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Get ready for beginners’ French
Get ready for beginners’ French

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1 Greeting people

In Week 6 you read about the wealth of cultural content that you’ll discover as a learner of French, and you came to understand that learning French is about much more than learning language skills. What you will acquire, however, is not just cultural knowledge – it is also about behaviours and attitudes.

When you learn French, you will learn about expected behaviours and common attitudes in some countries where French is spoken. You will become aware of differences in social behaviours, and will thus develop ‘intercultural competence’. This means you’ll understand the importance of communicating with others in a way that is appropriate, beyond speaking their language.

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Figure 2 Social greeting

The way people greet each other is a good example of a behaviour that can be different in different cultures.

Activity 1 Your greeting etiquette

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

Imagine that you are hosting a guest from a francophone country. It is their first time visiting your country. They would like to find out how they are expected to greet people when they first meet them. What advice will you give them? Make some notes in the box below.

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If you are based in the UK, you would probably explain to your guest that the most common greeting upon meeting somebody is a handshake, and that they should introduce themselves using their first name, as greetings tend to be fairly informal. You might add that very close friends might exchange a kiss instead of shaking hands. You could also mention that in more formal settings, they could hear ‘How do you do?’ (or a similar phrase) as a greeting, and that they should not answer the question but simply also respond ‘How do you do?’.

If you come from a different part of the world, the expected behaviour when meeting people for the first time could be very different.

In France, there can be a fairly high degree of formality on display when people greet each other: people shake hands when they greet others, and when they leave them. This social rule is followed by men and women, young and old. This applies to business settings in particular, where you would be expected to shake hands with everybody present upon arriving and leaving.

Among good friends and relatives, instead of shaking hands, people often kiss each other on both cheeks. Two men from the same family will kiss too. Two male friends might shake hands instead. Kissing is not a universal habit in all French-speaking countries, so it’s always best to ask for advice. Similarly, French Muslims may not exchange kisses as often as other French people do.

Formality and courtesy will be shown in the way people address each other in France. It is expected that ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’ will be used. To say ‘hello’, you would therefore either say ‘Bonjour Monsieur’ or ‘Bonjour Madame’ unless you were close friends; to say ‘thank you’, you would use ‘Merci Monsieur’ or ‘Merci Madame’, etc. If you visit France, you will notice this if you listen to exchanges in public places, like shops. In a work setting, many colleagues will use ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’ and last names. If you ever interact with business partners or customers in France, it is a good idea to keep your language and greetings formal until you are invited to use first names.

Such degrees of formality and courtesy are reflected in the French language too. There are two different words for ‘you’ in French, tu (which is informal) and vous (which is formal). As vous is more formal than tu, it’s used when the speaker wishes to address the listener respectfully; this may be due to differences in age or perceived status, or in more formal situations when meeting someone for the first time. Tu is normally used among friends and relatives, and when talking to children. Teenagers and young adults, between themselves, will tend to use the tu form from the outset.

In the next sections, you will look more closely at the language used in business settings, and communicating across cultures.