So… you think you speak French, huh? But did you know that “to understand and speak French well, one must understand that French conversation runs on a set of rules that go to the heart of French culture”? That’s right, like any language, speaking French fluently isn’t just about knowing the correct vocabulary and verb tenses; as Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow (award-winning authors of The Story of French, The Story of Spanish, and the bestselling Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t be Wrong) know first hand from a decade of living in Paris off and on. Nadeau and Barlow moved there with their young daughters and The Bonjour Effect is the result of the lessons they learned (linguistic, socio-linguistic and cultural) during that time.
As someone who speaks French fluently, I was fascinated to read this book, as I am most definitely aware of the unspoken rules that accompany your every interaction in French. The Bonjour Effect is not a language learning book, per se, rather a look at how the language is used in everyday contexts and unpacking the elements that complicate matters for foreign speakers. Because when foreigners attempt to communicate in French, “language is not the real obstacle […] Speaking French grammatically is not the same as “talking French” culturally.”
To understand French culture, a great starting point is the language and not only how to use it but how it’s used by the French. The Bonjour Effect is a comprehensive look at how to navigate those often-tricky waters of cultural communication en français.
Top tips for speaking (to the) French according to The Bonjour Effect
1. Say “Bonjour” (and “Au Revoir” and “Bonne Journée” etc…)
I cannot stress the importance of this, learned first-hand from 5+ years of living in Paris and nearly 4 years of home ownership. The book tells the story of how Barlow and Nadeau’s family was labelled “mal élevé because they didn’t greet a bus driver on a crowded bus one day. “Saying bonjour is so automatic that the French hardly notice when you say it. But they notice when you don’t.”
Recently I was having a conversation with a French friend and we were talking about a mutual acquaintance. My friend doesn’t have much time for this acquaintance because “Même pas bonjour” (he doesn’t even say hello!) and there’s no getting over that. The acquaintance was not a greeter and now that’s his reputation. Hard to move on from that.
Saying bonjour is the key to all your interactions in French – at the bakery, the supermarket, at the bank, when dealing with administration. You won’t get too far unless you greet the person you’re dealing with. Bonjour and even au revoir are not strictly speaking words (they’re what’s called “phatics”), rather, they are part of “a communication protocol that establishes links”; most importantly, the “in” to any interaction in French. It’s a sign that you’re ready to communicate and only after uttering the magic word will you be accepted as an active participant in the conversation. On a very basic level, you’ll get MUCH better service if you greet storekeepers when you enter and say thank you and goodbye when you leave (even if you didn’t buy anything).
2. “Non” means “no”. Except when it doesn’t.
If you’ve ever visited (or lived in) France, you might have been on the receiving end of a resounding “non”. For which it feels like there is absolutely no comeback. It’s a word you’ll hear a lot. According to Barlow and Nadeau, the French “say non when they mean yes. And they say no when they want you to think they might eventually say yes.” “Non” can actually mean a whole range of things in French, depending on the situation. And actually, it’s often a “oui” in disguise because the French themselves will not take no for an answer.
If you’re faced with the stonewall of “non” Barlow and Nadeau suggest you just keep talking though the situation because that “non” might be covering up someone’s fear of not knowing something, fear of making a mistake. A few years ago I was teaching a baking class in Paris and we were making clafoutis. We did a few variations on the theme (different fruits, cherry pits in, cherry pits removed etc…) and most of the students seemed excited to experiment. Except one. He refused to make anything except the version his grandmother used to make and every suggestion for change was greeted with “non“. At the end of the class, when we were tasting the results, he was really enjoying the experiments. Though he didn’t say it out loud, it wasn’t exactly a resounding “oui” but it wasn’t a “non” either! Stick to your guns (politely) and you might just be able to turn that non into a oui!
3. The French love to talk… about certain topics.
Feel free to bring up any of the following subjects in your interactions with the French: language, geography (but don’t ask them where they are from, ask them what region they hail from) and history, food, art, cinema, literature, holidays and getting good deals (but don’t talk about money in any other way). Shockingly for many foreigners, the French are very comfortable talking about and making jokes about sex (often jokes that would result in disciplinary measures if uttered in a workplace outside France) – even in professional situations of if there are children present. The point about conversation in France is to show that you are interesting, that you have something to say (as opposed to sharing or seeking information).
DO NOT: ask for people’s first names (my neighbour in France who has lived there for 40+ years still calls our other neighbours M and Mme whereas we were offered their first names immediately upon meeting them, giving us permission to use them – since we didn’t have to ask, otherwise, we use M et Mme for everyone), make jokes about yourself (in French it makes you sound stupid), talk about money (unless you’re talking about getting a good deal on something).
I recently placed myself firmly in the French camp when a French person asked me how much we paid for the house (which is SO not on, but I understand they probably think North Americans DO talk about things like this so it was fair game) and I managed to completely turn the conversation around to the state of real estate in our town, avoiding answering the question and showing I have a little knowledge about local affairs at the same time. Bingo!
The Bonjour Effect is not a conversation guide to take on your next trip to France but it is practical in so many ways. I’d suggest it’s probably more useful for those who are living there or moving there than the average tourist, although there are a number of useful insights that can be helpful for the occasional French speaker (see above). If you’re merely interested in sociolinguistics, this is a book that you can read in any order as the chapters are self-contained, each containing fundamentals of the topic at hand, then moving into more complex areas to consider. A must read for any French language nerd (in a good way!), non-native Francophones and Francophiles everywhere!
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Disclosure: I was provided with a copy of “The Bonjour Effect” for review purposes. I was not asked to write about the book, nor am I being compensated for doing so. All opinions 100% my own.