Confession: The idea for this post came from a very funny video I saw years ago about the utility of Ah bon ! in French conversation. Unfortunately I can't find it today. Dommage ! (Too bad!) If you happen to know where to find it or come across it, please don't hesitate to put the Web address in a comment on the blog.
An earlier post covered a few words you must know and be able to use appropriately when moving to France to have any hope of living here happily. This email is about words that will be very useful at a later stage when you arrive at the point that you reasonably understand spoken French.
When you live in France and are making an effort to join in life here, you find yourself talking to people who don't speak English or don't really want to - at the supermarket checkout, the local bakery, the open-air market, when you run into your neighbor or the postman, and so on. There's an excellent (and clever) column at expatica.com by Clair Whitmer on conversing in French and the utility of ah bon in these daily interactions.
However, what we really aspire to is more than handling the quickie exchanges of daily living.. What we want is enough skill in French to participate in a spirited conversation at our local café, at a company barbecue, at a dinner in a French friend's home. For most of us, that's a lofty goal that takes time and a lot of hard work. Meanwhile, there are magic words that can make you look better than you think you are, and that's what this email is about. For the magic words to work, you have to be able to follow a French conversation. Once you get to that point, it doesn't really take a lot more to join in without embarrassing yourself, as Clair Whitmer points out in her column referred to above.
However, before I unveil the power of certain words, let's talk about the place of conversation in French life. Please keep in mind that what follows is a series of generalizations I've drawn from my experiences. Of course you're going to run into exceptions or may form other conclusions from your experiences
To make a first generalization, the purpose of social conversation in France differs from its purpose in the States; it's not normally to convey information, persuade, reach consensus or offer comfort, as is often the case in the US; it is more commonly to amuse and entertain the participants and to reaffirm the social ties that brought the group together. The image you need to have: words flying back and forth, several people speaking at once, people getting interrupted in mid-sentence, the topic of conversation changing continually. You think it's chaos, but they look like they're likely enjoying themselves. The subject may be very serious - right now it's likely to be the presidential election - or not - here in the southwest the rugby championship is also a hot topic. They may or may not be smiling, but they're paying close attention and they're caught up in the verbal action. They love it! This is not America and this is not your typical American conversation!
Coming up to speed in French conversations:
- A good idea when you first start participating in French conversations is to just watch the fireworks for a while. Until you get a good handle on how conversation works here, it's better to keep your mouth shut and let people wonder if you're an ignorant American rather than open your mouth and confirm you are.
- Here's an idea from Polly Platt's French or Foe? When you've been invited to dinner in a French home, think about a clever short remark you can make on some hot issue of the day - if nothing else, there's often something going on in America that has the French perplexed and you can count on being asked what it's about. Whatever topic you pick, you can be sure that in the course of the evening it will come up. You keep quiet till it does. At the appropriate moment, you roll out your prepared bit of wit. You won't even need to finish the sentence. You then keep quiet the rest of the evening. If you haven't committed some grave social error, like asking for a Coke or ketchup, you helped keep the conversation going, your reputation as a delightful dinner guest is made, and you may receive the ultimate compliment of being invited back.
- In the course of a conversation, the topic turns to a subject you know something about and you join in to clear it up, as you would back home. Shortly after you get started, DAMN IT, someone interrupts you and off they're off running before you had even finished. How rude (and demeaning) you think! Well, the truth is they are NOT being rude. Interrupting someone (of approximately one's age or younger and one's social standing or lower) before they've finished is common and quite acceptable. It's not that they wouldn't be interested in what you have to say in the right circumstances, it's out of place at the moment. Conversation here is fast moving, it's not for giving lessons. The French prefer and value wit, not light. Think of it as a verbal game of ping-pong. The idea is to fire back the shot they sent your way, to keep the ball moving. To score, you respond with something brief, laced with humor. Shakespeare said it perfectly: "Brevity is the soul of wit." There are a couple of exceptions: 1) if there's something you feel you must explain, it's OK to ask if you can take a moment to explain whatever it is - normally you'll get the go-ahead and you then lay it out, 2) if someone asks you a question and the conversation stops and all eyes turn to you, go for it - you're on stage. In both cases, keep it brief, with a touch of humor if you can.
- You're starting to participate and you realize you're getting reactions you're not used to: they may correct you, they may raise their voice, they may make fun of what you said or how you said it. Rest assured that, if the overall vibes are good, they're not insulting you or demeaning you or whatever, they're enjoying the interaction. They may throw what you said back in your face, they may question your thinking, they may laugh at your accent, and so on. Relax - think of it as a high-spirited game among friends.
So, what are these magic words?
ah bon, tiens, tout à fait, vraiment, absolument, tu exagères, franchement, voilà.
Note that these words are all responses. You use them to respond to something someone else said. You're keeping the conversation going and at the same time sending the subliminal message you're enjoying the company.
- ah bon, tiens (really, you don't say)
* Rising accent (like a question) and you've questioned what you've just heard.
* Descending accent and you've expressed skepticism.
* Even tone and you agree you've just learned something.
* Forté and now you're amazed.
* And so on.
There are innumerable variations possible which make these phrases invaluable. Here's a link to Linda Lawless at about.com on ah bon.
Ah bon is more up-scale, tiens more informal.
- tout à fait, absolument, vraiment (right on, truly, absolutely)
- tu exagères (you're exaggerating)
- franchement (frankly)
There's one more French expression that deserves a word (pun intended): oh là là (there, there). The common pronunciation oo la la is wrong. The opening syllable is oh, not oo. The first syllable is barely voiced, the rest is said with a descending accent. More than two là's are permitted and note the spelling of là. In France the phrase is used to express surprise, disappointment, disgust, shock, say at coming on a car accident. It's not about happy surprise at happening on something sexy or naughty. The American oo-la-la with an accented drawn-out oo doesn't happen in France. See Laura Lawless on oh là là at about.com and the citation at wikitionnaire.