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I've been hooked on the French language and culture for years, and it drives me crazy when English speakers insist the French are rude. The reality is actually the opposite, they're very polite! It is often the accusers misunderstanding the culture.
It doesn't take a lot, but making the effort to speak in their language and understanding the right times to do so makes a difference! Check out the cards below for terms, pronunciation, and when to use them for a more enjoyable experience abroad.
Cultural attachment: Stereotypical as it is, hand out your bonjour's like candy! It's a simple way to recognize the other person, a little "Hello, I see you there, you are a person deserving of attention and polite respect."
When to use: It is especially important to say before getting down to what you want. When walking into a store, whether you're browsing or on a mission, say bonjour to the attendant! Often they will say it first, and it's impolite to not reply. The same goes for restaurants and other establishments that do you any sort of service.
Take away: Say bonjour early, often, and before whatever else you have to say.
Cultural attachment: The same as bonjour, but for the latter part of the day. It recognizes the other person in your space
When to use: After about 4:30 PM, it is appropriate to use bonsoir, as either a hello or goodbye.
Take away: Use to be polite in the evening as a substitute for anytime you would say bonjour during the day.
Cultural attachment: If you hadn't sensed a theme, greetings are important. This one just happens to be more casual.
When to use: It's mostly for peers and people younger or less experienced than yourself, not your superiors, unless you know them well.
Examples: You might say salut to a coworker when meeting for drinks, your immediate family members, your students, or people who work for you.
Bonjour is more appropriate for your boss, the bus driver, or your great-aunt Marion who you only see at Christmas
Take away: If you want to be casual with your greetings, say salut, but save it for people with whom you're close.
Cultural attachment: Unless you're storming out of a situation, polite people typically say goodbye. It's not as off-putting as not saying bonjour, but the French will still notice. It's also quite kind, as it literally means "until I see you again."
When to use: It's a pretty typical goodbye, good in any situation and anytime. There are other common though less formal goodbyes, but this is a quick one to keep in your back pocket. However, you're not going to say goodbye as much as hello. If bonjour is candy, au revoir is coffee - good for breakfast and after dinner, but not every meal. Say goodbye if you had an interaction with someone beyond two words, were helped, had a conversation, or were serviced in some way.
Take away: Say goodbye if you have a notable interaction with someone.
Cultural attachment: If you want to catch flies, honey works better than vinegar. If you need something, politely saying pardon to a francophone first is a lot more likely to get results. The French are a very self-aware people; to say pardon is to say "I recognize I am asking you to think of my needs first, and I apologize for possibly inconveniencing you, but I appreciate your cooperation."
When to use: Pardon works as an intro to a conversation or question, as an apology, or as a way to get people's attention.
Examples: "Pardon, where can I find xxx?", "Pardon! I didn't mean to bump into you!", "Pardon! Coming through! On your left!"
Take away: Pardon is the extra step of politeness when you need something and are approaching someone to get it.
S'il Vous Plaît
Cultural attachment: Please is a pretty universal term, but it still goes a long way. To say s'il vous plaît, literally "if it pleases you", is the difference between demanding and requesting.
When to use: Anytime you would say please in English warrants a s'il vous plaît. There are no special rules here.
Take away: Say please to show you aren't the ugly demanding foreigner but rather the diplomatic visitor.
Cultural attachment: What is a please without a thank you to follow? It's about as universally polite and equally welcome, even when it's in return for a mundane task.
When to use: Showing appreciation for someone is never a bad move, so say your mercis! If someone really helps you or you're feeling extra appreciative, tack on a beaucoup!
Take away: Merci is just as much a magic word in French as in English, use it!
Cultural attachment: You could nod at someone, or shake your head, to answer them, but taking the extra step is a good idea.
When to use: Anytime you're answering someone, be verbal about it! It's a stronger response.
Take away: Unless you're mute, answer the people addressing you with a oui or non.
Cultural attachment: When you need to address individuals, even general terms help. Screaming bonjour isn't going to do you any good if they don't realize they're the one being addressed and not the balding man next to them.
When to use: Madame refers to a woman, not a girl, and is also a sort of respect. It can also translate to "Mrs." and thus would go in front of a name if you do know them.
Example: "Pardon, madame, you dropped this.", "My boss is Madame de Poli.", "Merci beaucoup for your help, madame."
Take away: Madame is a married woman, a grown woman you don't know well, or a woman who is your superior.
*Please note the emphasis on the second half of the word - they aren't pimps, you should not call them madam.
Cultural attachment: This helps to further differentiate to whom you are referring, at least between females of different ages.
When to use: Mademoiselle is an unmarried woman, though not typically used with strangers. It's used more often before names, particularly if she is the daughter of a woman with the same last name. It can also refer to young girls.
Examples: "May I introduce Madame and Mademoiselle de Poli, my boss and her daughter.", "Mademoiselle, you are only 10, you still need a chaperone."
Take away: Use less than madame, typically for young girls and differentiating between women of the same family.
Cultural attachment: If you're going to address the ladies, address the gentlemen too! And really, no one likes being called out with a "Hey! You!", monsieur is a much nicer way to get a man's attention. It should also be noted that other French words with this spelling are not pronounced this way. You'll sound a little more aware of the culture if you're lazy about the pronunciation as they've come to be over the centuries.
When to use: In reference to any man you don't know, regardless of age, and also before names like saying "Mr." to show respect.
Take away: Being polite with the extra step of saying monsieur gets you some points, especially if you pronounce it correctly.
Cultural attachment: This article can't teach you everything, but it can get you started. So can this phrase. Not everyone speaks English, and not everyone speaks it well, just as you may not speak French well. Saying bonjour and jumping right to English may not cut it, particularly if you catch them off guard.
When to use: If you're stuck, you've used up all your French, and you need to switch to English, ask if your conversation partner is up for it!
Take away: It's give and take: give them a little French, and get back a little help in English if they're capable.