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-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, have given me a whole new education in how to understand France and the French.
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, a vous." I was the client, she was the loo attendant, but this "code of conversation" is a formula of mutual respectfulness.
'Bonjour' is always the opener. But Nadeau and Barlow (who are from Quebec but have lived in France for long stretches) reveal a lot more about other, lesser-known conversational codes which made complete sense.
For example, the French love to say 'no'. It is their default position. 'No' is a way of justifying authority - and shielding themselves from errors. If you say 'no' to everything, then you are not taking the risk of saying 'yes' and making a mistake.
This, say the Canadians, goes back to French education, which had a thunderously punitive attitude to 'fautes' - faults. French education has none of the sunny North American instincts of emphasising the positive in children: French children have to be corrected for 'faults'. Being afraid of making mistakes makes you risk-averse, and thus, a negative attitude is always safer.
By deft linguistic skills, however, you can often talk people around to conceding a 'yes'. Eventually, with reassurance, they can shift from 'no' to 'yes'. This is crucial knowledge for anyone doing business in France. And feminists pursuing the 'No means No' campaign in matters of sexual consent will surely have to adjust their approach for the French, where 'no', according to our cultural anthropologists, is simply the opening negotiating position.
This fear of 'faults' also means that the French can seldom admit they are in the wrong. Even when they have obviously made an error - a hotel receptionist has made a wrong booking, for example - they won't admit to it. This, again, is because they are frightened of being in the wrong - frightened of being at fault. The French are essentially a pessimistic people.
French conversation can be terrifying, and now I know why. Even when you have a fairly competent mastery of the language, you still need to grasp the codes. There are taboo subjects which you must not raise, except, again, in a roundabout way. You must never say to a French person, "Where are you from?" (the first opening gambit between two Irish strangers). It is too direct and personal, and it touches on sensitive topics like identity. But you may say, "Which region are you from?"
'Region' is safe because it is generalised and allows the French to perorate on 'terroir', which will lead them onto the safest and most beloved topic of all - food.
Another taboo subject is money. You mustn't talk directly about money. The historical influence of the idle French aristocracy is still felt, so money is to be ignored. But you can get around it by talking about impersonal economics. You may also complain about the cost of living - 'la vie chère' is tried and tested. Jobs are another touchy area. The French pretend to hate their work. To be happy at work is considered 'naive' - a fatal failing. Again, you may get around this topic, crab-like, by discoursing on 'métiers' - professions.
The most acceptable topics of conversation are: geography, history, art and 'culture générale'. Despite (or because of) being republicans, they adore their kings, and any conversation starting with Louis XIV will be an icebreaker.
French conversation is often brilliant, and that's what makes it so daunting. The French do not converse for the purpose of communication, say our French-Canadian guides, but because they love articulate expression. You must show yourself to be clever, witty and ready with quick-fire repartee. Conversation is about linguistic 'sparring'. That's just what's so inhibiting. I often falter for fear of not seeming smart enough to keep up.
Some of these observations are generalisations, but Barlow and Nadeau back up their data with sources, and so many of their stories ring true. They are not disparaging about French culture, but they are forensic about it. They praise the French love of their own language, and the desire to see it properly taught and spoken.
The precision of language is indeed a perennial (and safe) topic of conversation, and this was indeed a lesson I was given at the age of 19, by a Frenchwoman, illustrated by the following story: a man arrives home unexpectedly early from the office to find his wife in the arms of a lover. "Madame," he says. "I am surprised."
The wife replies: "No, Monsieur: we are surprised. You are astonished." Exact use of language is so important.