Saying goodbye in French may seem easy enough once you master the basic phrases. However, you might be surprised to know that there are a variety of customs that go with saying goodbye that are just as important, if not even more important, than the actual words you choose to use. Learning these cultural intricacies will help you become a gracious, knowledgeable tourist.
French Phrases for Goodbye
There are a variety of phrases for goodbye in the French language. What you use depends on your relationship with the individual to whom you're saying goodbye, as well as when you might see her again.
Au revoir (pronounced o reh vwah) is the most direct way to say goodbye. It is probably one of the first basic French words you will learn or have learned in French class. Au revoir is for both formal and informal situations, but is more common in formal ones. If you are ever unsure what to say, au revoir is always a safe bet.
Ciao (pronounced chow) is actually an Italian word. However, it is used informally in France and Québec to say goodbye.
À bientôt (pronounced ah bee en toe) means "see you soon." Bientôt on its own translates simply as "soon." Generally, you would use this phrase in a more informal situation, or in a formal situation in which you are sure you will see the person again soon. (For example, a child speaking to his teacher or vice versa may use à bientôt.)
À demain (pronounced ah duh mehn) means "see you tomorrow." This phrase also fits in both informal and formal situations, depending on when you will see the person again.
À ce soir
À ce soir (pronounced ah suh swah) means "see you tonight." Like à bientôt, and à demain its usage depends on when you expect to meet again.
Salut (pronounced sah loo) simply means "bye." This is an informal way of saying goodbye and you'd only use it in informal situations with peers. You may also note that salut is an informal way of saying "hello" in French as well.
Bonne journée (pronounced bun zhour nay) is generally for formal situations, such as a shopkeeper speaking to a customer. It is the equivalent of saying, "Have a good day."
Bonsoir (pronounced bohn swah) simply means "good evening" and can either be a greeting or a way of saying goodbye. Although it can be used in either a formal or informal situation, you are more likely to hear it in formal circumstances.
Bonne soirée (pronounced bun swah ray) also literally translates to "good evening," but is only used when leaving someone because you are actively wishing them enjoyment for the rest of the evening. The phrase means "have a good evening" instead of just the "good evening" suggested by a literal translation.
Bonne nuit (pronounced bun nu wee) means "good night" and functions as goodbye at the end of an evening. The main difference between bonsoir and bonne nuit is the time of day. Bonne nuit is a phrase for when you know the person is going home or going to bed, or could also fit in a situation when you want to make clear that the person to whom you are talking should be going home.
Adieu (pronounced ah dyuh) literally translates to "See you with God" (as in "See you in heaven") and fits true goodbyes in the sense of you are either unsure whether or not you will see the person again, or, if you do see him again, it will be a very long time.
Culture of Saying Goodbye in French
Your body language when you're saying goodbye, is almost as important as the words you use. In fact, you'd be more likely to offend native speakers by not using appropriate gestures of politeness than by using the wrong phrase or pronouncing it incorrectly.
You should also know that customs vary by region in France, not to mention in different French-speaking regions. Whereas in Paris relationships tend to be more formal and direct, the South of France tends to be more casual and laid back.
Regardless of where you are visiting, an attention to detail and an effort to speak the language will go a long way. Observe the locals during your first few days; this method is foolproof.
Be mindful of the following:
- Always use the appropriate title of madame, mademoiselle or monsieur when saying goodbye in a situation where you've just met someone or don't know him well. The same would be true upon leaving a store, restaurant, or in any other type of customer service situation.
- Make eye contact with the person you are saying goodbye to; depending on the situation, smile too in order to ensure that the person interprets your words as genuine.
- It is not uncommon to leave friends or casual contacts with a hug and a kiss on the cheek if you are saying goodbye to someone of the opposite gender. Girls also may say goodbye this way although men who are business associates generally tend to shake hands. However, you shouldn't be shocked to see men kissing on the cheek or hugging in some parts of France.
Leaving and Taking Leave
Whether you are at a host's house for dinner, or leaving a small shop, saying goodbye is much more important in most of France than in most of the U.S. While you don't have to agonize about which phrase is the absolute best one for any given situation, do be sure to always say goodbye clearly and loudly. If appropriate, thank the person as well (leaving a shop or restaurant: Merci, monsieur, au revoir; leaving a host's home: Merci de m'avoir invité ce soir, bonne nuit.) Even if you get the phrase a little mixed up, the natives will greatly appreciate your linguistic effort, as well as your sensitivity to the local cultural traditions.