Tuesday 6 December 2016

Mary Kenny: Cracking le code of French conversation

Understanding the secret rules of French conversation is quite an art

Published 16/10/2016 | 02:30

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

What is the secret of communicating with the French? Because I spent two of the most formative years of my youth in France and have kept up a close interest in French culture and society ever since, I thought I knew this terrain. But two French-Canadians, Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, have given me a whole new education in how to understand France and the French.

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I knew about the first lesson which they impart in their riveting study, (which they call The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed). In France, in any encounter, you must always start by saying "Bonjour". And preferably "Bonjour Madame/Monsieur". It is a firm rule, and it is pleasantly free from the class deference associated with 'Sir' and 'Madam' in English.

At Lille railway station recently, I entered the ladies' toilet. "Bonjour Madame," said the young French-African in charge: to which I knew to reply, "Bonjour Madame, à vous." I was the client, she was the loo attendant, but this "code of conversation" is a formula of mutual respectfulness.

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