Written by Carrie Anne James of French is Beautiful
Truth be told, there is really only one way to say "hello" in French and that is: bonjour. In French language and culture, a 'bonjour' is the first step to any experience in which communication is exchanged. It is how we acknowledge the other person and show respect, the anglophone version of a smile.
I've also thrown in the expression 'ça va' as a greeting as, between good friends, we sometimes just go straight to 'Salut, ça va? (Hi, how are you?) while doing la bise (the kissing on the cheek, the French version of a handshake or a hug, more to come on this!) at the same time.
The important thing to remember when using the below greetings is to ask yourself, 'How close do I feel to this person / How personal is this situation?' The determining factors could be: situation during which the interaction takes place (at someone's home or in a boutique?), amount of time you have actually spent with the person, etc.
It is complex, but it is not complicated. Follow your gut and remember that erring on the formal side is not only respectful but elegant. Always best to be a little over-dressed, non?
Bonjour! - Hello/Good Morning/Good Day!
The way to say hello when you walk into the boulangerie, when you arrive at your hotel, when you enter a boutique, when you meet someone for the first time. Can also be used for close friends. This is your go-to greeting.
Salut! - Hi!
The way to say hello to someone that you have met before. Commonly combined directly with 'ça va': Salut, ça va?
Ça va? - How are you?
Literally, means, 'It goes?' (And the best part is that the answer to it is 'Ça va' figuratively meaning, 'It's going well')
Coucou! - Hey!
Only to be used with people that you know well. A very cute way to greet a close friend. If you use this in a formal setting, or with someone you do not know very well, you will seem eccentric.
Allô? Hello? (telephone only)
This is how we answer the telephone in French. (When you are the one making the phone call, you then respond with bonjour.)
Saying hello and goodbye (stay tuned for more on this one) in French is just as important as saying please and thank you. Practice saying bonjour out loud in the weeks leading up to your trip to get into the habit of saying it every time that you enter a boulangerie, café or restaurant. (Hint: the R on the end of bonjour is barely pronounced, so don't stress about it!)
Remember that speaking French perfectly is less important than doing things the French way, which includes greeting everyone before beginning a conversation, asking directions, ask for help in a boutique or ordering in a café.
Just don't say bonjour to someone twice in the same day or they will think you have amnesia.
Carrie Anne first came to Paris to study piano during college. And, it's safe to say she fell (deeply) in love. She became fluent in French, worked at a French-owned gallery in NYC, played French roles onstage and in film and taught French in L.A. before creating French is Beautiful and moving to Paris. She is a real-life example of Paris dreams come true.
While teaching French, she was inspired to create modern, engaging Paris-dreaming content for French-loving Francophiles. Determined to demystify the French language for inspired French-lovers, she created a collection of online group courses for devoted Francophiles and digital audio programs for inspiring travelers to guide anglophones to a level of fluency beyond their French dreams. Since her move to Paris in 2015, the French is Beautiful offering now includes group classes and cultural activities in France.
Her online students are a famille of elegant Francophile femmes located around the world, gathered to live out their dreams of watching French films without subtitles, ordering a café crème in a Parisian café or simply connecting more authentically with the Frenchies in their lives. French is Beautiful makes French dreams come true, directly from our beloved City of Lights.
You can find Carrie Anne having a café allongé en terrasse at Café Charlot, strolling the jardin at Musée Rodin or writing away at the Bibliothèque Mazarine.