4 keys to communicating with French people

In the future, if someone asks me what they need to know before traveling to France, I’m going to hand them a copy of The Bonjour Effect.

I can’t rave enough about this well-researched book by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau, two Canadian journalists who spent a decade in Paris studying French culture, history, and language. More than just a guide for how to communicate with the French, it’s the most in-depth window into French culture that I’ve ever encountered.

Below are a few of the mind-opening insights I’ll take with me on my next trip to Paris.

1. Start with bonjour

Bonjour Effect
The Bonjour Effect:: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed (St. Martin’s Press, 2016, 320 pages)

Every French travel guide will remind you to say Bonjour to the people you meet, and I’ve even come to understand that the lack of Bonjour from foreigners is what makes Parisians seem rude (rudeness in response to rudeness). But The Bonjour Effect was the first book I’ve ever read to satisfactorily explain why this little word is so vital to the French.

Bonjour, Barlow and Nadeau explain, doesn’t really mean hello. It’s a “phatic,” a word that sends a particular social signal—in this case, something along the lines of “I am here,” “I’d like to communicate,” or “I’m entering your territory.”

I was shocked to learn that it’s not enough to start off with Excusez-moi; you have to say Bonjour first, and wait for the other person to say Bonjour back—in effect, “Yes, let’s communicate.” With this beginning, the French should be much more open and receptive.

(But, as my host mother once chided me, you don’t say Bonjour to someone more than once in a day. Which brings me to the second lesson…) 

2. Expect to be corrected

For a sensitive college junior studying abroad, the French propensity to point out improper behavior was intimidating.

I had a habit of going jogging almost every morning (which already felt like a countercultural act in 2013 Paris), and, apparently, I also had a habit of letting the stairwell door close too loudly. One morning, a French woman in her dressing gown emerged in the hallway, called me out for making a racket, and literally made me demonstrate to her that I could close the door softly.

“The French remark rather freely on everything from others’ language to their appearance. It’s not always nice, but it’s not impolite,” Barlow and Nadeau write.

I remember constantly seeing handwritten signs in my apartment building’s elevator, residents informing other residents to clean up after their trash or leave the hallways clear. The French tendency for correction is also evident in this marked-up landlord’s notice I saw on my recent trip to Paris:

Glass recycling sign

Language in particular is a favorite arena for error-spotting. According to Barlow and Nadeau, the French education system treats the French language as something complex and hard to master, with clear distinctions between the right and wrong way to speak.

For example, on their report cards, kids are apparently graded on 68 subskills under French, including “using adjectives correctly in possessive phrases.” The French have four words for “receipt” that mean slightly different things; fin de semaine refers to Friday night through Sunday, while le weekend is Saturday and Sunday. On my recent trip to Paris, I was confused when a saleswoman said they had no bottes (boots) even though I had seen some in the window display; when I pointed, she looked surprised and corrected me: Ah, bottines (ankle boots)!

3. Don’t believe every “no”

Another habit that may perplex and annoy Americans is the French tendency to say no all the time, even when they don’t mean it.

The French “no,” which you’ll often hear in a professional or service context, also takes the form of Ça ne va pas être possible (It’s not possible), C’est la France (That’s France for you), Pas question (Out of the question), Ça n’existe pas (That doesn’t exist), and Je suis désolé (I’m sorry). But rather than being the end to a conversation, these “no’s” are apparently an invitation to continue talking—to negotiate.

For example, Barlow recounts an incident when she tried to purchase a metro pass without the proper documentation of her residence. Undeterred by the agent’s non, she started chatting about her neighborhood and her daughters’ school, showing that she truly lived in the area. She got the pass.

Grumpy cat NON

Although the French no is sometimes reflexive, other times it covers up a reluctance to say, “I don’t know” or to make a mistake.

“The French almost universally fear being found en faute (at fault) for something,” Barlow and Nadeau observe. Meanwhile, “North Americans have a quasi-universal fear of being disliked or not being accepted,” which means they’ll often give up in the face of a no—a recipe for cultural misunderstanding.

4. Choose your topics wisely

Conversation is a favorite pastime of the French, and they love to talk about art and culture, geography, history, food, travel, and language, Barlow and Nadeau explain.

Work and money are more fraught topics. Work is seen as a private affair, and simply asking, “What do you do?”—a common opener among American strangers—is too intimate for some French people. Meanwhile, talking about money can also be taboo.

Other topics are even bigger minefields for the French. The darker periods of France’s history, or the concept of French national identity—and all the racial and religious tensions it implies—are difficult to get French people to discuss, even more so than they would be in America.

Because the French have stronger delineations of public and private, of topics appropriate for friends and topics appropriate for strangers, the content of a conversation can give you a good idea of where you stand with a Frenchman. Once they start talking to you about family, work, or money—or using self-deprecating humor—you’ve been welcomed into the inner circle.

There’s also an art to how to talk, and here the French are quite permissive. While Americans tend to avoid conflict, the French embrace it:

“The French love conversations in which diverse perspectives clash and people duke it out intellectually. That’s considered far more interesting than reaching consensus,” Barlow and Nadeau write. Sharing bold opinions, sometimes just for the sake of provocation, is common. The best conversations stay light and playful, not too serious or weighty.

It helps to remember that Barlow and Nadeau were already French speakers to begin with, and even they found themselves baffled by the “secret codes of French conversation.” Those of us coming to Paris with our wobbly French have a lot to learn—so a dose of humility and a dash of persistence will go a long way.

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