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FALF Guide to Saying Hello in French

What are the options for saying “hello” in French? What is there beyond the venerable bonjour? More importantly, what are the rules? Which are formal? Which salutations should you NOT use with your boss or the cashier? Here’s the ultimate guide with all my tips learned over the years!

 

The Greetings and the Rules

 

BONJOUR.   [bɔ̃.ʒuʁ] • “boh(n) zhoor”

🌞 • FRIENDLY TO FORMAL

Ahh, bonjour. This is the all-purpose hello good morning / good afternoon in French. Satisfying all levels of politeness, bonjour is the safest, most foolproof greeting to use with anyone of any age, from early morning to dusk.

 

⛔ The only limitation: don’t use bonjour at night.

 

⚠️ English-speakers should also note that bonjour, while literally meaning “good day,” is only used when greeting someone. When parting, one would say, “bonne journée,” which means “have a good (rest of the) day.”

 

 

PRO TIP: use “bonjour” to get good french service

 

If you want good service at a French establishment, bonjour is the key to getting it. So go in with a confident bonjour, regardless of your actual French fluency.

 

Just as importantly, greet your host and the staff upon entering or as soon as you encounter them. Seriously, say bonjour before anything else—then you can throw in the “Excuse me, do you speak English?” In a way, saying “bonjour” is a request for permission to enter someone’s domain. And of all the niceties in French culture, where niceties persist, this simple gesture remains one of the most important.

 

This cultural savvy will often mean the difference between decent service and the cold shoulder — or, as many unsuspecting tourists and inexperienced students have borne witness, a good dose of gallic sass! And while we can wrangle over whether that’s rude or not, the simplest way to sidestep this cultural misunderstanding is to channel your inner francophone, as timid as he or she may be, and say one word: bonjour.

 

• • •

 

BONSOIR.   [bɔ̃.swaʁ] • “boh(n) swahr”

🌛 • FRIENDLY TO FORMAL

Bonsoir is bonjour’s nighttime self. It has the same profile, but is only employed in the evening when it replaces bonjour.

 

⚠️ Literally meaning “good evening,” bonsoir comes with the same warning for anglophones as bonjour: it’s only used when greeting someone. When parting, one should say “bonne soirée,” which means “have a good (rest of the) evening.” Or, if it’s really late and everyone’s turning in for the night, then say “bonne nuit,” which means “good night.”

 

PRO TIP: WHen to switch to bonsoir

 

Naturally, the question is when to transition from bonjour to bonsoir. Hélas, there’s no exact answer to this! Some may flip the greeting switch at the end of their workday; others may do it when the sun sets. It’s often a personal preference or a question of mood. But a good rule of thumb: aim for 6PM.

 

• • •

 

SALUT.   [sa.ly] • “sah lu”

🌞🌛 • FRIENDLY & INFORMALArticle Image French Greeting Salut

Salut (pronounced without the T) is one way to know you’ve made it from VOUS Territory to TU Territory.

 

Why? Because this is an informal greeting used between peers, friends, and family. It translates best as “Hi!” or “Hey!” Alors, il va sans dire (it goes without saying) that you shouldn’t use it with people to whom you’d need to show deference — and if you’re an anglophone, this may include some unexpected individuals

 

⛔ Do not say “salut” to a French server, cashier, receptionist, mailman, etc. In French culture, the rules of formality are stricter than in many anglophone cultures. So while we tend to be very “chill” with English-speaking customer service people — we may even gush about how refreshingly casual everyone is — you’d likely need to use bonjour or bonsoir with their French counterparts.

 

📍Note that salut is like ciao in Italian or aloha in Hawaiian: it can mean both “hello” and “goodbye.”

 

📍Note that salut has the French U sound. There should be an audible difference between the U in salut and the OU in bonjour.

 

PRO TIP: salut in the workplace

 

Here’s a burning question: should you use salut with your boss?

 

Many French people will say, “NO” — and I agree.

 

However, there are exceptions. For example, at the small French company where I worked, I was on a TU basis with everyone practically from the beginning — including my employers! So salut was perfectly fine. But in a larger, hierarchical, traditional French corporation, you may want to stick with the deferential bonjour-bonsoir combo until you’ve figured out the company culture and your standing vis-à-vis everyone else, especially your superiors.

 

• • •

 

COUCOU !   [ku.ku] • “coo coo”

🌞🌛 • FRIENDLY & VERY INFORMAL

Coucou is the even friendlier version of salut. The best translation for it is “hey there,” although it also translates as “peekaboo!” More literally, coucou means cuckoo, like the bird in the clock, peeking out at certain times. (There’s also the expression jouer à coucou, which is to play peekaboo.)

 

So, clearly, it’s playful and cute, and therefore suitable for children, close friends, and family. This is also why some assert that only women use it, though both genders do in fact employ it. You’ll also see it in emails, text messages, and online forums where the social rules are more relaxed.

 

Another thing to note: coucou is often meant to get someone’s attention, which differentiates it slightly from other greetings. For example, you’re more likely to hear coucou when someone is peeking into your office from behind the door, wanting to chat, than when you’re just passing them quickly on the way to the bathroom. In a way, it’s a less grating, more restrained version of the English “yoo-hoo!”

 

⛔ Do not use coucou if you’re not even on a salut basis.

 

⚠️ Be careful with the pronunciation of coucou. It’s nearly identical to the English, so don’t employ the French U! (That would change the meaning  to something quite embarrassing.)

