Imagine that you enter a small shop you’ve never been to before. The cashier hears you come in, but is visibly busy attending to one thing or another. Do you:
A) Wait a bit for the cashier to finish, make eye contact with you and exchange greetings
B) Wait a short time and then politely say “Hello” to get the cashier’s attention
C) Immediately and loudly say “Hello!” as soon as you walk through the door
As an American, my intuitive response is A), unless I’m convinced the cashier is simply ignoring me, in which case I might opt for B). I think it is generally considered good manners in America to wait a bit and let the worker finish their task before interrupting them. However, I have found that waiting to make eye contact with the cashier before saying hello is simply not the norm in French culture; in fact, it can be considered quite rude.
The French almost always choose option C). According to the mysterious unwritten but universally accepted 876,324 rules of French propriety (rule #127,533 I think), it is customary to say “Bonjour” as soon as you enter a shop. Sometimes, “bonjour” doesn’t even cut it — rule #127,533 subsection 5b strongly advises that you add “madame” or “monsieur” to the end of your greeting, just in case there was any ambiguity about the sex of your interlocutor (although I have, on occasion, witnessed some embarrassing mix-ups).
When I first arrived in France, the following would happen on some occasions: I enter a shop. The cashier knows I’m there, but is hunched over the register, working diligently on something (rolling either a croissant or a cigarette, I’m not sure). I wait for the cashier to look up at me and say hello. I wait a little longer. Finally, the cashier lifts her head and, with a suspciously passive-agressive tone of exasperation, says, “Bonjour, monsieur.”
It’s easy to see how this kind of behaviour might seem rude to an American. But now I understand the cashier’s point of view. “Okay, this guy just walked into my store. Why hasn’t he said hello yet? What’s he waiting for? God, how rude. “Hello, sir.”"
Granted, this particular situation doesn’t happen that often. Usually if the shopkeeper isn’t busy, she will say “bonjour, monsieur” as soon as you walk through the door.
Bonjour is important. And it’s not just for shopkeepers. One time while waiting in line at the small post office in my neighbourhood, a man walked in and collectively greeted the eight or so strangers in line with “Mesdames, messieurs, bonjour.” This would be like a man in America walking into a post office and saying “Ladies and gentlemen, good day.” Usually this kind of person is unshaven, smells like urine, and hears voices.
But “ladies and gentlemen, good day,” is a standard salutation in France.
Artist's rendering of an average Frenchman
The situation becomes more complex when you replace the shop or the post office with your place of work. I don’t know most of the teachers who work at my schools, mostly just the English teachers. But whenever a teacher walks into the teachers’ lounge, they are compelled by the laws of Frenchdom to say hello to everyone. My natural behaviour, of course, is to walk into the room, head towards my seat, and say hello to anyone I make eye contact with along the way, or to anyone I know personally. I feel awkward saying hello to everyone as soon as I walk through the door, but usually not doing so earns me a multitude of curious stares.
Then there’s the bise. Oh God, the bise. That’s the kisses you give people on the cheek to greet them. There are so many variables to take account of before you go in for the kiss. How do I know when to kiss someone? How many kisses do I give? Do I start with the right cheek or the left cheek? Do I have to kiss men too? There is no easy answer to any of these questions, as the answers all vary by region. These are covered by French code rules #701,668 to #702,109 and the corresponding geographic amendments.
In my region of France, you kiss friends (male and female) and newfound acquaintances (usually introduced to you by a friend) if they are a woman or a child (I’m not sure what the exact age cut-off is; I’ll check the manual again). Unless you’re a woman, in which case you pretty much have to kiss everyone.
The standard number of kisses in this area is 2. I think you’re supposed to start with the right cheek but so many people have gone for my left cheek first, resulting in some narrow escapes from catastrophic labial contact.
I have, on occasion, extended my hand to girls that were introduced to me by a mutual acquaintance. They were quite perplexed and a bit putt off by the idea that I was shaking their hand, almost as if I was treating them like they were men. I’ll try not to make that mistake again.
But wait. Wait! What if it’s past 5 PM? Ohhh, sheeeeeeiiiit. You just opened up a whole nother can of worms.
If you don’t speak French, I assure you that that was hilarious.