Saying Hello in French: When to Use 'Bonjour,' Bonsoir,' or 'Salut'

Cultural Tips to Help Greet Someone Properly

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Greetings are an essential part of French social etiquette. The most important and common greeting is bonjour, which means "hello," "good day," or even "hi." There are also other ways to say hello or greet someone in French, but it's important to understand what greetings are acceptable in various social contexts. You'll also need to familiarize yourself with greetings that are considered informal versus those that you would use in more formal settings.

"Bonjour"—The Most Common Greeting

Saying bonjour is the most common way to greet someone in French. It's a flexible, all-purpose term: You use it to greet people in the morning, afternoon, or evening. Bonjour is always polite, and it works in any situation.

In France, you need to say bonjour when entering a place. Whether you are talking to a single salesperson or entering a crowded bakery, greet them by saying bonjour. For example, if there are a few people sitting at a table you are approaching or several acquaintances are drinking un expresso at the bar as you walk up to them, greet them with a friendly bonjour. 

If you are talking to one person, it is polite in French to use courtesy titles when you say hello, as in: 

  • Bonjour madame (Mrs.)
  • Bonjour monsieur (Mr.)
  • Bonjour mademoiselle (Miss)

It's acceptable to say bonjour by itself—without using courtesy titles—if you are greeting several people, such as when you enter une boulangerie (a bakery) packed with a line of customers.

"Bonsoir"—The Evening "Hello"

Use bonsoir to say hello in the evening. Since the hour that nighttime arrives in France can vary greatly depending on the season, generally start saying bonsoir around 6 p.m. You can also use bonsoir when you leave—so long as it's still evening.

Beware of "Salut"

Salut (pronounced with a silent t) is commonly used in France, although it is extremely informal: It's the equivalent of saying "hey" in English.

 Avoid using salut with people you don't know unless you are a teenager. If you are in doubt, stick with bonjour, which—as noted—is always an acceptable form of greeting. You can also use salut to say goodbye in an informal setting among close friends, but there are better ways to say goodbye in French.

Gestures Associated With "Bonjour"

If you say bonjour to a group of strangers—such as when you are  entering a shop—you need not add any gestures, though you may nod your head a bit, and of course smile.

If you know the person you are greeting with bonjour, you would either shake his hand—a frank, strong handshake is preferable—or kiss him on the cheek. Light kisses (rarely just one kiss on each cheek but usually three or four total) are extremely common in France among friends and acquaintances. Be aware however, that the French do not hug upon greeting each other and saying bonjour