How to make friends and bonjour people (in France)

I’d heard the story so many times I was starting to think it was an urban legend among Americans in Paris.

When you walk into the patisserie, say "Bonjour, Madame" !
When you walk into the patisserie, say “Bonjour, Madame” !

But the last time I heard it – from a young half-French, half-American fellow – I gave it my full attention.   This was definitely a winner in my collection of cultural differences.

He told me he’d always thought he was more French than American (he was raised by a French mother in the States) but it was confirmed in the metro when he asked an employee what line to take.

Bonjour », the agent replied, looking him in the eyes.

« Bonjour ? » What on earth ?  The young man thought he hadn’t heard correctly.

But the agent, he told me, just stood there, waiting.   He decided to see what would happen when he uttered this obviously important word.

« Bonjour ! » he said, looking at the employee – who smiled and proceeded to answer his question rapidly and efficiently.

The young man went on his way, his thoughts twirling.  Now what was THAT all about ?

Why can’t you just get your information and get out of there ?

The reason is that France is a country where form, how you do things, is as important as content (what you do).  And in the metro, or stores, acknowledging the existence of the person to whom you are addresssing a question is an important matter of form.

I told this to an American friend who guffawed.  « The French can be really rude, «  she said.  « Why should they be such sticklers for polite behavior ? »

It was then that the little light went on.  Americans often tax the French as being rude, snotty, and superior.   But when someone walks up to them, doesn’t even say hello or acknowledge them as a person and asks directions as if they were entitled to the information, well, they consider that person rude.  Works both ways….

Anyway, whatever you do:  say “Bonjour!”

6 thoughts on “How to make friends and bonjour people (in France)”

  1. Harriet, This is so “right on.” Just this week ! I walked into Lavocat bookstore on the ave Mozart to pay for a Birthday card I had found outside. The store owner (employee?) was on the phone, looked at me, and I whispered (so as not to bother him) “How much does it cost?” He replied, “3 euros but you don’t have to buy it.” OK. A little snotty but I’ll let it pass. I pay, and ask said man (still talking on the phone)”May I have an envelope to protect it?” He gives it to me and I’m ready to sneak away (still not wanting to cut into his conversation) and he starts to lambast me, literally: “Not even a word of thanks, you snobs, you treat us like dirt, etc. etc..” Believe you me, I was shaken as I left in a hurry, with visions of hiring someone to topple over his card “stands” on the sidewalk. (I would, but I can’t run fast enough. The guy was youngish).
    But of course, realizing that I had forgotten the magic word “Merci” which would have established good relations between us.
    And … I’ve lived in Paris forty-two years!
    P.S. I frankly prefer being a stickler for politeness and it must be taught early. I cringe when I am in the States and young kids don’t even look up from whatever they are doing when you come into a room to greet them.

    1. Nancy, thanks for your comment. You know that old saw about how you can never be rich enough or thin enough? In France, you can never be polite enough. Those simple little words “Bonjour” and “Merci” work magic.

  2. I just finished “French Toast.” Pas mal. My wife and I have been spending our winters in Paris for the past 7 years. I would not have been able to absorb your insights when we started our odyssey. Time, experience and good French friends have shaped our attitude and our visits. Not that we can be French. That’s not our intent, although I would be pleased to accept the word flâneur. Our interests are to enjoy the (aesthetic) pleasures Paris offers. We have learned that if we are open, Paris is open.

    I will now go on to “Joie de Vivre.”

    1. Thanks so much for writing, Eugene. I appreciate your remark about time, experience, and good French friends shaping your attitude and your visits to France. Your stays are surely all the richer for that. I know that my life in France would not have been the same without all I learned from my French family (husband, in-laws, and Franco-American children) and French friends. I’m glad you enjoyed “French Toast” and from what you tell me about your interest in enjoying the aesthetic pleasures of Paris I think you’ll enjoy “Joie de Vivre” perhaps even more. The first book “French Toast” was cathartic – writing about all the things in French culture and French life that I didn’t understand. It was great fun, I got a lot out of my system, and started understanding a lot more about my adopted culture. “Joie de Vivre” was written at a different point in time, years later, and is more of a profound and deeply appreciative look at the culture I have now adopted and lived in for four decades. Both books are “true” to the feelings I had at the time of their writing and what’s interesting to me is the progression. I’d love to hear your thoughts once you’ve finished “Joie”.

  3. I experienced this first hand 6 months ago in Paris. I was approched by a group of Americans (I’m from Sweden) who presumed I was a frenchman. They shouted from e few meters distance “Excuse me, where’s the church?!” I wondered what church they meant. There are A LOT of churches and cathedrals in Paris.

    But I think I knew which church they meant. So I asked “Notre Dame?” and they replied “Yeah – the church”.

    If I would have been a frenchman, I probably would have felt offended. So I agree with you totally – be polite and they will treat you well!

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