August 25, 2011
Warm? Friendly? Spontaneous? These aren’t perhaps the first words that spring to mind when describing the typical Parisien. However, I can assure you that once you learn to greet and meet like a local, the slightly frosty exterior slowly begins to melt.
In Paris it’s essential to say bonjour many times each day. A Parisian lives and breathes bonjours. To foreigners this may seem excessive, but barge into a shop, skip the bonjour and see what happens. French customer service, already suffering in the image stakes, reaches new levels of indifference.
If, like me, you work in a large French company this situation can spiral dangerously and risks occupying a disproportionate part of your already coffee-break-filled day. I’ve come to dread lifts: not only is the bonjour compulsory on entering, the bonne journée (have a nice day) is also necessary on exiting. Et oui, this applies each and every time someone hops in or out. Even though my office is on the 5th floor, I’ve started taking the stairs!
Please note that the bonjour shouldn’t be too cheery or effusive for fear of rippling the careful air of nonchalance.
The ça va?
In many cases the bonjour is accompanied by the ubiquitous ça va? However, don’t be misled into thinking that this seemingly friendly question implies sincere concern for l’autre. To be cruelly honest, this phrase is utterly meaningless. Unaware of this harsh reality on arriving, I’d enthusiastically embark on long descriptions of my mood, latest activities and general state of well-being. These torrents of emotion were met by incomprehension, silence and nervous smiles. I’ve since learned that the correct response is a brisk ça va, et vous/toi? On reflection, perhaps this is no bad thing; otherwise reaching my desk would become a task of Herculean proportions.
To bise or not to bise, that is the question. Parisians are almost as enthusiastic about kissing as they are about bonjour-ing. Before attempting to integrate this highly French greeting, it is worth bearing in mind that:
- It is perfectly acceptable to bise people you’ve never met before. However, this the-more-the-merrier attitude doesn’t extend to work contexts (possibly to prevent lip and/or cheek erosion).
- It’s customary to land two bises. However, if you venture out into the far reaches of province this may increase to 3 or even 4!
- To avoid nose bumping, remember that the kisses usually go from left to right (although this being France, exceptions and rebels abound).
- When greeting large groups of people (e.g. at picnics & soirées) individual bises are required both on arrival and departure. I highly recommend getting there early and leaving late. Under these extreme circumstances, I’m willing to forgo ‘being Parisienne’ to give a friendly and collective wave.
I admit that it can take a while to cultivate the nonchalant attitude required to pass for a local. But, with a little effort and a lot less enthusiasm, you’ll soon be ready to bonjour with the best of them.
Courage and bon bise-ing!
- Etant Donné has some more dining etiquette tips, if you missed our articles
- Shannon from the Je Ne Sais Quoi blog has some tips on French office etiquette
- Confused about La Bise? This video might help.
Written by Victoria Wall
Following hours of foreign dictionary studying at university and a tapas-and-cerveza filled year in Madrid, Victoria decided it was high time to put her French and la belle vie Parisienne to the test. This Brit from near-London initially worked as an enthusiastic-yet-underpaid English teacher and has now become a translator-copywriter-community manager for a French website. Two years after arriving in Paris, she has had ample opportunity to fall amoureuse with every single arrondissement of the city of love and light, from picture postcard Montmartre to the winding backstreets of the almost provincial 20ème.