Wednesday, November 22, 2017


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Another book launch at the Alliance Française in Dublin town. This time it's The Bonjour Effect by Julie Barlow and hubby Jean-Benôit Nadeau.

Its thesis is that conversation is an art form in France, guided by a complex set of rules, codes, conventions and taboos. In exploring these the book is a primer in the psychology of the French and it gives you pointers on how to cope with this very strange race of people.

It lets us in on the secret that talking to the French is not about communicating or being nice, its about being interesting. With this as a starting point the exalted state of "se démerder" becomes attainable to even the rankest amateur.


The evening was introduced by the Institute's new Director Thierry Lagnau who succeeds former Director Philippe Milloux, who has now returned to Paris HQ.

Jean-Philippe Imbert

The evening was structured as an interview by Jean-Philippe Imbert of one of the book's co-authors, Jean-Benoît Nadeau. Jean-Philippe is from DCU where he bears the intriguing title of Lecturer in Comparative Literature and Sexuality Studies in the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies (SALIS).

Jean-Philippe has appeared on this blog before, interviewing Olivier Litvine on the launch of his book Musique de Chambre.

Jean-Benoît Nadeau

So, let's get one thing out of the way first, the book's title. What's all this Bonjour stuff?

Well, believe it or not, this one little word is the key to the pearly gates of French conversation, and, as we learn, cooperation. Omit this simple greeting on meeting a French person and you're in the doghouse from that point on. A foreigner might just be given some latitude on a fine day but for the French it is de rigueur.

So maybe you think that's a bit thick. Well, believe you me, even in Ireland, there can be more to a simple greeting than meets the eye. Consider this little incident from the Mayo Gaeltacht early in the twentieth century.
Colm O'Gaora was a young teacher and a timire for Conradh na Gaeilge. He was new to the Irish speaking Bangor Erris disrict in Co. Mayo when he met a man along the road. "Dia dhuit" (God be with you) says he, in the traditional Irish equivalent of Bonjour. The immediate and vehement reply took him aback: "May God and Mary bless you and may bad luck strike you down you dirty old Protestant".
It really does matter how you greet people and if you want to understand Colm's faux pas check out this incident in more detail in my review of his book.

Julie Barlow

Before I go any further, do remember that the book is co-authored by Jean-Benoît and his wife Julie.

Clearly then, they are both responsible in equal measure for its content. However, when it comes to describing an incident to illustrate a particular point, it is described by whichever of them was involved in it. This is both a constant reminder throughout the book of its dual authorship and it makes for more interesting reading..

As Julie was not involved in the actual launch in the Alliance, I'm giving her a look in here.

It is important to know that the French put a lot of pass on what I'd call polish: speaking with supreme confidence, wit and loads of grammar. In fact the ideal is to speak written French. Bearing this in mind will enhance your understanding of the incident below which I have reproduced from my website.
Learning French was no less bizarre. I arrived in France, in 1963, with very good Leaving Cert written French (there were no orals in those days). The family were, sort of, nobility. There had been a general in the family on the mother/granny's side and all the adults spoke proper. The granny was very concerned with the deterioration in the quality of French spoken by the youth of the country in general and her own daughter's children in particular.

Meanwhile I was trying to converse in French, my ultimate ambition being to effortlessly speak the same colloquial brand of French spoken by the children and of which the granny was so critical. I had to think in English, translate into French in my head, mentally repeat the result three times and then deliver it before it evaporated.

Clearly in granny's view I was speaking prose, as had de Gaulle before me, and the house resounded to her loud exhortations to the children "Écoutez Paul", listen to Paul (ie speak prose). The irony of it.

And the wit bit.

Well, let's take Jacques Attali, economic consigliere to François Mitterand and subsequently President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

Now there was a frenchman of sublime refinement who had trained his wit to a fine edge. He also had an abnormally large ego, the largest I ever met in fact, and clearly could never afford to let himself be outwitted, so to speak.

