The trick to starting a French conversation

We all know it’s important to say “bonjour” to pretty much everyone you meet in France. That’s hardly a secret. 

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. The bus driver, the hair dresser, the shopkeeper. Everyone you need to interact with, essentially.

But let me tell you, there’s no better way to get a conversation going than to ask “ça va?” directly afterwards. 

French people will disagree with me, but ignore them: this is a foreigner hack that absolutely works. But you’ve gotta say it like you mean it.

Now, instead of writing a full blog post explaining myself, here’s a direct quote from my new book, Paris On Air, where I share some tips on befriending French people.

You see, ça va, these two little words and four letters, are playing an enormous role in setting the scene and putting you in it.

All in the space of one second, you’ve made it clear that you’re a foreigner. You’ve also shown that you’re a friendly foreigner, a smiling, friendly foreigner. Yes, you’re a foreigner who is breaking the code of never asking strangers how they’re going, but you’re also making an effort to speak French. And no matter how good your French accent is, they’ll also glean that you’re still learning; because no fluent French speaker would go around saying “ça va” to strangers.

Like I said, there’s a lot going on here. But I’d wager that four times out of five, they’ll roll with you and smile too. Hey, they might even ask you where you’re from. Once I said ça va and the monsieur concluded that I was Canadian, since I was being way too friendly for a Frenchman. They’ll often laugh too; at least they do with me, because for some reason it’s such an unusual situation in France to ask someone you don’t know “How are you?” that it’s downright funny. So, if you’re feeling plucky and fancy a conversation, this is perhaps the best way to start it. It’s a guaranteed smile. 

There’s a lot more to it, of course, so click here to listen to me explaining it. Or better still, keep scrolling and buy a copy of my book 😉

I was inspired to make this podcast episode and this blog post after a lovely listener email, actually. It was a Frenchwoman who said that adopting this friendly technique had genuinely changed her life and helped her to befriend her whole Montmartre neighbourhood.

Imagine that. In fact, don’t imagine it. Listen to the story on the podcast now, this time via Spotify. I read out the email too!

Ok that’s it! Now grab a copy of my book below. Get the cheaper one on the left if you’re in the US (postage is cheaper), or the one on the right if you’re anywhere else. Or get the one in the middle and I’ll read the whole book to you.

Just remember, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and postage can be slower than normal.

That’ll do for now. Become a member here for loads more from Paris. Or start with one of the public videos below if you like doorways (I do!)

3 thoughts on “The trick to starting a French conversation

  1. Thank you for another amazing podcast episode, Oliver. I couldn’t agree more. This is exactly how I’ve learned Spanish (lived in Madrid for 8 years). I’ve also done it in Paris, and will continue doing it. I kind of like hearing people’s ‘stories’ too; you find out some fascinating things and just enjoy life more by engaging with the people around you. This is a big step as I’m a Londoner by birth and our default setting is “eyes down”, and of course the famous pin drop silence on the tube. Thanks again, and bonne journée (I use this or “à tte à l’heure” is the promise of the follow up chat next time…)

  2. Hi Oliver, Your so right about the French. If you start talking they are quite friendly.

    I tried saying; ‘Bonjour aujourd’hui’ believing I was saying; ‘Good day today’ when I went into the bakery in L’Isle – sur – la – Sorgue. It seemed to work. The workers seemed happy enough and started laughing and talking to me.

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