Here are some useful French greetings and expressions that you can say to greet people in France
Bonjour : hello, good day, hi
Most of you know the formal expression « bonjour », and you should since it’s the most common way to greet someone in French. We use it to greet people in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening. « Bonjour » is always polite, and works in any situation.
Beware of « salut » : it is very informal and means hey, not hi
« Salut » (t silent) is quite used in France, although it is extremely informal. It is not the equivalent of « hi ». When I lived in the United States, I would stop someone in the street and say: « Hi. Could you please tell me where… ». I would never use « salut » like this in French. « Salut » is not to be used with people you don’t know, unless you are a teenager. It’s yet another of these French stereotypes that don’t go away. It’s much more like « hey » in English. So unless you are sure it’s appropriate to use it, stick with « bonjour ».
Note that « salut » can also be used to say « goodbye », in an informal way among close friends.
What about « bonsoir »?
« Bonsoir » is also used to say hello in French in the evening. So now the big question: when does the evening start? Well, when it’s night out! This varies tremendously depending on the season in France. But, let’s say around 6 PM. « Bonsoir » can be used as a greeting in France, but also when you leave.
Say « bonjour madame », « bonjour monsieur », « bonjour mademoiselle »
If you are talking to one person, it is much more polite in French to say « Bonjour madame, bonjour monsieur, bonjour mademoiselle » and not just « bonjour » (or « bonsoir »).
« Bonjour » just by itself is fine to use when you are greeting several people, like when you enter in « une boulangerie » (a bakery) with a line of customers.
Say « bonjour Clara », « bonjour madame Dupont »
If you know the person you are talking to, it is also much more polite to add her/his name.
« Son prénom » (first name) if you are on a first name basis, or monsieur / madame / mademoiselle and « son nom de famille » (last name) if you are not that close.
Always say « bonjour » / « bonsoir »
In France, you need to say « bonjour » out loud when entering a place. It can be a soft, not very loud « bonjour », but whether you are talking to one salesperson for example, or entering a crowded bakery, you need to say « bonjour » to everyone. Now, this has its limits: I wouldn’t say « bonjour » to everybody when I enter a crowded café. I will say it to the waiter / bar tender, but not to all the customers. However, if there are only a few people sitting at a table, or drinking « un expresso » at the bar, I would say « bonjour ».
So you need to develop a sense for it. In doubt, do say « bonjour » – better be over-polite than rude!
Never say « bon matin » or « bon après-midi »
« Bon matin » doesn’t exist in French. « Bon (or bonne) après-midi » is only use when you leave, as goodbye, to say « have a good afternoon ».
Gestures associated with « bonjour »: handshake or kiss(es)
As in many cultures, you can wave « bonjour » from a distance.
If you say « bonjour » to a group of strangers – like in entering a shop – there will be no particular gesture associated with the word « bonjour ». You may nod your head a bit, and of course smile.
If you know the person you are greeting, you will either shake-hands (a frank, strong hand-shake is preferable) or kiss him/her on the cheek. This light kisses (often one on each cheek, rarely just one, sometimes three or four total) are extremely common in France among friends and acquaintances.
Note however that the French do NOT hug. Not at all. If cheek kissing is very natural, hugging is a very weird gesture for us.
It’s time for me to say « au revoir »(goodbye) » or rather « à bientôt » (see you soon in French).