The Bonjour Effect: An Interview with Authors Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau

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The Bonjour Effect: An Interview with Authors Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau
Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau are the award-winning authors of the international bestseller Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, as well as of The Story of French, The Story of Spanish and seven other books, as well as hundreds of articles.  Barlow grew up in Ontario, and Nadeau in Quebec: they met as students at McGill University in Montreal. After graduating, they worked as freelance journalists, publishing widely in national Canadian magazines. Avid travellers, Barlow and Nadeau have lived in Paris, where Nadeau was a fellow of the Washington-based Institute for Current World Affairs; Toronto; and Phoenix, Arizona, where Barlow was a Fulbright Scholar at Arizona State University. They are regular contributors to Canada’s national public affairs magazine L’actuality, and they write for a wide variety of other publications as well. Trilingual in English, French and Spanish, the couple is based in Montreal, where they live with their twin daughters. They recently took the time to answer Janet Hulstrand’s questions about their latest book, The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed, in this interview for Bonjour Paris. Janet Hulstrand: Why did you decide to write this book? How did the idea for it come about, and what was the main thing you wanted to offer your audience, in terms of better understanding the French? Julie Barlow: It’s sort of a funny answer. We got the idea for The Bonjour Effect literally walking to our editor’s office in New York City. We really wanted to return to France, where we had lived from 1999-2001 to write our first book, Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, partly because we wanted to give our daughters, who were 10 at the time, the opportunity to live in France. It occurred to us that a book project might be the way to do that. So we tried to think about what kind of questions were still nagging us about the French. The truth is, even after the years we lived in France and the many subsequent trips and interactions we’ve had with French friends, we still had some trouble communicating. We knew that travelers who love France often come home feeling miffed by the French. And we thought people would find it useful to have a book explaining how to communicate effectively with the French. We suspected that French education had something to do with the misunderstandings, and indeed, having children in French school gave us the chance to explore that. Our editor loved the idea, so off we went, and the result is The Bonjour Effect. Janet: You stress several times in your book the importance of saying “Bonjour,” even in many contexts where Anglophones couldn’t imagine it would be necessary. For example you advise your readers to “Say bonjour like you mean it and say it a lot. If it feels like you’re saying it too much, that’s just enough.” But there is one awkward situation in which you’re really not supposed to say it, right? And that is when you see—or pass by—the same person to whom you’ve already wished a “bonjour” a short time earlier in the same day.  What are you supposed to say then? Julie: To be honest, as freelance writers working out of our apartment in Paris, we didn’t meet a lot of people more than once a day! But as a general rule, if you have already said bonjour to someone, you can skip it the second time you meet them. Just don’t ignore the other golden rules of communicating with the French that we explore in our book. Say something interesting, even if it’s provocative. Don’t start a conversation by asking someone their name or what they do for a living– the French consider those things private. We have a list of such “Do’s” and “Don’t’s” at the end of our book. Janet: Could you explain the concept of a phatic? And are phatics more common, or more important in France than in English-speaking countries? Or are they just different? Julie: Phatics are words people use to send a social signal rather than to communicate information. So bonjour isn’t really a word. It’s a way of saying you want to converse or interact with someone. You are asking permission, in a way, to talk to someone, or ask a service from them. In France, for instance, you say bonjour to let someone know you are entering his or her “territory.” In The Bonjour Effect we tell the disastrous story of getting on a city bus and forgetting to say bonjour to the driver. What a mistake! We have phatics in English too. We say, “how are you” as a greeting, as a sign of goodwill, not because we really want to know the answer. I’m sure every culture and language has its own phatics. The trick is understanding and using them properly, which is why we have an entire chapter just on bonjour! Janet: One of the most helpful/useful things you pointed out, at least for me, is that in France, “non” does not necessarily mean no. You point out that when a French person says “non” they are really just providing the opening for a negotiation. Any tips about how Anglophones can remember this, and use it to their advantage? Julie: Anglophones are easily put off by the rather automatic French non because we interpret it as a rejection. We think it’s the end of the conversation. It almost never is in France. The best way to deal with the non is, like you said, to consider the beginning of a negotiation process. In The Bonjour Effect we tell the story of how I tried to get a metro pass, for example, without having the proper identification papers to prove I was a resident of Paris. The metro agent’s initial answer was a flat non. The key in these situations is to keep talking – and that’s what I did. I just dropped French terminology and other details about my neighborhood in…
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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor, writing coach and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and "A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France." She writes frequently about France for Bonjour Paris, France Today, and a variety of other publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She has taught “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for education abroad programs of the City University of New York since 1997, and she teaches online classes for Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. She is currently working on her next book in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in Champagne.


  • Jennifer F
    2017-09-06 10:47:28
    Jennifer F
    Nice review. I'll have to read this. I will say though that I do not agree with all of the generalizations. For example, my three children went through the French public school system and I do not see how it "trains" children to communicate. More like the teachers "expect" them to communicate, but the students are left to their own devices as to how to go about it! At least that was my experience with in rural schools in France. Perhaps a school in Paris would be different. Often books about "the French" are based on Parisians....and we all know that they're not representative of the French population in its entirety, n'est ce pas?