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The Bonjour Effect
The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed
By Julie Barlow, Jean-Benoît Nadeau
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau
All rights reserved.
I Greet, Therefore I Am
There are many situations in Paris that call for good etiquette. Boarding a city bus, it turns out, is one of them.
It was a fresh Sunday morning in April and the four of us clambered onto Bus 91 to catch a train to Paris's Gare de Lyon. We were heading out of the city for a hike. With our walking sticks and knapsacks we were a bit noisy and cumbersome, but that wasn't the problem.
The girls and Julie pushed their tickets into the rackety green validating machine standard on all French city buses and headed to the back. Jean-Benoît, last aboard, heard the bus driver grumble "mal élévé." Jean-Benoît was mystified. In France, "mal élévé" (badly brought up) is about as damning as "raised in a barn." He validated his ticket and said "merci," still confused.
"You can't even say bonjour?" the bus driver spat back at him.
We were all stunned. After eight months in France, we thought we had the French greeting ritual down pat. Did we really need to say bonjour when we were getting on city buses? Bus 91, in particular, is a busy route that links three train stations, six hospitals, and connects to ten subway lines. On a regular day, this bus driver would open his door for an average of twenty-eight thousand passengers (we checked). Surely he didn't expect them all to greet him with a heartfelt bonjour?
But of course he did. Saying bonjour is so automatic the French hardly notice when you say it. But they notice when you don't.
There are no exceptions to the compulsory bonjour. Being handicapped — and in a pinch — doesn't even get you off the hook. In early October, Julie spent a week wheeling Paul, a Canadian friend, through the city for an article she was writing about visiting Paris in a wheelchair. Paul had visited the city a decade earlier and confirmed that things had improved. As he said, "Last time I came here, I thought the city had rounded up all the handicapped people and put them in a warehouse somewhere." Since his last visit, Paris had equipped its buses with ramps and reserved zones for wheelchairs, and attitudes in the city, according to Paul, had improved considerably. Bus passengers were generally courteous. Some Parisians even helped Paul and Julie haul the wheelchair up stairs; others graciously moved aside to make room in cramped cafés. One metro passenger even tunneled through a crowd inside a car to make room for the wheelchair.
Then, on one of their outings, Julie found herself struggling to get Paul's wheelchair through the gates of the Censier-Daubenton metro station near our apartment in the Latin Quarter. After a fruitless glance around the station entrance, she approached the metro agent sitting at the information counter for help, thinking the problem was pretty obvious: she was pushing a man in a wheelchair and couldn't figure out how to get him through the turnstile.
"Excusez-moi, monsieur," she began. "Could you tell me how to get this wheelchair through the gate?" In the heat of the moment, Julie forgot the magic word. "Bonjooourrr" the agent replied, drawing the word out sarcastically. Julie had to start again. "Bonjour, monsieur ..."
Just what is it about the word bonjour that makes it the exclusive key to human communication in France, even when there are extenuating circumstances? To begin with, France is a country of codes. The French are raised to use certain buzzwords and gestures to initiate interactions, whether social or professional. No matter with whom you wish to speak in France, and no matter in what circumstances you find yourself, you have to pass through a certain number of communication gates first.
Bonjour is the first and most important one.
If we added up the time we've spent in France over the last two decades, for work and holidays, it would amount to about four years. Strangely, saying bonjour has never become a reflex for us. Though it's a reflex for the French, bonjour is always an effort for North Americans, even the ones, like us, who are perfectly aware that the well-articulated bonjour has to be voiced for any kind of interaction with the French to take place. At best, four years of practice have made us able to pull it off without sounding too forced.
But why does everyone in France say bonjour all the time? Or more important, why does everyone have to say it?
Bonjour is not actually a word. It belongs to the linguistic category of "phatics." It was a British anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, who first coined the expression in 1923: phatic comes from the Greek word phanein, meaning "to show oneself." In the 1960s, the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson theorized about the concept as one of the six "functions of language." The phatic function, he wrote, was what opened communication channels. In other words, phatic expressions do not convey information. They send a message: that a social connection of some sort is being established.
Bonjour is the king of phatic expressions in France, but there are others that come in handy, like je vous en prie, au revoir, and bon appétit, or any expression of a wish that starts with bon, like bon courage, bonne soirée, or bonne journée.
Je vous en prie translates literally as "I beg you" but is usually used as a polite way to respond after someone has thanked you for something. It's a tricky expression. Unlike bonjour, it doesn't really translate. It means something like "it's my pleasure" though not necessarily in response to anything in particular. Je vous en prie can seem a little too ceremonious to English speakers. That's one reason Julie struggled to use it for over a decade. Every time she said it she felt like she was immodestly drawing attention to her own good deeds. She would have preferred the French equivalent of "no problem" but the closest equivalent, pas de souci, just sounds too offhand in France.
