Helpful French Phrases for Travelers

Snobby. Rude. Elitist. These are some of the nicer adjectives folks who haven’t even visited France will casually bandy about to describe an entire nation and its inhabitants. Maybe even a person or two who has set foot on French soil will substantiate the pejorative name-calling with an anecdote, likely based on a hurried weekend trip to Paris armed with little more than a loud American accent. Give the country’s 64 million people half a chance, however, and they’ll show you that the negative stereotypes are unfounded.

What many mistake for snootiness is actually an ingrained social formality that, from an outsider’s perspective, can feel very old-fashioned. People still greet their neighbors with a cordial “Bonjour, madame,” never forget to say “Au revoir, monsieur” at the pharmacy, wine shop, and post office, and always hold the door for the person behind them, regardless of gender.

A certain attention to dress—nice shoes, for instance—is almost universal in French cities, and only recently has the casual sartorial approach (sweatpants, white gym shoes) inched its way into the fashion sphere. If you want to make a good first impression and feel like a local tout de suite (immediately), commit these phrases to memory and employ them liberally.

bonjour

What to Say: Bonjour, madame / monsieur.
What It Means: Hello, madam / sir.
When to Say It: When entering any shop, restaurant, or business during the day.

What to Say: Bonne journée, madame / monsieur.
What It Means: Have a nice day, madam / sir.
When to Say It: When leaving any shop, restaurant, or business.

What to Say: Bonsoir, Madame / Monsieur.
What It Means: Good evening, madam / sir.
When to Say It: When greeting shopkeepers and others after dark.

What to Say: Bon soirée, madame / monsieur.
What It Means: Have a nice evening, madam / sir.
When to Say It: When saying goodbye to shopkeepers and others after dark.

What to Say: Au revoir, madame / monsieur.
What It Means: Goodbye, madam / sir.
When to Say It: When leaving any shop, restaurant, or business (often combined with bonne journée or bonne soirée).

What to Say: S’il vous plait
What It Means: Please.
When to Say It: Before approaching strangers for help, before placing your order at a restaurant, and when trying to get someone’s attention.

What to Say: Merci bien, madame / monsieur.
What It Means: Thank you very much, madame / sir.
When to Say It: At the close of any transaction.

What to Say: Excusez-moi, s’il vous plait.
What It Means: Pardon me, please.
When to Say It: When asking strangers for directions or other information.

What to Say: Je suis désolé(e) de vous déranger, mais . . .
What It Means: I’m so sorry to bother you, but . . .
When to Say It: When you want to lay it on thick in the gratitude department.

What to Say: Merci, c’est très gentil.
What It Means: Thank you, that’s nice of you.
When to Say It: When you’re especially grateful for something.

What to Say: Je suis très désolé(e), mais je n’ai pas compris.
What It Means: I’m so sorry, but I didn’t understand that.
When to Say It: When you want to elicit sympathy and possibly an English-language response.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Living Abroad Paris.

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