This is a very tricky path. One I dare not think of treading as a tourist. You think it is just “Bonjour” and “Au Revoir” all the day long. Are you having a giraffe?! You are dreaming sonny jim, dreaming of simple days, simple languages – of which French is not one. As Maria Von Trapp sang, let’s start at the very beginning:
– You enter a shop, you are buying something at a cash register, this is the one and only time you say “bonjour” (Good day/Hello) not to be classist about it, but bonjour is for the staff of places generally. But wait!
– Your response after you have been served is “bonne journée” (have a good day) But between the hours of perhaps 2pm-4pm, the goodbye greeting changes to “bon après midi” (Good Afternoon) wtf. What happened to “hello” and “goodbye.” Simple times, gone forever.
– Around and after 4pm, “bonjour” changes to “bonsoir” I was at first flummoxed at this change in greeting; when did it occur? Does a secret “bonsoir” memo go out at some point in the afternoon? Nobody told me… but of my own accord I have deduced and therefore christened 4pm (seize heures) as BONSOIR time. But wait! Bonsoir is also said at the end, if the cashier says “bonsoir” your reply is “bonsoir a vous aussi, au revoir.” Are you keeping up? Pay attention at the back.
– This is for people you know, friends of friends, family etc. It is usually accompanied by a “bise” (kiss) one on each cheek, though this varies from region to region. This is a strange quirk of the French for me of which I will soon dedicate an entire post to. It is usually “Salut ____, ca va?” And, would you believe the question is also the answer, so you could be saying “ca va” “ca va” “CA VA” “CA VA” for five hundred years if you’re not careful. “Salut” is also goodbye, but not really (very informative and not at all ambiguous that last sentence). Don’t say “au revoir” to friends, it is a bit like saying “farewell thee fair comrade, tally ho!” in English.
“A plus tard”
– This means “see you later” as far as I know, though I have to say it’s taking me a while to get used to this one. I’m trying to be all hip and French and cool with proper casual French sayings but I feel like a big Irish dork when I say it. The French student in me wants to say “A bientot!” but…
– This literally means “see you soon” but in the sense of in a few days. I recently was on the phone to a friend I was meeting at the cinema in ten minutes, so I said “a bientot” and she started laughing. I brushed it off as my terrible accent which does tend to generate a few giggles here and there. I mentioned it in passing a while later to the French boy and he then explained that “a bientôt” is for when you see someone in a few days. So I guess my saying it to someone whom I was seeing in ten minutes was a little bit funny.
“A tout a l’heure” and “A toute suite”
– Now this is what I should have said on the phone. This is for someone you will see very soon. I find French informal greetings quite difficult to be honest, it’s taking quite a while to get used to it as it is such a familiar thing. To relearn how to do it in another language accompanied with kissing is so damn alien that it leaves me feeling very awkward. Like a gangly baby swan. With a missing leg.
Here’s a cute little video explaining “la bise”