Sacre Coeur overlooking Paris

Sacre Coeur overlooking Paris

The smaller town feel of Strasbourg, a view from the Grand Ile, which circles the heart of the historic city

The smaller town feel of Strasbourg, a view from the Grand Ile, which circles the heart of the historic city


(What is Tocqueville Capital?  Read the welcome post for the series!)

In this edition of Tocqueville Capital, we return to the land of Alexis’s roots.  Last May, I traveled with my colleague – and friend – Heather, along with our students on a three-week cross-cultural course to Strasbourg and Paris, France.  Our college offers these courses as part of our general education curriculum, QuEST (Qualities Essential for Student Transformation), as a way of helping students become more effective in building and navigating relationships with those who have cultural values and experiences that differ from their own.  One of the most fundamental differences that students experienced in the course related to social interaction, which can impact the way in which bonds build between people.  Thankfully, Heather had incorporated a fabulous read for the course that helped students prepare; I was also thrilled to see that it connected to Tocqueville.

In The Bonjour Effect: The Secrets of French Conversation Revealed, Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau discuss many facets of conversation in French culture.  Barlow’s and Nadeau’s work is enriched both by their experience living in France for a period of time, as native québécois, as well as support from research and cultural analyses, putting the stories of their experience into a larger context.  Among the many themes covered by their book, they focus on French tendencies in conversation and discussion, which are essential to engage effectively with others.

Barlow and Nadeau illustrate the importance of conversation when the French interact with one another through such ranging examples as swimming pools and office culture.  Whether engaging in the popular activity of swimming in a crowded pool, where talk cannot occur underwater or being deprived of the opportunity to process a decision made by management, a spirited discussion ensues as people offer their perspectives (see these topics and more in Ch. 7).  Underlying these exchanges is a desire to express thoughts and chat without necessarily diving deeply into a topic. Barlow and Nadeau characterize these interactions as conversation, which “focuses on the relationship between interlocutors.  Discussions are different.  They are about examining a topic” (94).  Opportunities for expression allow people to share their voices on issues that affect their lives and chats allow relationships to develop.

Of course, the French are not above deeper discussions either.  French schools, unlike some others – including America’s – devote a significant portion of their curriculum to the study of philosophy, which allows students to deeply examine ideas with reason. Barlow and Nadeau share the scope of study that trains the French “not to think about things in simple binary terms (good and evil, black and white, good or bad” but with nuance (95). Students in all fields, even the sciences and technology, study between two to eight hours of the subject a week during the last three years of lycée (secondary school); the authors note that it is more than most college students in America get – save for majors or minors in the field, of course (95).  In a way, it makes the French bilingue (bilingual) within their own language.  We see both of these lingual approaches in the French political system.

For a couple of years, the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) have made their presence known, visibly and verbally. (We unexpectedly ended up observing a demonstration during our day in Nancy, so we can attest personally to their intensity!)  Expressing their concerns, initially for rising costs of fuel before later expanding into calls for larger economic reforms, the gilets jaunes have kept these issues in the public eye through these sustained demonstrations; unfortunately, some incidents have resulted in violence.

And yet, the French political system – a hybrid neither purely parliamentary nor purely presidential – reflects an intentional element of deliberation akin to their discussion modes.  Rather than selecting their president as the candidate who wins the most votes – most often a plurality when multiple people run – they ensure that the winner has a majority.  If in the first round, no candidate receives 51% of votes, they hold a run-off second round with the top two candidates.  This approach ensures that a sufficient portion of the public supports the winner, enhancing the support for the leaders.  Each of these elements contributes to the French culture.

Tocqueville picked up on these differences in verbal habits during his time in the states.  Barlow and Nadeau capture a key insight from Alexis’s traveling partner, Gustave de Beaumont, “They don’t chat in the United States the way they do in France.  The American always argues.  He has no knowledge of the art of lightly skimming the surface of topics in a large group, where each one puts in a remark, brilliant or dull, heavy or light, where one person finishes a phrase begun by someone else, and where everything is touched on but never in-depth” (93).  Tocqueville himself affirms this though in Volume I of Democracy in America:

To take part in the government of society and to talk about it, that is the greatest business and, so to speak, the only pleasure that an American knows.  This is seen even in the smallest habits of his life: women themselves often go to public meetings and divert themselves from the troubles of housework by listening to political speeches.  For them, the clubs to a certain extent take the place of theatrical entertainments.  An American does not know how to converse, but he debates; he does not talk, he speechifies. (Ch. 5, “Activity That Reigns…”, par. 6)

In short, the dedication to political passion may sometimes shortchange us on our ability to relate to others.

As one who is slightly on the introverted side of the spectrum and quiet in conversation with new people – unless in front of a classroom of students or colleagues – I think we can learn something from this distinction about the art of conversation.  Although not as deep in nature, conversation allows us to build connections with others, some of which may bloom into longer-term relationships that we might not anticipate.  Larry Alton offers some helpful tips on this art; I always find that thinking about the “why” behind suggestions for the “what we should do” can help us apply them more naturally. (See also Minister Faust’s TED Talk on “How to Engage in Better Small Talk”.)

The Bonjour Effect provides a great overview and introduction to French culture for many worthy reasons.  Its accessibility makes its ideas available to a broad audience.  As a scholar, I also particularly value the authors’ use of systematic and reliable research to give context to their personal experiences.  (In this strength, it reminds me of other cherished reads like The Year of Living Danishly  and Radical Sabbatical.)  In addition, it offers a comparative perspective without judging cultural merits that helps the reader relate it to their own experiences. Most importantly, of course, it extends the intellectual capital of Tocqueville!

This week, Heather and I are gearing up to interview students for our May 2021 course – hopefully our world will have cleared the pandemic and emerged in a new normal that allows for travel.  I look forward to this opportunity to introduce students to this beautiful country, especially Strasbourg with its rich cultural identity born from the many shifts in its political control between France and Germany for over a millennium.  The most important piece that students had affirmed for them, was the need to always begin any social interaction in France with a “Bonjour!”


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