When learning any language, it is important to understand how to greet people and address them in the correct way, without insulting or offending them. This is especially true as you become more advanced with the language and need to have conversations or exchange written communication in a professional setting, such as a workplace. In the French language, greetings and forms of address can cause a lot of confusion, because there are so many variations, each with situations where they are appropriate and inappropriate. However, by breaking them down into manageable chunks, it is possible to learn them relatively quickly, so that you can master them.
Hello and Goodbye
In all likelihood, “Bonjour” and “Au revoir” were two of the first French phrases you ever learned and for good reason. They are acceptable in almost any situation and can be considered either formal or informal. However, there may be situations where you want to change it up a bit, or where you need to say something slightly different.
The following are all potential replacements for “Bonjour”:
- Bonsoir (Good evening/night) – This is almost a direct replacement for “Bonjour”, in that it can be both a formal and informal greeting. However, it should only be used later in the day.
- Allô ? (Hello?) – This is the equivalent greeting to “Hello?” when answering the telephone. It is almost never used in face-to-face speech. Essentially, it is to check that someone is on the other end of the line.
- Salut ! (Hi!) – A much more informal way of saying “hello”, this is probably best reserved for people you see often, like good friends, family members and work colleagues of a similar standing.
- Ça va ? (How’s it going?) – Another informal greeting, this should be restricted to close friends or people you are on an equal footing with. It asks the other person how things are with them, so is likely to generate a longer or more detailed response than a simple “hello” type greeting.
On the other hand, the following are all potential replacements for “Au revoir”:
- Bonne journée (Good day) – This may seem confusing, as “good day” is a common greeting, but “Bonne journée” should be considered the equivalent of saying “have a good day”.
- Bonne soirée (Good evening) – As you would expect, this is basically the night time equivalent of the above phrase. A variation, used to mean “good night”, would be “bonne nuit”, which can however only be used when someone is about to go to bed.
- Salut ! (Bye-bye!) – The confusion doesn’t end there. When used at the end of a conversation, “Salut!” stops meaning “Hi!” and instead becomes the equivalent of “Bye-bye”. Again, it is considered to be slightly informal and is best reserved for people you know well, or people you see often.
- À tout à l’heure ! (See you later!) – When you are saying a short goodbye to someone, but expect to see them again later the same day, this is the perfect phrase to use.
The way you greet a colleague or friend may be different from the way you greet somebody who is interviewing you for a job. If you can learn when to use these phrases appropriately, your French will instantly sound much more polished and you will be able to adapt more freely to the different situations you are in.
Beginning a Letter
Greeting a person face-to-face is one thing, but when you are writing a letter, very different greetings and forms of address are required. This is especially true in the work environment, or when writing a professional letter or email to somebody important, where a simple “Hello” will not suffice.
The two main forms of address you will need to use are “Monsieur” (Dear Sir) and “Madame” (Dear Madame), used when addressing men and women, respectively. If you know the name of the person, you should use it afterwards (e.g. Monsieur John Doe, Madame Jane Doe, and so forth.)
If you are unsure of exactly who you are writing to, the best thing to do is start the letter with the phrase “Madame, Monsieur” (Dear Madame, dear Sir). This is the standard opening and is used regardless of whether the recipient turns out to be male or female.
With that in mind, here are some common formal letter openings:
- Monsieur (Dear Sir) – General opening when writing to a male.
- Madame (Dear Madame) – General opening when writing to a female.
- Madame, Monsieur (Dear Madame, dear Sir) – General opening if the gender of the recipient is unknown.
- Monsieur le Directeur (Dear Sir) – Used when writing to a director or CEO.
That said, you may be writing to someone you are much closer to, like a friend or family member, meaning the letter or email is not at all formal. In such situations, you can use the following informal openings instead:
- Cher John (Dear John) – Slightly informal opening, when you are on first name terms with a male.
- Chère Jane (Dear Jane) – Slightly informal opening, when you are on first name terms with a female.
- Salut John ! (Hi John!) – More informal, used when talking to friends or family.
- Bonjour à tous ! (Hello to all!) – Informal, used when writing to more than one person.
- Coucou ! (Hi there!) – Extremely informal, used between friends.
- Recoucou ! (Hi again!) – Extremely informal, used after messages have already been exchanged.
When deciding which of these salutations to use, the most important thing to do is to ascertain the level of formality required. If in doubt, opt for a more formal opening and then take your cues from the way in which they respond to you. It is extremely unlikely that anyone will be offended if you are too formal to begin with.
Ending a Letter
Very few things cause quite the same level of confusion as signing off an email or letter. Many of the common French sign offs are long and even confuse native speakers. Nevertheless, it is crucial to learn how to end a letter, as using the wrong sign off can make you seem unprofessional or even offend the recipient.
Below, we provide examples of some formal letter and email endings:
- Veuillez recevoir, [Monsieur or Madame], mes salutations distinguées (Yours sincerely) – This is a general formal sign off, which will be acceptable in most situations.
- Je vous prie d’agréer, [Monsieur or Madame], l’expression de mes sentiments respectueux (Yours sincerely) – Same as the above, but it is used when writing to someone in a superior position to yourself.
- Veuillez agréer, [Monsieur or Madame], l’assurance de notre parfaite considération (Yours sincerely) – The equivalent, used when writing to someone in an inferior position to yourself.
- Je vous prie de croire, [Monsieur or Madame], à l’assurance de mes salutations distinguées (Yours sincerely) – Another variation, used when writing to a very important person.
- Cordialement (Regards) – Representing something of a bridge between the formal and informal, this is an especially popular phrase for ending an email, especially in a work environment.
- Merci d’avance (Thanks in advance) – This is a good sign off to use if your letter is reasonably informal and you are asking for assistance or help with something. In extremely formal letters, it may be best to avoid this, as it is a little bit presumptuous and assumes that the help you have requested will be given.
Of course, a formal sign off is not always required and if you are writing to somebody you know well, in a non-professional context, you may instead decide to use one of the following informal endings:
- Amicalement (Best wishes) – Usually used between friends.
- Affectueusement (Love from) – Used when writing to family or close friends.
- Gros bisous (Love and kisses) – Very informal, used with people you are very close to.
- Bisous (Kisses) – Extremely informal, usually used in emails or text messages to very close friends. It has a humorous quality to it, somewhat similar to “xoxo” in English.