According to authors Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau, the word bonjour might be the most important word in the French language.
The Canadian writing duo are behind the new book The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed, which dissects the unstated yet essential rules of French politeness and conversational etiquette.
“France is the most visited country in the world, with 84 million visitors per year,” Barlow told The Local. “It’s in some ways very familiar to English speakers and they have high expectations when they come to France.
“What visitors don’t realize is that France is a different culture with entirely different codes, and if you want to communicate well with the French, you need a basic understanding of them.”
Here Barlow lays out the importance of the word bonjour and other useful rules of conversation etiquette in France.
1. Always say bonjour
Yes, always. At the bakery. In the lift. In waiting rooms.
“You can never overdo it with bonjour,” Barlow said. “When you think you’ve said it too much, you’re probably saying it just enough.
So if you think saying “excusez moi” to a shop assistant is enough to get them to respond civilly to you then think again.
“Basically, every sort of interaction with the French has to start with a heartfelt bonjour. This is how you ‘announce’ that you want to speak with the French,” she said. “You can’t just smile and start talking to the French, or even say ‘excuse me’ and start talking.
“Saying bonjour also means, ‘I am entering your territory.’”
Barlow and Nadeau give an example of how they were once stunned to be admonished by a bus driver for forgetting to say bonjour when they got on his bus.
“We had forgotten that we had to tell the bus driver we were entering his territory,” Barlow said. “He called us 'mal élevés' (badly brought up).”
So when in doubt, just say bonjour. Better not to risk being seen as as mal élevé.
2. Don’t infringe in their privacy
Barlow says that “communicating well with the French is not so much about understanding etiquette as it is about understanding their codes.”
When talking to a French person, it’s best not to get too personal too quickly. That might sound pretty straightforward, but the French have their own unique ideas about what is personal and private.
“For example, you should never begin a conversation by asking a French person her name and what she does for a living,” said Barlow. “These are private topics in France, not things you talk about with strangers.”
For some foreigners, especially Americans who tend to strike up a conversation by asking exactly that, this can be a tough one to remember.
3. Resist the urge to smile
Photo: Aidan Jones/Flickr
Apparently English-speakers have a tendency to show their teeth far too often in a country where many people find it disconcerting.
Barlow advises to tame down the smiling around the French if you want to make a good impression.
If you smile too much, “they think you are either stupid or are trying to hide something,” she said.
Neither of those are probably the impression you want to give off, so better to keep your delight on the inside.
4. Don’t be put off by a non
Barlow said that many foreigners mistake a non from a French person for impoliteness or unwillingness to keep talking.
“You need to understand the role of non in French conversation,” said Barlow. “The French very often answer queries with non. But that doesn’t mean they want to end communications.
“For the French, it’s like a starting position. If you keep talking, the non will almost always turn into a yes.”
5. Be mindful of conversation topics
In some anglophone cultures, it’s a rule that in casual conversation you should avoid the trifecta: politics, religion, and money.
The French are d’accord that money is a taboo subject. Most of them consider it “a boring conversation topic and in bad taste,” said Barlow.
But they love a good fiery debate about politics. Some other good topics include history, geography, language and of course, food. You’ll be amazed at how long a French person can go on in response to the question: “So where does this cheese come from?”
6. Be polite, but also be provocative
Barlow explained that although France has its codes of formality, “talking is not about being polite.
“On the contrary. The important thing is to be interesting. In most cases the French would rather come across as provocative than polite.
“The French don’t communicate, they converse. It’s a game in which participants share ideas and perspectives. To play well, you can’t just return the balls with pat answers — you have to provide some interesting material, something your conversation partners can work with.”
Of course all of this advice would be useless if you don't start that initial greeting with bonjour.
You can order your copy of The Bonjour Effect on Amazon.
By Katie Warren