Then one day Julie was leaving a translators' office on the Champs-Élysées when the reflex finally "took." As she entered a closet-size elevator on the eighth floor, an elegant elderly lady, dressed in a hat and white gloves, approached the door. Julie threw out her arm to hold the door open, after which the lady delivered a heartfelt, "Merci, madame." Maybe it was her age, or the white gloves, but suddenly, Julie felt a little formality was called for. "Je vous en prie, madame," she replied.
Bon appétit is not just what you say to wish someone a good appetite. It's also a phatic. The French also say it to declare that eating is about to take place — eating being highly ritualized in France. The French don't snack much and still tend to eat at fixed times and in a fixed order or in courses. Even when someone eats in a nonsocial way, for instance, while walking or even standing, onlookers occasionally say bon appétit to re-create the sense of ritual eating carries for them (and sometimes they say it pointedly to underline the fact that you are not respecting the rules of proper eating).
Another fascinating French phatic is râlâlâ (pronounced rah-lah-lah, or even roh-loh-loh for emphasis). It's not, properly speaking, even a word. It's an interjection, a phatic signal to announce that one is about to râler (to moan). English speakers sometimes mistake this for Oh là là! and think it's an expression of enthusiasm, or even admiration. Oh là là means "oh my" or "oh dear" or even "oh no" and is much milder than râlâlâ. It's what the French say to announce they are disappointed or annoyed, as in "Oh no, I forgot the tickets."
Why exactly do the French need to announce they are about to moan before they do it? The French are quite comfortable with expressing bad humor in public, and there's nothing wrong with open confrontation. But there are rituals to follow, and this is one of them. In fact, the phatic power of râlâlâ is so strong that sometimes just uttering it is enough to get a situation solved, no explanation required.
Phatic words and expressions are not meant to "say" anything. The jour is not necessarily bon. You will probably not revoir (see again) most of the people you say au revoir to. And you don't intend to beg people who have thanked you for something. The function of these words and expressions is strictly social, like saying "hello" when you pick up the phone, but even vaguer. Phatics are part of the communication protocol that establishes links, like the scratchy, squealing sound modems made back in the 1990s when people had to dial up the Internet.
France is of course not the only place in the world with phatic codes. It can be hard to function in the United States if you don't grasp the different meanings that "hey" or even "okay" take on, depending on the tone in which they are pronounced. In the same vein, it is hard to get good service in Britain, or in English Canada, without saying "I'm sorry, but ..." (not to mention the fact that Canadians say sorry when they mean the exact opposite). North Americans in general begin verbal exchanges with "Excuse me" or even "How are you?" But it's not because they actually want to know how you are. It's their way of acknowledging that they are interrupting you, or that they want to ask you for something. In short, phatics don't translate, which is what makes it so essential to understand what they actually mean in their context. If you ask a French person, Comment allez-vous? (How do you do?), it's not a salutation. The person is actually going to tell you. And you'd better be ready to listen. When you say, excusez-moi to the French, they wonder what you are excusing yourself for — it sounds like you've done something wrong.
Curiously, the French say au revoir (see you again) not to terminate, but to perpetuate social contact. Au revoir means that you are glad to have seen someone and hope to see her again, as the literal translation (until we meet again) suggests. Even if the chances of seeing someone again are very slim, you say it out of respect. The French even pronounce au revoir with a rise at the end, like it's a question (see you again?).
Saying au revoir is really no more nor less logical than saying bonjour. But it can save a situation if you happened to have botched your first bonjour. And that was how Jean-Benoît repaired the faux pas we committed on Bus 91 when we failed to say bonjour to the driver. When we arrived at the Gare de Lyon train station, Jean-Benoît waited so he was the last one to leave the bus. He then locked eyes with the driver and pronounced a perfect Parisian au revoir, with the question mark. Even if it was clear that they would most certainly never revoir one another, the bus driver smiled before he closed the door.
But of all France's phatic expressions, bonjour is by far the most important. It is a universal greeting and the key to any exchange, even interactions that call for other expressions from the phatic toolkit. You can never say too many bonjours. Our rule of thumb is to say bonjour in all contexts and all circumstances. When it seems like overkill, you are probably right on.
