vous plaît then you’re being perfectly polite.
“If the terrace is busy, then it’s also OK to wave at the waiter/waitress to attract their attention and just call out bonjour, un café s’il vous plaît but no clicking your fingers – that is just rude.”
Do you need the pleasantries if you’re in a busy place and the waiter is clearly in a rush?
Camille says: “Yes, saying it without the bonjour and without a s’il vous plaît is rude, but you’ll hear it a lot in busy places… Yet honestly, how hard is it to say hi and please?
“If you want to be more polite you can start with a bonjour monsieur/madame/mademoiselle and obviously say merci when it is delivered.”
Je voudrais un café s’il vous plaît
This is the phrase that many anglophones learn in French class, but in France it’s a lot less common than your teachers would have you believe.
Camille says: “This is very polite, quite formal. I would be more likely to use this if I was having trouble making up my mind or I was discussing my order with the waiter. Ben, je ne suis pas sûr(e), je voudrais . . . un café s’il vous plaît.
Puis-je avoir un café s’il vous plaît
Puis-je is the inverted form of je puis from the verb pouvoir – I may – and makes it into a question – may I? In this case ‘may I have a coffee?’.
Camille says: “This is very old-fashioned, I don’t think I really hear anyone saying this any more, not even old ladies – I would maybe use it if I was talking to the Queen!
“It’s quite popular with foreigners though, I think because it’s an exact translation of how you might order coffee in the UK or the US but it’s not really heard in France any more.”
More about how to say May I in French.
READ ALSO Terraces to tipping: The etiquette to visiting a French café
Even on a busy terrace there is no reason to dispense with the formalities. Photo: AFP
Je vais prendre un café, s’il vous plaît
Literally ‘I’m going to take a coffee’ this is another common phrase.
Camille says: “I would use this, my mum would use this, I think it’s pretty universal.”
Je prends un café
So can you use an even shorter version of this?
Camille says: “I would only use it like this if I was the second or third person in a group ordering. If your friend has already placed her order, you might add Moi, je prends un café aussi but I wouldn’t use it on its own to place an order.”
Est-ce-que je peux avoir un café s’il vous plaît
In English to sound more polite we often pose our order as a question ‘can I have a coffee’ ‘could I get a coffee’ but we are not genuinely doubting whether it will be possible to get a coffee in a café.
In French, however, this question might be taken more literally.
Camille says: “I think I would only use this if there was some doubt, for example if the café looked like it might be closing or if they are setting the tables for lunch I might ask Est-ce-que je peux avoir juste un café – can I have just a coffee (as opposed to a meal).
“There’s no need to add these little question phrases on to your order to try and sound polite, in France we care more about how the phrase sounds in your mouth and trips off the tongue.”
Pourrais-je avoir un café, s’il vous plaît
Again this sounds like a literal translation of how you might frame your order in English – could I have a coffee – but is not often heard in France.
Camille says: “Again, this sounds like more than a simple order. I might use it if my coffee was really slow in arriving, as a gentle reminder to the waiter perhaps, but I wouldn’t order like this.”
Camille also added: “Different people will have different opinions though and really the context is crucial – whether you are ordering a coffee at a busy counter in Paris or whether you are in a lovely café in a little village and the owner is taking your order.”
Do you have a language question for Camille? Email us at [email protected] and we’ll ask for her expert advice.
Camille Chevalier-Karfis is a French language expert, and founder of FrenchToday.com.
Very interesting, thank you!
a useful and informative article, merci
“If you want to be more polite you can start with a bonjour monsieur/madame/mademoiselle”
Ouah! I would never go anywhere near madame/mademoiselle. I have no idea of the register/ overtones/ implications of these words when used to a stranger. The possibilities of causing offense, or of sending some message (being old-fashioned, being a tourist, being rude, or even flirting) easily outweighs the ‘benefits’ of the extra verbiage.
Maybe this could be the subject of a different article?