June 26, 2017

Book Review: The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed by Julie Barlow and Jean Benoit Nadeau

Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow spent a decade traveling back and forth to Paris as well as living there. Yet one important lesson never seemed to sink in: how to communicate comfortably with the French, even when you speak their language. In The Bonjour Effect Jean-Benoît and Julie chronicle the lessons they learned after they returned to France to live, for a year, with their twin daughters. They offer up all the lessons they learned and explain, in a book as fizzy as a bottle of the finest French champagne, the most important aspect of all: the French don't communicate, they converse. To understand and speak French well, one must understand that French conversation runs on a set of rules that go to the heart of French culture. Why do the French like talking about "the decline of France"? Why does broaching a subject like money end all discussion? Why do the French become so aroused debating the merits and qualities of their own language? Through encounters with school principals, city hall civil servants, gas company employees, old friends and business acquaintances, Julie and Jean-Benoît explain why, culturally and historically, conversation with the French is not about communicating or being nice. It's about being interesting. After reading The Bonjour Effect, even readers with a modicum of French language ability will be able to hold their own the next time they step into a bistro on the Left Bank.

The description above doesn’t adequately depict the depth and breadth of The Bonjour Effect (“in a book as fizzy as a bottle of the finest French champagne”)  While there are some light-hearted moments, the authors supported their observations not only with personal experience, but with impressive knowledge of French history, past and current political climates, cultural mores, and of course a scientific examination of linguistics. If you want the bare bones commandments of what to do and not to do when conversing with the French, skip to the end for a list called the “Twelve Guiding Principles of French Conversation” (i.e. “Say bonjour like you mean it and say it a lot.  Never take non for an answer.  Keep talking until you get a oui.

Though the list is very handy, it is simplistic. The preceding chapters delve into the sometimes complex reasons behind French attitudes and taboos, which are endlessly fascinating for a Francophile such as myself.  The French can be a baffling lot but The Bonjour Effect goes a long way to illuminating their mysterious ways.  I plan on rereading it prior to my next trip to Paris as a refresher.

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