Though it translates as "good day," bonjour has several meanings, none of which have anything to do with the day. The most primary phatic function of bonjour is to announce, "I am here." In France, you don't really exist unless you say so. I greet therefore I am. Bonjour even performs this magic for non-French speakers who never say another thing. (If you exist, no one can ignore you.)
The next thing French people mean when they say bonjour is "we're going to communicate," or "I am going to talk." This also might seem self-evident when you are already talking, but not to the French. Believe it or not, all conversation in France begins with a tacit mutual agreement between participants that they are going to talk. Even if the conversation never goes further than "bonjour," the French will instinctively feel slighted if you skip the preliminary greeting. In France, you can't just take for granted that you can communicate with someone without asking if it's okay first.
Once the bonjour circle is complete and the conversation is up and running, you can say practically anything you want in France. You can interrupt or contradict or behave like you really were raised in a barn. It's beside the point. Consensus and congeniality are not, generally speaking, things the French seek in conversation, nor do they expect them. On the contrary, they like going beyond chitchat as soon as possible, adding a bit of crunch, some contradiction, some new information, ideas, or a paradox if they can pull it off.
That, of course, begs the question: if the French just want to argue anyway, why do you need to say bonjour in the first place? Particularly in situations where there will clearly be no conversation — like walking in front of a bus driver you will probably never see again.
The answer lies in the third meaning of bonjour, which is "I'm entering your territory." Julie was equal parts perplexed and impressed one afternoon as she waited for our daughters to wrap up their badminton class at the local gym. She was sitting with one other mother in what we dubbed the Fish Bowl, a small, glassed-in mezzanine above the gym, which had obviously been designed to keep parents as far as possible from the game. Julie was flipping through a fresh copy of Elle magazine when a little girl, no older than eight, who was clearly running late, bustled through the mezzanine on her way to the gym, staring at her feet. As she passed Julie, the girl raised her head and reflexively said, "Bonjour, mesdames," then looked down at her feet again and carried on.
Why this greeting to perfect strangers? For starters, French children are explicitly taught to respect adults. Most kids don't need a parent to prompt them to say bonjour to a grown-up. But Julie still wondered, why did the little girl take the time to greet her at this particular moment, when she was obviously in a hurry? It was because the little girl was crossing the Fish Bowl, and that was parents' territory. She knew she was supposed to acknowledge that. She did it automatically. Unlike our family with our hiking gear in the city bus, the little girl knew she was on someone else's turf, and she knew what was expected of her in that particular scenario.
(A week later, Julie was having an afternoon snack in the Luxembourg Gardens when two friends, mothers at our daughters' school, started bemoaning how French manners are going down the tubes. "People aren't teaching their kids to be respectful anymore," they claimed solemnly. Julie pointed out that few, if any, North American children would ever spontaneously greet an adult they didn't know. The two moms rubbed their chins thoughtfully.)
So, just how do you know you're venturing into someone else's territory in France? It can be pretty subtle. When we went on our evening walks through the winding streets of our Paris neighborhood, we obviously didn't say bonjour to each of the hundreds of individuals whose paths we happened to cross. Streets belong to everyone. But on one of our routes, we took a scenic shortcut down a long private passage that was essentially a stretched-out inner courtyard. We had to open gates on both ends to access it. Between the gates, we said bonjour to every soul we met (or they said bonjour to us, and we answered). It was just a polite way of acknowledging that we knew we were in their space and we were grateful they let us enjoy it. (It was also a bit of posturing, a way to pretend we had business there, which we didn't.)
In short, the more intimate the space — even if it's public, or semipublic — the more important it is to acknowledge to whoever "owns" it that you know you are on their turf. A few years earlier we spent a month in a hamlet in the Auvergne region. La Bastide had a permanent population of exactly five, which grew to nine in the summer. It was the ancestral village of Rudi, a close friend of ours who grew up in Quebec. Before we visited, Rudi gave us the rundown on the hamlet's genealogy and told us to make sure we said bonjour to everyone, every time we saw them, without exception.
Excerpted from The Bonjour Effect by Julie Barlow, Jean-Benoît Nadeau. Copyright © 2016 Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One: Form,
1. I Greet, Therefore I Am,
2. Privacy Rules,
3. Finding the Yes in Non,
4. Schools: The Speech Factory,
5. The Family Factor,
6. The Art of Conversation,
7. Très Talk,
Part Two: Content,
8. Food for Talk,
10. Down by Nature,
11. Fixation on French,
12. English Envy,
13. Looking Out for France,
14. Economy of Speech,
15. Silent Labor,
16. Boys and Girls,
17. The Poetry of Politics,
18. Proof of Identity,
Also by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau,
About the Authors,