The Tristesse of No Bonjour

July 27, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Several years ago, I went to Paris with my family. When we got out of the airport, I couldn’t find the RER, the express train from DeGaulle to Paris. I went up to a man standing on the sidewalk and asked, in French of course.

 “Bonjour,” he said.

I repeated my question. “Bonjour,” he said again, this time as if cuing a dim-witted child. I got it. “Bonjour,” I said and again asked about the RER. This time he answered.

I had chalked it up to this guy just being a stickler for formalities. But now that I’ve started reading The Bonjour Effect by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau, I realize how wrong I was. Bonjour is not just a greeting. It’s like eye contact – a necessary start to any interaction. It acknowledges that you are in the same situation with the other person. Without bonjour, communication cannot begin.

As I read this first chapter about bonjour, I recalled a much earlier visit to Paris. I needed some Velcro to make a small repair on something. A piece of clothing? A bag? I don’t recall. A friend told me that I could find Velcro in the mercerie section of a department store.  I went to La Samaritaine and found the mercerie. Two sales girls were standing talking to each other. I stood there, waiting to be waited on. Any clerk in an American store would have turned to me and asked if she could help. But the two girls continued their conversation, facing one another and ignoring me as if I weren’t there. I can’t remember how I managed to interrupt and finally get the Velcro.*

The rudeness of the French, I thought, or at least young French women. But now, decades later, I wonder what would have happened if I had said, “Bonjour.”

Of course, it’s not just a matter of words. The bonjour requirement is the visible tip of an underlying difference in the way we think about service workers and customers and the relation between them. The definition of those roles in France is not the same as it is in America. Barlow and Nadeau explain:
When you enter a French store ore a restaurant or even walk up to an information kiosk, the first thing you have to do in France is acknowledge that you are entering their turf. That’s because you are asking for something from an employee who may have something more important to do. Whether or not that employee actually does have something better to do is not the point. You are interrupting him to ask for something. He does not owe you anything in exchange for you giving him your bounces. The French just don’t think that way. When you address a merchant or a clerk or a hostess or even a waiter, bonjour is not a word. It’s not a greeting or even a form of courtesy. Bonjour is code for “please allow me to indulge in your services.”

* The French word for Velcro, I discovered, is Velcro. It was invented by a francophone Swiss. According to Wikipedia, the word is a portmanteau of velour and crochet (hook).


Anonymous said...

HI, nice and clever post. Being French, I have some insight of what you mean. I do agree totally with the "eye contact" thing : Bonjour is a kind of aknowledgement of the other being there. It's also, as you say, asking for attention. But I can't totally agree with : "Bonjour is code for “please allow me to indulge in your services." Not that I'm sure of french staff devotion to clients - but because in those big stores, as a staff you don't go to clients to ask them what they want, it could be felt as heavy - after all, you're here to take your time, absorb an atmosphere. As a client, I hate it when staff ask me what I'm looking for, etc., as long as I haven't made a move or required attention : this is not far away for aggressiveness (though commercial aggressiveness). So, the indifference you report might only be some kind of gentleness.
How far goes misunderstanding between different cultures...

Anonymous said...

There is an additional nuance should you have repeated interaction with a colleague, friend or even a stranger. On a second encounter, "bonjour" is a sign of extreme rudeness as it suggests that you didn't remember me or care enough to notice that you had said "bonjour" earlier that day.

And to add complexity, collective "bonjours á l'americaine" (A single wave and 'bonjour" to the group as a whole) are taboo. I have spent lengthy periods waiting for my daughter to join (or leave) a group of her friends as she goes from person to person individually offering 1, 2 or 3 kisses with apparently rare (if ever) confusion about the number of air kisses in the particular relationship.

Anonymous said...

I react to the comment below - let's say I'm Anonymous1 and he or she is Anonymous2.

I agree on the second bonjour on the same day : weird.

There is no taboo to "bonjour or au-revoir à l'américaine" when there are too many people and you know them well and/or you've seen them not long ago. And you're an adult, as teenagers have their own ways, as any teenagers.

On a second thought : a client, instead of saying "bonjour" to the staff who ignores him or her, can use a more directive "s'il-vous-plaît"to attract his/her attention. The client would happily start the next sentence by : "bonjour" to smoothen his tone ^^


Anonymous said...

Yes, but many offices (not only the Post Office) operate à la française." When the boss arrives, he/she will stop to address each employee with a handshake or the requisite number of kisses for the setting (which may be, in fact, a different number of kisses (or hugs) in a social setting. ("au-revoir" is frequently more discreet, particularly if one is leaving early. All of this within the ever changing norms around the appropriate choice of tutoying or vousvoying each individual.Ah, the luxury of the American "you" or the plural forms that include "you guys" for almost any gender mix.