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Simple comme bonjour

The title of this post Simple comme bonjour (literally 'easy as hello') is a French expression used to mean that something is easy, roughly the equivalent of 'easy as pie' in English. 

There are certain things that you need to know in order to function in society in France, and especially, in order to be treated like a normal human being by others.

One of these is the importance of greetings and closings, or more specifically, the use of hello and goodbye. This may sound silly, but don’t be fooled.  It is, in my opinion, one of the most important social cues in France. And without prior cultural knowledge, there's nothing simple about it. 

Hello and goodbye (bonjour and au revoir) structure your interaction with just about anyone in France. When I get onto an elevator with a stranger, I say hello and goodbye. When I enter a store, the clerk and I both say ‘hello’ and make eye contact. And obviously, when I meet up with friends or family, I will also say hello.

But what is sometimes unclear to non-native speakers is that saying ‘Hello’ in all of these situations is an obligation.

I learned my lesson in one experience where I was rushing around at a train station, trying to catch a late train. I ran up to a conductor on the platform and blurted out the question "is this the train number 5,236?".

Rather than just answering quickly and simply, this conductor decided to teach me a quick lesson about French etiquette. He looked at me, took a moment, said "Hello", and then waited for me to re-ask my question, before giving an answer.

What was happening here ? This particular person chose to act as if my first attempt to communicate was erased.  From his perspective, he was allowing me to start over in the ‘correct’ way by beginning the conversation with ‘hello’.

Why such formality around hello and goodbye? The act of saying hello and goodbye are important in the sense that you are recognizing another person’s presence, in a formal way.

You can almost think of it as if French people walk around in a sort of private or protected silent space. To break that silence, you need to recognize their human and social presence with ‘hello’. If you fail to do this, you are not respecting the social order, nor the social codes.

Another interesting expression to add to the mix is ‘excuse me’. This is also extremely common when asking someone for something (stopping someone for directions, asking a store clerk for information). Technically, you first ask ‘excuse me’, wait until you have the person’s attention, then proceed with ‘bonjour’ and finally to your question.

The French expression for 'excuse me' in its full form is ‘excusez-moi de vous déranger ‘ (excuse me for bothering you). The implication is then, whenever you’re addressing someone you don’t know in France, you ARE bothering them. You must thus ‘excuse’ yourself before continuing.

In contrast to American society however, you should not expect anything more than simply ‘hello’ from perfect strangers. Certainly not ‘hi’, and definitely not ‘how are you’.

'How are you' is only reserved for the initiated few.

I can illustrate this with a recent example from something as mundane as my grocery shopping. I go to a nearby market every Sunday for produce, and I tend to go to the same stand every week. All of a sudden, after a few weeks, the simple ‘bonjour’ from the vendor became "bonjour mademoiselle, ça va ?" (Hello miss, how are you?). The ‘ca va ?’ indicated that the vendor basically recognized me from before.  And now every week I am greeted this way, no exceptions. There was a clear and distinct moment when my impersonal 'hello' became a more personalized greeting.  

On the flip side, the French are wary of random strangers who will ask 'ça va?'. The only other experiences I’ve had of strangers asking me ‘ça va’ is either when someone is hitting on me, or when someone is asking me for money. Because of this, I've actually become wary myself of  ‘how are you’ coming from anyone I don't know.


So for any English-speaker reading this, remember this golden rule: always 'hello', when you arrive, 'goodbye' when you leave, and never 'how are you?' unless you're trying to pick someone up, or get money. Simple enough, right? 

Comments

  1. I really enjoyed this post as it articulated something I had only intuited before about "bonjour" acting as a gateway to more meaningful interactions. Your tales of the station and the market really struck chords as I too have been refused information before I have offered my greeting and have graduated to "bonjour, chère Madame" with the cheesemonger. Thank you for putting it so aptly. If you have a moment, do check out www.lostinlyon.com where I'm reflecting on similar things, but from a British perspective.

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  2. Thanks for reading, Emily, and for giving your own experiences! I'll definitely have a look at your blog...

    For me, this is just another example of how French culture is implicit and has codes that can make it hard for the uninitiated to integrate into society. French people wouldn't necessarily think to explain this idea of greetings because they think it's obvious.

    I find this kind of cultural difference really interesting but it can also be the grounds for great misunderstandings!

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  3. I have just heard about your blog from @A_C_Husson and I find this post very interesting. It does enlighten me about U.S. ways of starting a conversation. I have been irritated by american tourists in Paris who would ask me a question about how to get to Chateau de Versailles or something, without asking something like "Bonjour, excuse me, do you speak english? could you please give me directions?", and thought that there is this reputation of parisians being arrogant, but ask about arrogance when people don't even say a polite world and ask questions like you are member of the general parisian staff. I'm writing that having been to the UK a few times, but not to the U.S. Reading you, I realize is not so much being arrogant as being foreign and not sharing french codes of, as you very well say, introduce your question with "excusez-moi, bonjour..." And as a matter of fact I do find weird that unknown people could ask me how I am ;-) I'll be reading your blog, it gives me an interesting perspective! Claire

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  4. Thanks for your comments, Claire.

    Yes, it's true most Americans have no clue it's considered impolite in France to just walk up to someone and ask them for something, without a formal hello. Combine that with the fact that most of these tourists probably don't speak French, and you have a real cultural misunderstanding on your hands...

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  5. You could improve "the package" in ths way (come from my salesman's life) Le BSM => Bonjour / S'il vous plaît / Merci and then the goodbye (Au revoir). I have to say that unfortunatly now, also french (joung) peolples ignore more and more this BSM... It's too "old school" for them. Anyway, with the BSM/Au revoir, You'll be the King/Queen of France... ;-) IMHO

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  6. Great idea! It's true, this could really help tourists/foreigners have an easier time getting around France, even if they don't speak much French.

    Thanks for the comment!

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