‘The Bonjour Effect’ Bids Au Revoir to French Language and Mores

The Bonjour Effect is too closely tailored to North American sensitivities to properly connect with French conversation culture.

I learned much more about North American sensitivities than about the French.

The Bonjour Effect aims to reveal ‘the secret codes of French conversation’, introducing the reader to the cultural norms that dictate interaction in France. It certainly starts off on the right foot: a lucid introduction explains the book’s approach is ‘more anthropological than journalistic’, and the writers will be wary of the risks involved in ‘overgeneralizing and overrelativizing’.

Then the first chapter, which is about the functions of the word ‘Bonjour’ (‘good day’, or ‘good morning’), is simply excellent. The authors correctly identify the word as a phatic expression phatic expression which serves different and more complex purposes than the standard English ‘hello’, and they furnish their argument with relevant and colourful examples.

With such an interesting and illuminating opening, my appetite was well and truly whetted for a full buffet of French vocabulary and phrases. Sadly, I would have to stay hungry. It turns out that authors Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau run out of steam very quickly after that first chapter, and much of this book seems like an effort to overstretch one very perceptive article about ‘Bonjour’ with little else that is equally substantial.

Worse, Barlow and Nadeau rapidly abandon the rigorous approach they delineate in the introduction, favouring instead truisms and banalities. They claim that ‘when the French don’t want a relationship or a friendship, they simply don’t reciprocate’, as though that weren’t the case for just about everyone in the world. They say that the French relationship to their language is ‘as firmly attached to tradition as [it is] open to change’, trying to paint this contradiction as a fascinating cultural paradox, when it is the same type of trite nonsense you find on the labels of bad wine. And if it sounds like I just invoked a cliché, it’s one the authors themselves are happy to indulge: ‘That’s because the French believe conversations need time to breathe, like wine.’ Ah, le mot juste.

So much of the material here is simply not persuasive. The authors claim the French ‘would certainly have never voted for a government led by a certain Philippe Couillard’ because they don’t tolerate names that sound ridiculous (Couillard is close to ‘couille’, meaning testicle). And yet the Le Pen family have enjoyed a meteoric political ascent, even though their name is painfully close to ‘Le Penis’. The authors also believe that ‘prior to Francois I’s rule, the French were considered rather crude’, an unsourced statement which left me baffled, as the country possessed remarkable sophistication long before the 16th century (already in the Middle Ages, cities in southern France competed with those in northern Italy as the European fulcrum of legal education). And the book states that ‘before the mid-twentieth century, the list of outstandingly influential French women was virtually unmatched in most European societies’, on the basis of a list of names that can comfortably be matched by most other major European countries.

The result is a sloppy combination of gross generalisations (‘the French Revolution was about the irrevocable right of all citizens to refuse’) and awkward reasoning, like the idea that ‘Si’ in French is not a context-specific alternative to ‘oui’, but rather means ‘non twice’, which is what makes ‘Si’ such a characteristically French nuance.

Considering that other European languages have words that serve exactly the same function (the German ‘doch’, for example), this argument struck me as very odd. Having finished the book, I now see where it came from. The Bonjour Effect makes no effort at contextualising French mores within European culture as a whole, because it is tailored very specifically for a North American readership. You can evince this from the way the authors constantly compare French customs with others across the Atlantic, bringing in examples and referents I found neither familiar nor particularly interesting (I am myself Italian, and I spent two years in Paris and other French regions).

If the authors were so bent on making comparisons, it might have been more useful to correlate France with her direct neighbours. At least half of what Barlow and Nadeau identify as typically French is in fact common to all Mediterranean countries (not an exact category, I know, but a popular macro-designation not distinct in concept than, say, ‘Eastern Europe’). Thus, the ‘unique French education ritual’ of dictation exercises is described as something indistinguishable from what I experienced in Italian and Spanish schools, where I’ve been raised. The French ‘systematic pessimism’ is encountered (with local tweaks) everywhere in Europe, their concept of ‘débrouillardise’ is a pale alternate to the Italian ‘arte di arrangiarsi’, and linguistic customs like adding the English suffix -ing ‘to create expressions that only make sense to the French’ is typical (again, with tweaks) of all Latin-based European cultures.

I really wanted to like The Bonjour Effect, but the book simply didn’t deliver what it promised. In fact, I closed it with the sense that I had learned much more about North American sensitivities than about the French. To make one final example, the United States and Canada famously have a much stronger service culture than Europe, and this is reflected in the endless pages of advice on how to deal with receptionists, book clerks, waiters and the like. There isn’t a single word, on the other hand, on a topic which happens to be famously accosted to the French: how do romance and seduction work in their country? Do the French buy drinks for each other? Do they use pick-up lines (and if so, which ones)? Do they indicate interest subtly, directly or not at all? I’d have thought this might be of greater general and practical interest than knowing how to ask for eggs in a supermarket. Obviously the authors do not agree.

RATING 3 / 10
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