Parisian Living

The Art of the “Bonjour”

by Yvonne Shao

What’s the most important word in the French language? Bonjour. In France, it’s the key to a pleasant encounter. It’s the way to insure good feelings on both sides. Nay, I say, it is more! It is a simple requirement for all humans, expressing peace and goodwill. Have you mastered the art of the “Bonjour“?

Two women leaning back in chairs by the water feature at the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris while reading books in the sunshine. They probably said "bonjour" even if they don't know one another.
Top: Dewang Gupta. Above: Filip Mishevski

It’s also a basic courtesy that many other countries don’t use, so it’s a little tricky for the non-French who are spending time in the land of cheese and baguettes. 

Zach Dyson / Natali Navytka

In the United States, for instance, we may give each other a small smile for a greeting, but we don’t usually verbalize unless we’re really ready to start a conversation. In France, the bonjour has the same function – it just means “I see you,” but doesn’t imply any further conversation.

The Basic Bonjour

When you enter the bakery, the fromagerie, the bookstore, or any other small shop, the clerk will greet you and the art of the “Bonjour” comes into play. The bonjour is sometimes mumbled and even carolled out at full volume, just like in the opening scene of Beauty and the Beast.

Return the bonjour in the same tone, looking them in the eyes, smile optional. Now, we’re all set up to not be rude to each other. We’ve entered a higher plane of civilization, a plane of peace and acceptance.

Let’s move on to some more advanced bonjours.

The interior cobblestone courtyard at the Invalides, with the gold dome sticking out the top.
Fabio Roque

The Passing Bonjour

This bonjour is for those moments you find yourself brushing past someone but have no intention of talking to them ever again. This bonjour is more of a whispered “bshr“, said with a glance into their eyes, but without the depth of connection as in the basic bonjour.

A beautifully carved wooden blue door with a woman sitting on the step reading (left). The arches surrounding the Jardin du Palais Royal with sunshine filtering through and a woman walks holding up a red umbrella (right).
Andre Pfeifer / Daniel Gregoire

Say this when you pass someone on the stairs in your apartment building, on your way past a doorman, anytime you’re moving. Of course there would be no repercussions to not giving the passing “bshr,” but it would be as tactless as poking them in the eye, so just do it.

The Assemblée Nationale in Paris with people crossing a nearby bridge in the foreground.
Valentin B Kremer / Anthony Delanoix

The Group Bonjour

This one was the hardest one for me to get the hang of. In France, when you enter a waiting room (doctor, dentist, notary, bank, anywhere) you have to sweep the room with your eyes and emit a quiet bonjour, somewhere between the basic bonjour and the passing bshr in volume and intensity.

Tourists on a barge boat on the River Seine as the sun sets above the Grand Palais as seen peeping out from under one of the bridges straddling the river.
Filip Mishevski

They will return the bonjour to you, and you can take your seat knowing that no one in the room hates you, that they welcome you in this mutual endeavor towards health or financial stability or whatever the common goal. 

Inside a Paris church with a fresco of Jesus painted on the entire back wall (left). Cobblestone streets of Paris and two people walking along (right).
Meax / Lawless Capture

Mastering the art of the “bonjour” is essential. It breaks the ice. It puts us all on the path to a better existence, an existence where, even though it may be bleak out there, in here, we are all united in a warm-hearted quest toward understanding and hospitality for all. It’s a better world. In just one word. Nice, isn’t it?

A view of the Eiffel Tower under gray skies in winter (left). Buren's columns art installation in the Jardin du Palais Royal (right).
Julian Dik / Joshua Humphrey

And when you’ve mastered the bonjour, you’re officially ready to take on its nuanced sister: la bise.

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Written by Yvonne Shao for HiP Paris. Looking to travel? Check out Haven In for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, France or Italy. Looking to rent long-term or buy in France or Italy? Ask us! We can connect you to our trusted providers for amazing service and rates.

Written By

Yvonne Shao

Yvonne Shao is an American writer living in Paris. She blogs at Escaping the Empty Nest. View Yvonne Shao's Website

2 comments on “The Art of the “Bonjour”

I’ve been living in Paris for over 30 years. When I’d drop my kids off at school I’d greet other parents with a bonjour at 8am. At 11am I’d pick up my kids for lunch and say bonjour again to people and many would become hostile telling me that we’ve already said bonjour earlier that morning. I didn’t feel comfortable totally ignoring people…..hard to navigate.

Laura Fragiacomo Hamilton

I miss this simple courtesy (it also applies in Italy and Spain).

On recently returning from a long stay in Italy, I walked into the hairdressers and gave ‘The Group Bonjour’ (in its ‘good morning’ format). People looked at me as if the greeting came from my spare head.

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