This incident, from the Board of the EBRD, on which I served briefly, will give you a flavour.
On one occasion, Tony Faint, the UK Director, who was from DIFID, had a mild go at him, when he suggested that the Bank should give some consideration to what niche might be appropriate for its operations. This was red rag to a bull as far as Attali was concerned and he responded that in French a niche was a kennel where you kept a dog. Tony replied that where he came from a niche was a space that housed the statue of a saint. "Yes, but they're all dead" was Attali's quick retort and that killed that intervention stone dead, so to speak.
Clearly Attali had fully absorbed this desideratum of the French education system. However, he didn't always have it his own way.
One of the Board's concerns was a feeling that the economic analysis underpinning some of the projects was a bit thin. A result, no doubt, of the speed at which matters were being pushed along. The cudgel here was taken up by the Spanish Director, José Luis Ugarte . He was a nice man with a slightly dry sense of humour. He had a background in economics, in academia and in the OECD, so he was well qualified for this encounter. "Mr President" says he "I think we might take this project a little more slowly and deepen the economic analyis underpinning it". "Not at all." says Attali "Economics is dead. I know. I taught it for years". "Ah yes, Mr President, but that was socialist economics". The Board collapsed with laughter. A beautiful rapier of a sentence. Attali had been socialist President Mitterand's economic mentor over the previous 15 years, even before he came to power. And the Bank was set up to supplant the failed "socialist" economics of the Soviet era. Even Attali had to muster a conceding smile.
That was one of only two occasions I have seen Attali bettered in repartee, a skill in which he prided himself.

The french education system lays great stress on philosophy as a subject, even in the early stages. By this is meant teaching pupils how to think. This doesn't mean that rote learning is absent. It isn't and there is a lot of it. But it does lead to the French having respect for public intellectuals.

Attali frequently boasted that he was a member of two minorities: he was a Jew and an intellectual. But that in my view was not the whole story.

The French have a binary view of the answer to the question: "where are you from?" which makes the question problematic. We Irish have no great problem asking the question, often followed by "who are your people?". Though I have to admit I once met a man who was ashamed to be from Mayo (God help him).

Posing that question to a Frenchman, however, can be very insulting. The binary is French or not French and asking the question could be seen as questioning the respondent's frenchness.

In listing his membership of minorities, Attali was careful to avoid mention of his membership of the third minority. He was born in Algiers. Clearly the less said the better.

The book comments on Madame de Staël who was known for running top class salons of conversation. She had interesting views on various national characteristics having herself lived all over the place.

Apparently she was stunned to learn that German conversation did not tolerate interruptions. The authors point out this was probably because, in German, the verb invariably comes at the end of the sentence.

I have included this random observation because it made me smile. Sort of a German joke.

Did you know that French is not a language? Seriously. At least that is the French view. It is simply an aspect of their culture.

For example we would describe French learned by a former monoglot English speaker as their second language, Turn this around to a former monoglot French speaker learning English. The English is described as their first language.

I sort of knew about all of this from my days in Mlle Giudicelli's class in the Alliance in the sixties - Langue et Civilisation Française and all that.

I also knew that in France political leaders are allowed a certain level of gilded luxury. It also applies to very senior civil servants. This whole group are seen as leaders in cultural discernment. It is actually a part of what brought down Attali in the end - his Carrara Marble (another story).

I learned some new things from this book about what I'd call permanent French attitudes, but also about how meanings had in some cases shaded from my time.

For instance I read that Copain now has acquired sexual connotations. In my day, the newly published pop magazine, Salut les Copains, could be translated as a sort of Hi Guys among young people. God knows how you'd have to translate it now.

So lets end on a good sexist note - a book called La Femme Parfaite est une CONNASSE, The Perfect Woman is a Bitch (putting it politely - Larousse gives you Stupid Cow as an alternative!).

Gotcha there, maybe. It is actually a pro-woman book written by two women. So there.

The main man spoke French to me afterwards and I have to say the Canadian version is different and I'd have needed more time to tune in. Must brush up on my Céline Dion.

Anyway, the book is a most enjoyable, and sometimes hilarious, read.

It will firm up your prejudices and explain why you don't have to feel guilty about them any more.

It will also arm you for any future ventures into that cockpit of cultural conflict which is the French language.

Buy it

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