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The Bonjour Effect by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau


Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow spent a decade traveling back and forth to Paris as well as living there. Yet one important lesson never seemed to sink in: how to communicate comfortably with the French, even when you speak their language. In The Bonjour Effect Jean-Benoît and Julie chronicle the lessons they learned after they returned to France to live, for a year, with their twin daughters. They offer up all the lessons they learned and explain, in a book as fizzy as a bottle of the finest French champagne, the most important aspect of all: the French don’t communicate, they converse. 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. Why do the French like talking about “the decline of France”? Why does broaching a subject like money end all discussion? Why do the French become so aroused debating the merits and qualities of their own language? Through encounters with school principals, city hall civil servants, gas company employees, old friends and business acquaintances, Julie and Jean-Benoît explain why, culturally and historically, conversation with the French is not about communicating or being nice. It’s about being interesting. After reading The Bonjour Effect, even readers with a modicum of French language ability will be able to hold their own the next time they step into a bistro on the Left Bank.



What kind of people say no when they mean yes, refuse to admit they “don’t know” even when they obviously don’t, and systematically claim to hate their jobs even when they love them? That would be the French.

What kind of people think arguing is a good way to start a conversation and think you are smiling because you have something to hide? That’s also the French.

With 84 million visitors per year, France remains the world’s top tourist destination. France has been so successful in disseminating its culture that visitors arrive with high expectations. And that’s where the problems start. Travelers mistake familiarity for understanding. When they attempt to communicate with the French, they end up frustrated, confused, and sometimes even hurt. Communication between French and foreigners is rarely effortless and often unpleasant.

What many fail to realize is that language is not the real obstacle. We have met a number of native and fluent French speakers—Americans, Canadians, Belgians, Senegalese, Algerians, and more—who find conversation with the French perfectly bewildering. We have also met people who barely speak French but get by very well. The difference? The latter understand that speaking French grammatically is not the same as “talking French” culturally. Even for people like us, who live in Montreal and communicate in French daily, cultural differences with the French can be daunting.

This book is not an advanced French conversation guide, or a book on how to speak French. There are lots of excellent books out there for that. The objective of The Bonjour Effect is to take readers beyond what the French say to explain what they mean. France is a culture that turned verbal expression into an art form. But like an iceberg, you can only grasp the totality of what the French say if you know what’s under the surface. In the case of the French, it’s a complex set of rules, codes, conventions, and taboos.

For starters, the French don’t communicate. They converse. Conversation defines the French, even more than cuisine or fashion—they did invent salon culture and the idea of the intellectuel, after all. But French conversation is not about “connecting” to others, or even showing interest in them. The objective of conversation is to show you are interesting. French conversation also has its own rather complex set of rules and taboos. Asking for someone’s name or what that person does for a living will get you nowhere at best. In France, it can actually drive people away. The subject of money leaves the French cold, while language can be the fodder for feverish impromptu debates between strangers. Confrontation is almost always more appealing to the French than consensus.

We are convinced that the most universal stereotypes of the French—that they are arrogant and rude—come from the fact that foreigners miss the most basic of French codes. As we’ll discuss, you won’t get anywhere with the French if you don’t say bonjour first. We would not even hazard a figure of the number of journalists, diplomats, and businesspeople who have been victims of this blind spot. And bonjour is only the most obvious example.

The Bonjour Effect was based on our experience living in France for a year with our twin daughters, but the actual gestation period of the book lasted fifteen years. We spent two years in France, from 1999 to 2001. That resulted in a first book, Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, which explains some of the fundamental reasons the French think and organize themselves the way they do. After living in Paris, we spent a year traveling in the French-speaking world for a book about the French language, then changed tack and moved to the United States to write another book, this time about Spanish. We became parents in the interim. On the drive home from our six-month stay in Arizona, somewhere between Idaho and Illinois, we realized we weren’t done with the French. So three years after that, we packed the family up again and moved to Paris.

We were aware of the danger of trying to re-create our old life in Paris and looked for ways to avoid walking the same path, like choosing an apartment on the other side of town. But we didn’t have to look hard. We came to Paris as a family this time, not as a childless couple, and family life revealed many things that had escaped us the first time we lived in France. We saw the French education system from the inside, through our daughters’ eyes, and discovered that it is nothing less than a gigantic machine designed to teach children how to talk, and to think, in very specific ways.

There are other reasons this book is vastly different from Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong. We did not live in France this time as fellows of the Institute of Current World Affairs, the amazing little American foundation that underwrote our first stay in France. Back then, we joked about having a “rich American uncle” who paid our bills while we roamed France observing the natives to our hearts’ content. There was no uncle this time. We paid the bills ourselves by working as freelance writers in Paris. Though definitely less comfortable, the formula had the advantage of bringing us closer to experiencing the daily grind of French people—or at least as close as freelance writers ever do anyway.

