Posts tagged ‘French life’

The Other Bonjour Effect…

Many people, including yours truly, have written about the importance of starting any social (or commercial, or casual) interaction in France with the word “Bonjour,” ideally followed by “monsieur” or “madame.” (The great Polly Platt, author of French or Foe? told her readers that “the form is rigid.”) In the first chapter of Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau’s excellent book, The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed, the authors explain thoroughly, and very interestingly, the reasons for why this is so important. (The chapter title gives an intriguing clue to one of the reasons: “I Greet, Therefore I Am.” )

I often explain to my students that in France, this obligatory and very pro forma greeting also carries the implication that “I am greeting you, therefore you exist too!” And in my book, Demystifying the French, I sum up the importance of saying bonjour to everyone you encounter as being “just part of treating someone like a human being in France.”

Unfortunately, failing to do so can also be seen as a way of dismissing, ignoring, or insulting your fellow human beings.

So. Not knowing this rule often causes unsuspecting and unaware-of-this- rule Americans (and I suppose other foreigners) in France a lot of trouble. It is a trap constantly waiting for us to step into; and time and time again, we do. I continue to do so now, even though I know very well how important it is. (In Demystifying the French, I give some advice about what to do when you inevitably forget, and how to repair the damage.)

And while many of us foreigners therefore view this very strict rule of French etiquette—as well as others–as something of a nuisance, these niceties do have their benefits.

About a year ago, my son and I had been invited to a post-grape-harvest celebration by our friends who own the pressoir in our village. As we approached the pressoir I explained to my son that it is expected on arriving that you greet everyone who is there with either a bise (the famous French air-kiss, cheek to cheek), or a handshake. (And yes, it is not always easy to know which of these two forms of greeting should be used: but for now, it doesn’t matter because of COVID. Because we are not supposed to be doing either of these things for the time being…the President of France has said so!)

In any case, my son said, “Really?! Every person there?” “Yes,” I said, as I ignored his incredulous look, and steeled my reserved, Scandinavian Midwestern self for the ordeal.

On arriving I took a deep breath and held out my hand, or offered my cheek to each person I encountered on the way inside, following the cues they offered. My son followed me inside, gamely playing along.

Later in the evening, a perfect stranger came over to us and shook our hands, and offered us a friendly Bonsoir as he made his rounds of the room. After he had (quickly) moved on, my son looked at me and said, “Well. I can’t do it myself. But it is kinda nice…”

Indeed it is “kinda nice,” to be acknowledged as a living, breathing human being, by other living, breathing human beings, once you get used to it.

Last week I had another surprisingly moving experience with the bonjour effect. I had to have surgery for cataracts. It’s kind of a scary thing to have surgery on your eyes, really, no matter how much you trust the surgeon. I did trust my surgeon, and the anesthesiologist, with whom I had an online consultation the day before the surgery, during which he let me know what to expect, step by step, throughout the procedure. But I was still a bit nervous, especially since I knew I would not be rendered completely unconscious for the operation. (I prefer to not be at all conscious for these kinds of things…)

On arriving at the hospital early in the morning, and after making my way past the front desk and up the elevator to the opthamological unit, I was directed to “me patienter” in a waiting room. The first thing I noticed was that the window was slightly open, letting a warm, gentle breeze into the room; and that out the window was a lovely view of Parisian rooftops. The second thing I noticed was that there was a handwritten note on a whiteboard: it said “Nous prenons soin de vous…” (“We (will) take care of you…”)

This made me feel better, a bit more relaxed. Not too much later, I was clothed in sterile scrubs and on my way to the staging area for the operating room, and then climbing onto an operating table. The anesthesiologist stopped by to say a quick, warm bonjour (of course!) And then I was being wheeled rapidly toward the operating room.

That is when the unexpectedly rich meaning of bonjour in this new context came alive for me. For as I was being wheeled down that hallway, which seemed to me a blur of gray and metal surfaces moving past me quickly, with cold, bright lights above me, a procession of warm, friendly faces above bodies in blue scrub suits moved past me heading quickly in the same direction. I don’t know if these warm, friendly faces belonged to the people that would be part of the team attending to me during the surgery, or if they were just passing by on their way to somewhere else. What I do know is that as each of them passed by me they turned their faces in my direction, and said, in that lovely, lilting French way a warm, friendly, encouraging “Bonjour!” And in the context of that little scene, it seemed to me that each of their faces was full of color: the colors of human life–a variety of skin tones, eye colors, eyebrows, lips, teeth. set in friendly faces!–standing out against the grays, the metal, the harsh bright lights above. And every one of them was wishing me well, giving me courage, letting me know that they (or someone) would take good care of me…

I felt so very blessed, and cared for in that moment. Soon after I was given the drugs that would (apparently) render me not fully unconscious, but relaxed enough that it didn’t matter. The anesthesiologist, who by now felt like a close friend, was there: so was the nurse I had met upstairs, the one who put drops in my eye. The doctor appeared; he applied his surgical expertise to my eye; and now, a week later, I am able to see so much better than I had been able to do for months before.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget that powerful bonjour experience. It was very memorable.

Can it help me remember to always say bonjour to the people I encounter in my everyday life in the future?

Well, maybe…I’ll keep trying!


Janet Hulstrand
 is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “
A Long Way from Iowa.”

September 26, 2020 at 9:11 am 2 comments

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