Monday, May 19, 2008

Understanding French Body Language

Glancing up at a sizable group gathered on a fifth-floor balcony in the 8e arrondissement the other day, I mumbled to myself, "Il y a du monde au balcon." Then I laughed, remembering what that phrase means. Then came the flashback. To a black-and-white photo in a book, of a man in a turtleneck, miming the phrase il y a du monde au balcon to indicate seeing a large-breasted woman.

The book is called Beaux Gestes, and it is the Rosetta stone for deciphering French body language. Gallic puffing-out of cheeks or the finger-pulling-the-lower-eyelid got you confused? You'll find the answers in Beaux Gestes. An entertaining, witty, loving look at French gestures by probably the most avid American Francophile of all time, the late Laurence Wylie. The online version of Beaux Gestes and an excellent biography of Professor Wylie are found at an informative website called FranceInfo US.

I first discovered Professor Wylie's work when I read A Village in the Vaucluse, the tale of Wylie's family life when he was a teacher in Rousillon in the early 1950s. It was a tremendous hit with Francophiles well before Peter Mayle ever dreamed of writing A Year In Provence. (If you read both A Village in the Vaucluse and Mayle's books, you'll see the differences in their approaches. Professor Wylie was a witty and eloquent esteemed Harvard social anthropologist, chair of the Department of French Civilization. Mayle's background was as an astute advertising exec.) I loved A Year in Provence, though in parts I found it a bit condescending to the villageois. Mostly I wished that Professor Wylie's books could have had the same best-seller accolades. They deserved it.

Lucky me to have been a French major: Beaux Gestes was required reading for a French civilization course. Some of us have to do the hard work!


Jay Livingston said...

Once many years ago I was in a clothing store in Manhattan (an Express I think). The music coming over the sound system was an Edith Piaf recording, not one of the four or five I was familiar with, and I heard the line, "les epaules toutes nues et du monde au balcon," and I thought, "Thank you, M. Wylie. But for you, I would have no idea what that meant."

Unknown said...

Thanks for the heads up on Beaux Gestes! I read "A Village in the Vaucluse" for a cultural anthropology paper in 1982. I agree with your assessment of Mayle's and Wylie's works.

materfamilias said...

Fun post. I'm bookmarking the Beaux Gestes site so I can spend time on it when I get back from doing the fieldwork (i.e. I'm leaving for Paris on Wednesday, and will be observing gestures studiously). And I'm going to see if I can find a copy of Village, 'tho I'm assuming it will, sadly, be out of print.

Unknown said...

I ordered a copy of "Village in the Vaucluse" about a year or so ago from either Amazon or Alibris. It is a classic.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

I figured you'd be a feloow Wylie admirer!

Here's an update -- an article in Sunday's NY Times about the Vaucluse

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