Books

'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.


The Bonjour Effect

Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Length: 310 pages
Author: Julie Barlow, Jean-Benoit Nadeau
Prince: 16.99
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-05
Amazon
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.

3
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

Music

ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.

Film

Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Music

Rush's 'Permanent Waves' Endures with Faultless Commercial Complexity

Forty years later, Rush's ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more evident and remarkable. The progressive rock classic, Permanent Waves, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Music

Drum Machines? Samples? Brendan Benson Gets Contemporary with 'Dear Life'

Powerpop overlord and part-time Raconteur, Brendan Benson, grafts hip-hop beats to guitar pop on his seventh solo album, Dear Life.

Music

'Sell You Everything' Brings to Light Buzzcocks '1991 Demo LP' That Passed Under-the-Radar

Cherry Red Records' new box-set issued in memory of Pete Shelley gathers together the entire post-reunion output of the legendary Buzzcocks. Across the next week, PopMatters explores the set album-by-album. First up is The 1991 Demo LP.

Music

10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

It's 40 years since the first explosion of electronic songs revitalized the UK charts with futuristic subject matter, DIY aesthetics, and occasionally pompous lyrics. To celebrate, here's a chronological list of those Moog-infused tracks of 1980 that had the biggest impact.

Reading Pandemics

Poe, Pandemic, and Underlying Conditions

To read Edgar Allan Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist.

Books

'Yours, Jean' Is a Perfect Mixture of Tragedy, Repressed Desire, and Poor Impulse Control

Lee Martin's Yours, Jean is a perfectly balanced and heartbreaking mix of true crime narrative and literary fiction.

Music

The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D
Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.