It’s All about the Bonjour
Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

It’s All about the Bonjour

Time to talk etiquette. We’ll be expanding on this topic but let’s talk bonjour. The first time I went to France I was only passing through Paris on my way to the french alps. And yet I managed to get into a fight -with a vendor at the train station! Not only was I outdone about it, I couldn’t believe it. It took me ages to figure out what went wrong.

All I wanted was a simple carton of milk and a pre-packaged baked good I can’t remember. That vendor told me off in French, eyes bulging, face reddening. I was 26 and full of piss and vinegar so I gave it back to him. I was hardly a good ambassador for America. It left me feeling like a bug on the bottom of Paris’ shoe.

So what was the horrible thing that I had done? I didn’t say bonjour. Overwhelmed in a new place, unfamiliar with its customs, I waited my turn and politely asked for the milk. The vendor exploded. In France, you simply must say bonjour before you speak. To anyone. Not only that, unless you want to be accused of being raised in a barn, you must wait for them to return the bonjour before continuing on with what you’re wanting to do. Slow your roll. This goes for anyone you may encounter. The clerk in the boulangerie, the woman in boutique, the bus driver. You must do it when you are entering someone’s space. And give a merci on your way out. It’s part of the balm that makes life in France more gracious. And who doesn’t want that?

Am I mad at Paris? Certainly not. I adore Paris. But I’m a guest there. It’s up to me to learn their manners. I continued on to the alps where the residents greeted me warmly and gave me rides and a place to stay. They served milk to me with a smile despite my lack of couth. It was a little more relaxed. That milk in the alps was by far the sweetest I have ever tasted.

Written by Shelley Schenk Contact her at If you’ve enjoyed this essay please subscribe to our newsletter on the bottom of the page (mobile) or on the right sidebar (desktop). We maintain strict privacy and do not share information with anyone.

Photo credits: David Garrison, Michael Parzuchow and Anita Austvika. Unsplash.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Hello!

    Thank you for saving me from this error! Do you have any other advice regarding how to overcome the myth of the “ugly American?”

    1. Hi Mary Beth,
      I’m so glad we could be of help! I’ll be writing more extensively about etiquette this week. Like our page on Facebook or Twitter! I’ll be opening the pages up for comments without having them need moderator approval. You must be going to France?

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