How to follow greetings etiquette while in France
The romantic ideas and ideals visitors have about France can be spoiled by overstepping politeness unintentionally. This guide is written so that visitors understand the complexities of greetings, and how they are performed within French society. The French are a very social race, and enjoy getting together though a faux pas in manners will stick out like a sore thumb. If you understand the etiquette of greetings before you visit, your enjoyment will be enhanced and you will be more comfortable mingling with the locals. These rules apply to all ages, and the respect shown for one another is remarkable in comparison with some countries, and sends a great example of how to greet people with politeness in mind.
The difference between close friends and new ones.
There is a noted difference between the way you greet close friends and the manner in which you greet new ones. Those you know will be greeted with a handshake, but also with a kiss on each cheek. It depends upon how well you know them but regional variations apply. For extra good friends, the number of kisses is four. When you meet people for the first tme, or do not know them that well, the custom is to accompany the greeting with a handshake only, rather than embarrass them with kisses.
Business people greet each other with a handshake. If you are going to meet anyone in authority or who is a business person, the customary greeting is a simple handshake.
Common greeting phrases.
It is common to use Bonjour as a general greeting during the day. For the French, the day goes on until nightfall. Many work late hours simply because of the tradition to take a two hour lunch break. For evening meetings, the greeting among friends would be Salut! For those who are not close friends, a simple Bonsoir will suffice.
Greeting the waiter.
Contrary to popular belief, it is impolite to call a waiter «Garcon». This is indeed insulting and refers to them as «Boy!» Not the best start to a restaurant experience. The polite way to greet a waiter is with Bonjour, Monsieur or Madame or Mademoiselle. The difference between Madame and Manemoiselle is that the latter would be younger.
The most likely response you will get from a French person is Bonjour, etc., followed by «ca va?» This is the equivalent of asking how you are. You reply with a smile and a reassuring «ca va» without the question mark at the end, which means everything is fine.
If you greet children in an unfamiliar manner, you give the impression of being cold. There are two main ways to address people in France, one being «tu» and one being «vous». While you would use «vous» when conversing with adults you don’t know very well, and «tu» with the familiar, the language usually reverts to the familiar «tu» when conversing with a young child. Teens will expect the normal rules of politeness and being addressed by the word «vous» until you know them better.
Interrupting someone to ask something.
As is normal in most societies, it is usual to wait for a pause in the conversation and then to prefix what you want to ask with «excuse-moi» which means excuse me. As this is so similar to the English language, it’s easy to learn and will earn you brownie points in the politeness stakes.
Explaining that your French is limited.
It is fair inexcusable that you will not know the basics of Hello and goodbye. If you do not, then try to learn them. These are basic niceties. However, if the conversation continues and you are unable to understand, you can excuse yourself as in the last step, and explain in slow French «Je ne comprends pas», meaning I do not understand. Chances are, they can explain in a simpler manner what they want to say, but by doing this, you are explaining your lack of answers.
Acceptance as a friend.
When someone accepts you as a friend, the greetings may get warmer. The best way to know what is appropriate behavior is to follow their lead. If they kiss you, kiss back. If they shake your hand, be ready to shake theirs. It is by being with French people that you begin to learn the significance of their body language and how it works for you.