The other difference was that unlike in 1999, we knew France quite well when we arrived. When we were researching Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, we were authentic newcomers to France. In the years after we published it, we returned to France frequently to promote our books, to write magazine articles, and to spend holidays. We had a pretty good idea of the questions we wanted to answer in The Bonjour Effect from the outset. We landed in our six-hundred-square-foot apartment in the Latin Quarter with our eight pieces of luggage and our twin daughters on the first Wednesday of September 2013 at eleven thirty in the morning and, at noon, recognized the wailing of the alarm sirens that resonate in France every first Wednesday of the month. We almost felt at home.

One thing that did not change was our method. We described it in our first book as “more anthropological than journalistic.” Once again, we did interviews and met key figures but also lived regular lives and kept detailed personal journals about our interactions. As in our very first encounters with the French, we tried to soak up the culture, recording impressions no matter how superficial. Another thing that didn’t change was that we worked together as a team. During the launch period of our first book on the French, we had lunch with an editor at The New York Times who had lived in Paris a number of years. He was surprised that after only two and a half years in France we had been able to identify and explain some of the fundamental differences between the French and North Americans. We told him the “rich uncle” factor helped—we had had lots of free time to visit the country and mull things over. But the fact that we had worked as a team was also key, as it is today. We can do twice as much work in the same time and can use each other as sounding boards for ideas anytime, day or night. We also have a native foot in two linguistic universes, French and English. Among other things, that advantage helps us see through cultural prejudices surrounding the French and single out the real cultural differences.

Writing is solitary work, but grappling with cultural differences by oneself can leave a writer unbalanced, to put it mildly. So there is still something magical about having a partner who can provide constant feedback almost around the clock. Ideas sometimes hit us late at night, when we were watching French TV in our living room (which, this being Paris, was also our dining room, family room, and office). Having a partner also means we can do a certain amount of processing on the spot. We have someone to inform us that The Great Idea is not that great, or that This Weird Hunch is the one worth pursuing. This built-in peer-review system means that, though written with four hands, our books have one voice and one point of view. (The perspective now includes that of our daughters, ten years old at the time, who were excellent sounding boards, too, going way beyond the call of duty to help us. We wholeheartedly thank them for that, and for just being themselves through the whole French experience.)

The main challenge any writer on cultural difference faces is, of course, the risk of overgeneralizing. It’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusions. The most obvious problem is deciding if our sample is valid. Can a particular experience be generalized to an entire population? Was a French person we encountered representative of the French, or just some isolated oddball who happened to be on the scene when something noteworthy happened? There are no easy answers, but mingling with the French in different situations for the last fifteen years has helped us define what is “baseline” French.

There’s also a fine line between overgeneralizing and overrelativizing. We realized this one morning in March when we were having brunch with a friend, Capucine, a young executive on the rise and a graduate of Sciences Po, France’s famous social sciences university. We were talking about the book, which was still in the early stages, when Capucine stopped us short to ask what methodology we were using. The fact that we were writing a book with a combined journalistic and anthropological approach (which sounds haphazard to most academics) did not trouble her as much as the possibility that we might be overgeneralizing. Capucine is from the Savoy region in the French Alps, and she still nurtures deep roots there. “The Savoyards [inhabitants of Savoy] don’t talk like Parisians,” she told us. “They are a lot less interested in big ideas and more interested in practical questions.”

Indeed, the French are not cookies from a factory. We recognize, as a matter of principle, that few French people would have every cultural reflex we describe in this book. But all of them have been subjected to a specific type of French “formatting,” through education and the transmission of a particular set of values that are practically universal across the country and even in France’s overseas territories. The closer the French get to centers of power, the more they fit the specific framework for which they have been trained. If they want to climb the ladder, they don’t really have a choice. So a Savoyard like Capucine, who is working toward a high-level career, will figure out how to fit into the mold. Her preoccupation with our methodology, for that matter, was a pure product of French higher education.

The other trap in generalizing about French culture is listening exclusively to the “noise.” As in any culture, there is a big difference between what the French say out loud in public and what they say in private. The French often resent discussing money or even economics with people they don’t know, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t care about money: they did not end up creating one of the world’s main economic engines by sheer luck. This is one problem with trying to understand the French (or any culture for that matter) through the news. The news is mainly based on “official” comments or staged noise (other news, protests, rumors). We were careful to listen closely for the silences and the taboos, and to what people other than talking heads were saying. Richard Nixon popularized the notion of “the silent majority” in a speech in 1969. The year we were in France, we watched the silent majority gain its voice. France’s political elite had long assumed silence meant approval. How wrong they were. The French were rebelling against their leadership in ways no one had expected, and no one in the French elite—with the exception of far-right leader Marine Le Pen—knew what to do about it (which of course doesn’t mean we are giving Le Pen any credit).