 

• • •

 

ADAPTING YOUR GREETINGS

For a Crowd

If you’re greeting a group, you can add tout le monde or à tous to mean “to all.”
👉 Salut à tous.
👉 Bonjour tout le monde.

 

to be extra polite

If you want to be really polite when saying “hello” in French, add Monsieur or Madame* to bonjour or bonsoir.
👉 Bonjour Madame.
👉 Bonsoir Monsieur.

 

* You may also use Mademoiselle for a little girl or a younger, unmarried woman. However, this sometimes presents its own dilemma: determining a woman’s age and marital status at a glance. In this case, clues like a wedding ring may help. That said, in general, if she doesn’t look like a little girl or a teenager, then Madame is usually fine.

 

• • •

 

Special Greetings

 

ALLÔ ?   [a.lo] • “ah lo”

🌞🌛 • 📞 ONLY ON THE PHONE

Article Image French Greeting AllôIt’s so tempting to equate allô to the English “hello.” But in most of the French-speaking world, allô is only used when answering the phone or when checking if someone is still on the line.

 

Therefore, by nature, it’s a question and needs to have a rising tone at the end.

 

⛔ Do not use allô as an in-person greeting… EXCEPT in Québec, where it’s similar to salut.

 

⚠️ If you need to be more polite when answering the phone, default to bonjour.

 

📍There are a few instances when you’ll hear allô in person. In these cases, it’s very informal and its meaning changes: it becomes an expression of incredulity or disbelief, with a hint of disdain. In a way, it’s like asking if someone is still mentally there. Some English equivalents would be “seriously?!” or “I mean, helloooo?” (For more on this, look up the controversial French TV personality Nabilla. She coined the nonsensical and now-trademarked expressionAllô non mais allô quoi,” which effectively means “What, are you kidding me?!”)

 

• • •

 

REBONJOUR.   [ʁə.bɔ̃.ʒuʁ] • “ruh boh(n) zhoor”
REBONSOIR.   [ʁə.bɔ̃.swaʁ] • “ruh boh(n) swahr”

ONLY When re-encountering someone on the same day 

If you’ve already greeted someone earlier in the day, add the prefix re- (which rhymes with “duh”) to bonjour the second time you meet. The resulting rebonjour literally means “re-hello” or “hello again.” And though you won’t hear it as often (perhaps because there are fewer evening waking hours), there’s also rebonsoir.

 

Now, it bears mentioning that, while many francophones are forgiving of this, some will recoil at a second bonjour or bonsoir. Furthermore, some may even sass you with a corrective rebonjour. (This is how my classmates and I learned about this expression!)

 

What’s with the attitude? Again, it’s an issue of culture and niceties. For some people, a second bonjour indicates that you’ve clearly forgotten that you already saw them that day, which would be considered rude. As a result, subsequent greetings must acknowledge earlier encounters — at least until the situation resets the next day and you can use bonjour again!

 

📍For very informal situations, you can cut it down to re. (No, seriously, you can.)

 

📍Alternatively — or for succeeding encounters — you can go with a simple nod or smile.

 

PRO TIP: What should you do if you get corrected for saying “bonjour” twice?

 

A quick acknowledgment of your mistake should diffuse the situation: Ah oui, excuse(z)-moi. On s’est déjà vus.” (Oh, yes. Excuse me. We’ve already seen each other.”) This will allay the person’s suspicion that you failed to recall an earlier meeting.

 

• • •

 

BON MATIN.   [bɔ̃.matɛ̃] • “boh(n) mah ta(n)”

🌞 • only IN QUÉBEC

Of all the ways to say “hello” in French, this is the most controversial. Why? Because in most of the francophone world, this expression does not exist. In fact, it would likely come across as a failed anglophone attempt at translating “good morning” and elicit a swift and reproachful bonjour.

 

However, there is one place where it is used: Québec.

 

Mais pas is vite ! (But not so fast!) Before you use bon matin with everyone you meet on your trip to la Belle province, be aware that it remains controversial even there. This is because it competes with bonjour and is a calque (loan translation) from English. And there are laws and some strongly held views against such linguistic intrusions, especially over at the Office québécois de la langue française (the Québec language authorities).

 

Therefore, if you plan to use it — as many Québécois do — bear in mind that it may ruffle some feathers. If in doubt, the best choice remains the 100% French choice: the ever-trustworthy bonjour.

 

• • •

 

The Takeaways

 

Article image for Post on Saying Hello in French Bonjour

Congratulations! Now, you know the different ways to say “hello” in French.

 

And to recap, here are the two best practices that sum up the most salient cultural points:

 

The first reminds me of what military folks often say: it’s better to accidentally salute someone junior to you than fail to salute someone senior. In other words, when in doubt, assume you have junior status and go the formal route. This means using the polite (but friendly) duo: bonjour and bonsoir. They really are solid choices — and you can always calculate your social standing later!

 

The second: follow the lead of the francophones you’re talking to until you get the hang of things! If they use TU with you, you can use less formal greetings like salut. If they’re Québécois and use bon matin with you, you can reciprocate with the same.

 

With that information in tow, you can now smoothly navigate the cultural waters to make a good first impression as an aspiring francophone! Good luck! Bonne chance !

 

• • •

 

Mastered how to say “hello” in French? Looking for more basic French lessons?

 

Hey, we’ve all got to start with the basics; there’s no shame in that! And the stronger your grasp of basic French, the easier the language will be as you progress. So shore up your French foundations HERE.

 

© French à la folie.

 

All rights reserved. No reproduction or distribution of this content is allowed without the express written permission of the author.

 

FALF Guide to Saying Hello in French

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