The Art of French Conversation for Dummies

Using tennis matches, good wine that needs time to breathe and English-style gardens, Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau have an impressive arsenal of metaphors when it comes to illustrating the subtleties of French conversation.
© Kelly Dochy

This couple of journalists from Quebec lived in Paris for four years, and observed the codes that govern verbal interactions between French people during a bus journey, at a dinner party with friends, while waiting to pick up the kids from school, at a picnic at the Jardin du Luxembourg or during an afternoon at the swimming pool. Using sketch after sketch to explain observations, the couple has co-written The Bonjour Effect, a book “more anthropological than journalistic” which was recently translated into French under the title Ainsi parlent les Français. Jean-Benoît Nadeau talked with us about the art of French conversation, its traditions, its codes and its taboos.

France-Amérique: Where does this tradition of conversation in France come from?

Jean-Benoît Nadeau: Historically speaking, this oral culture can be traced back to the salons of the 18th century. While the same settings no longer exist today, this culture of lengthy dinners in the city, colloquiums and debate clubs is still very present today in France. Eloquence is something of a bargaining chip in French culture. Certain social environments are not accessible to those who are unable to express themselves impeccably. Eloquence is a passport.

You describe the French education system l’Education nationale – as a “factory” that cultivates and maintains this oral tradition. Could you elaborate?

According to the French sociologist Cécile Van de Velde, being an adult in the United Kingdom – and therefore in North America – means “standing on your own two feet”: becoming responsible and obtaining independence. In France, it means “finding one’s place”: finding a good job and a favorable position in society. In its role as a social passport, correct oral expression is instilled in children from a very young age by their families, and especially by schools. The enormous number of recitals, presentations and oral exams is indicative of this trend.

You analyze French conversation as a succession of highly codified interactions. What advice would you give a non-French person trying to get by in the language?

Understanding the importance of taboos is vital. North Americans’ greatest fear is not being accepted, while the French are most terrified of making mistakes and being ridiculed. These taboos have an effect on human relations. For French people, silence is a form of communication. If they are silent, it means they are refusing to engage in conversation. On the other hand, North Americans never refuse a conversation, as they want to show they are friendly and accepting. They speak to keep the person in front of them at arm’s length. People talk to each other very spontaneously in North America, but these conversations have practically no meaning. Codes of communication between Americans do not allow an exterior listener to understand the type of human relation based on one conversation, which is exactly why many French people find Americans to be superficial.

A number of misunderstandings are found in the distinction between public and private lives…

This is the main cause of misunderstandings between the Americans and the French. Everything seen as private in North America comes under the public umbrella in France, and vice versa. An American would not hesitate to talk about their job or family life with just about anyone. But when a French person starts discussing family, work, money, or starts being humorous, it means they are ready to welcome the person into their private life.

An entire chapter in your book is devoted to the word “no”. Do the French really say “no” that much?

The French have been raised and educated in the fear of mistakes and ridicule. Not knowing something is a mistake. When a French person says “no,” it is not a refusal but rather a defensive stance. They are protecting themselves from a situation in which they could make a mistake. Similarly, in order to protect themselves from ridicule, a French person would rarely say “I don’t know.” Pessimism is very popular in France, and it comes from the same taboo. In a culture where you are asked to form an opinion very quickly, admitting your ignorance is not an option. Pessimism is an escape route, a form of ready-to-wear intellectual clothing. As the old saying goes, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” but that’s not true in Paris!

You write that the French are raised as “language fanatics” but that they become more tolerant as they get older. How is this transition made?

In an attempt to “place” the students in a “good social environment,” schools maintain the idea of linguistic purity. In the French education system, writing is the referent for speech: Spoken French must conform to the same rules as written French. But the language spoken outside of school is not necessarily in keeping with the scholarly ideal. This leads many French people to experience cognitive dissonance, which is why we now talk about decadence in the French language.

Are purist defenders of the French language right? Is the French language in decline?

People were already decrying the decline of the French language three centuries ago! The French have always undermined their own language. They adopt words borrowed from slang, from jargon, and from foreign languages. The English example is staggering. The entire country has spoken French since the middle of the last century, but English has started to impose itself as the language of power. Public opinion 20 years ago thought that the Americans and the British were forcing English upon the French. But we can now see this is wrong. The French themselves adopt the English language. In the Bordieusian sense of the term, this is a very powerful new element of distinction.

Article published in the August 2016 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.