The Magic Word In French


I’ve spent a delightful week with Vanessa, aka ‘la voix d’or’ (‘the golden voice’ on the French audio) and her sister Oriane who is visiting from Paris.

I know the French, particularly the Parisians have a reputation for being rude, and I’ve coincidentally had a couple of letters asking me the best way for tourists to deal with the prickly French, so I availed myself of the opportunity to discuss this very important matter with the two of them (Vanessa lived in Paris for years as well).

‘There is one thing you always have to say before you say anything else’ said Oriane. The ‘Magic Word’. ‘S’il vous plaît?’ I suggested. ‘Non’. Well then, ‘excusez-moi?’. ‘Non, non, non it is……’.

Oriane’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, and I leaned in closer so that no detail would go amiss. ‘ It is bonjour, you must say bonjour first !’

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Always  Start With ‘Bonjour

Not ‘désolée de vous déranger?’ (‘sorry to trouble you’) I asked. ‘Non, non, non! ALWAYS  start with ‘Bonjour‘ – before you say another word, say ‘bonjour‘ and preferably, ‘bonjour monsieur‘, ‘bonjour madame‘, or ‘bonjour mademoiselle‘ (which takes a little sizing up except in the case of ‘monsieur‘ – ‘madame‘ means ‘Mrs’ and implies a married or older woman, mademoiselle is the equivalent of ‘miss’ – you could cause offense if you get it obviously wrong).

‘And you always do this EVERYWHERE!’ Oriane went on. ‘You say ‘bonjour madame‘ before you ask a woman in the street for directions, ‘bonjour monsieur‘ to the waiter, before you order anything.

If you don’t, you will be perceived as a philistine.

Bonjour Monsieur


Bonjour Madame


Bonjour Mademoiselle


‘And before I forget…’ – Oriane was now on a roll –  ‘tell your readers, especially the Americans never, ever to call a waiter ‘garçon‘.

This is a big one! Do not, regardless of what you have seen in the movies, or what some tragically misinformed person has told you ever, EVER call a French waiter ‘garçon‘.

This is an egregious sin, which you will gain more perspective on when I tell you that ‘garçon’ is the French word for ‘boy’.

Always Start With Bonjour

The correct way to address a French waiter is ‘Bonjour Monsieur (most are)/Madame/Mademoiselle‘ and if you do that much, regardless of how atrocious your French is, you will be a vast improvement on the average tourist.

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Waiter:          Bonjour Madame

Customer:    Bonjour

Waiter:          Que’est-ce-que vous souhaitez commander Madame?

Customer:    Je voudrais un café s’il vous plaît

Waiter:          Bien sure madame

Customer:    Excusez-moi

Waiter:          Oui

Customer:    Je voudrais aussi un café et un croque-monsieur

Waiter:          Oui, c’est tout madame?

Customer:    Seulement l’addition s’il vous plaît

Waiter:          Voila

Customer:    Merci

Waiter:          Je vous en prie, bonne journée

Customer:    Vous de même

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A Lot Of European Politeness And Greeting Styles Can Sound A Little Syrupy And Excessive

There are two forms of the word ‘you’, one and you dare not use the familiar ‘you’, ‘tu’ in French with a stranger – it’s very, very rude, and you may as well hold up a sign saying ‘I just fell off the turnip truck, and I have no idea how to behave in polite society’.

This is very hard for English speakers to grasp, because this distinction doesn’t exist, and even once we wrap our heads around it, we think it sounds just a tad old-fashioned and precious.

Let me assure you, this is not the case in Europe. If you are just starting out learning French, and traveling there, let me suggest that you ONLY bother to learn the ‘vous’ form, and cast ‘tu’ aside until you have more experience.

Here are some helpful audio words and phrases to use in a pinch:

Remember, always start with ‘bonjour’ during the day which means ‘good day’, and in the evening you use ‘bonsoir’ which means ‘good evening’.

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