We had a great many choices to make in order to turn this book into more than a collection of short essays. As our research advanced, we decided to give the book a simple structure. The book is divided in two sections: Form and Content. The first seven chapters are about the reflexes that make up the operating system, or architecture, that shapes what the French say, and don’t: what is taboo, what is proper, how they define what is private versus public, how schools and families teach kids to express themselves. The next eleven chapters focus on what the French talk about, or don’t: general culture, negativism, the French language, the incursion of English, food, the world outside France, their jobs, politics, money, and identity. Some divisions were tricky. Consider two almost universal French reflexes: the habit of starting verbal exchanges with the word “no” and the general negative posture the French adopt in verbal exchanges. They seem like two faces of the same coin, but on reflection, we realized they were actually separate phenomena that each deserved its own chapter.

The Bonjour Effect is a reflection on the French. We didn’t write a conversation guide, but we did want the book to be practical for readers. There are useful tips, a few “dos and don’ts” along the way (summarized in the epilogue), and the chapters can be read in any order, depending on what a reader wants to understand. That said, each section starts from the fundamentals and then moves into more complex or specialized topics. For instance, no matter where you are in France and no matter whom you are addressing, bonjour and non will be part of the exchange. They are universal stepping-stones (though non can seem more like a stone wall) in any interaction with the French. We leave the topic of conversation until the end of the section because you need to know a certain amount before you can jump into it successfully, or come out of it satisfied. Besides, important as conversation is to all French, not all of them excel in it.

The same logic applies to the section on content: general culture, geography, history, and food are almost universal subjects of conversation in France. The subject of English is more complex and specialized, not to mention full of paradoxes, as is the topic of gender relations. Politics and identity, the closing chapters, are fascinating ground for discussions, but need to be broached carefully because they are so divisive—and sometimes lethal.

Throughout our year in France, which corresponded roughly to the school year 2013–2014, we had the impression we were sitting on a volcano. When terrorists slaughtered seventeen people at the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher grocery store in Paris in January 2015, and then, only ten months later, when terrorists in Paris slaughtered 130 innocent people, we could still feel ourselves in Paris’s streets, particularly in the eleventh arrondissement, a neighborhood we often walked in. Like many French, we were stunned and angry after the killings, but like most of our French friends, we couldn’t say we were surprised. What the French say—and don’t say—about the killings is fascinating, sometimes harrowing. We discuss this in chapter 18.

There was a reason we wrapped the book up with newsy topics like politics, race relations, and gender relations. The Bonjour Effect is not about current affairs, strange as this might sound coming from two journalists. It’s much easier to understand how the French talk about these topics when you understand basic features of how the French communicate. We’re pretty sure our observations about, and analyses of, the French will apply to many news stories for many years to come—after all, the roots of some of the characteristics we describe go back hundreds of years.

This is not to say that we think the French have some kind of immutable essence or nature. On the contrary, having adopted twin daughters from Haiti, we believe human beings are the products of their circumstances. Circumstances change constantly and so do cultures. France is a multilayered society that has always been in flux, with different layers evolving at different speeds.

Over the span of the fifteen years that was the gestation period of this book, we saw things in the French that hardly changed—like the fear of making mistakes or the importance they place on diplomas—but also witnessed momentous shifts, like the disappearance of anti-Americanism, the newfound interest in economics, the development of a completely paradoxical stance toward the English language, the savage rejection of political and managerial elites, and a new relish in the idea that France is in the middle of an irremediable decline. And the tragic events of 2015 will also have their effects. Some are already obvious, like the open demonstrations of patriotism, a gesture previously associated with France’s far right that is now becoming acceptable in mainstream French society.

Some of these changes sound dramatic, maybe even alarming to outsiders. Maybe they are; maybe they aren’t. The fact of the matter is, you can’t really be a good judge of what’s going on in France until you understand how the French talk, and why they say some of the things they say. When you learn to “talk French,” we discovered, everything about France and the French looks different. When you understand the real meanings behind their words and gestures, and know how to answer them, French waiters become friendly, French store clerks helpful, and the French, on the whole, approachable and good-humored.

Copyright © 2016 by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau.

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St. Martin's Press

New York