Bonjour. Yes, that simple word is the subject of this post. You may think the translation of bonjour is hello. How wrong you are. You see, bonjour is so much more than that. Bonjour is not just a simple greeting.
Bonjour is your ticket into any shop (it is compulsory at the threshold), it is the the way to properly enter a waiting room full of people at the doctor's office (if you fail to say bonjour there is a very palpable feeling of tension), it is the only way to ask for directions, and it is the absolute first thing to say to neighbors when you see them (you cannot skip the bonjour and go directly to ça va, for instance): it is loaded with value, this word.
When one forgets this omphalic word, two things generally occur:
1. The person at hand takes the time to teach you that you must always say bonjour before any other utterance.
2. The person continues to say bonjour (up to five repetitions may be necessary) until you repeat it back (at which point a great deal of straining and confusion for both people ends: confusion that you don't know very basic rules of behavior (her), confusion that a person would go on repeating themselves in such a silly way (you), straining to get you to say the word (her), straining to understand what the problem seems to be (you)).
Everyone knows this. I mean, it is very simple. Very. That is why it is so perplexing that after three years I still manage to forget it. When I walk into a shop and ask very nicely for, say, a croissant and am met by a stern bonjour rather than bien sûr, how can I still be confused?
What I mean is that it is requisite. More than requisite, it is the first basic rule of France. When children are taught how to be polite, they are always instructed to say bonjour in a very deliberate way. It is as important as merci or s'il vous plaît. Parents in France teach bonjour exactly as parents where I come from teach please (as is evidenced by this worksheet from a third grade French classroom).
(TO BE POLITE: When I am polite I say bonjour when it is day and bonsoir when it is night. I say s'il vous plaît to get what I would like. When I am polite with my mouth I smile and say merci).
I was having lunch with my friend Emma (British) today who seems to have the same forgetting spells as I do. She had forgotten her bonjour earlier in the day. In her case, the result was response #1. She had been instructed like a 6-year old (her words) for getting straight to the point at the boulangerie. "It is just a bit much, this aggressive bonjour-ing, isn't it," she proclaimed and I smiled and wrote the phrase down. Aggressive bonjour-ing. Very funny and very befitting.