Bonjour paresse

Bonjour paresse is a newish book in France that is apparently selling like mad. It’s basically a kind of satirical attack on the private sector and of course the bureaucracy (oops, I originally typed bureaucrazy, and it might be closer to the truth) of France, but also the whole philosophy of business and working for companies. The author, one Corinne Maier who works for the French Electricity Company (a state-owned operation), seems to have struck oil. The book is a craze in France, and understandably.

Jo Johnson writes about the book thus:

You sit next to idiots, loathe office bonhomie and crave escape. You’re half- crazy with boredom, pretend to work when you hear footsteps and kill time by taking newspapers into the washrooms. Your career is blocked, your job is at risk and the most ineffective people get promoted to where they can do least harm: management. You recoil at jargon, consider the expression ‘business culture’ an oxymoron and wish you had the guts to resign. If this is you, help is at hand.

The parallels with Dilbert are unavoidable, of course. The difference is that this is not a comic strip, it’s a book that—whether or not one takes it seriously—challenges all of the other “effectiveness” claptrap that floats around in the dozens (hundreds?) of executive-audience targeted books that are published every year. Those books tell us how to be better managers, better employees, more effective and productive for the company we work for.

Maier dares to ask why the hell we would want to that in the first place. She even has her own tablets of law:

10 commandments for the idle

  1. You are a modern day slave. There is no scope for personal fulfilment. You work for your pay-check at the end of the month, full stop.
  2. It’s pointless to try to change the system. Opposing it simply makes it stronger.
  3. What you do is pointless. You can be replaced from one day to the next by any cretin sitting next to you. So work as little as possible and spend time (not too much, if you can help it) cultivating your personal network so that you’re untouchable when the next restructuring comes around.
  4. You’re not judged on merit, but on whether you look and sound the part. Speak lots of leaden jargon: people will suspect you have an inside track.
  5. Never accept a position of responsibility for any reason. You’ll only have to work harder for what amounts to peanuts.
  6. Make a beeline for the most useless positions, (research, strategy and business development), where it is impossible to assess your ‘contribution to the wealth of the firm’. Avoid ‘on the ground’ operational roles like the plague.
  7. Once you’ve found one of these plum jobs, never move. It is only the most exposed who get fired.
  8. Learn to identify kindred spirits who, like you, believe the system is absurd through discreet signs (quirks in clothing, peculiar jokes, warm smiles).
  9. Be nice to people on short-term contracts. They are the only people who do any real work.
  10. Tell yourself that the absurd ideology underpinning this corporate bullshit cannot last for ever. It will go the same way as the dialectical materialism of the communist system. The problem is knowning when…

Hmmm. You know, the more I think about it, the more this seems to describe the way many English teachers survive in Korea with the sanities intact. Rule #3 has repeatedly been demonstrated to me as true, not because I am a bad teacher but because the standards for what constitutes a good teacher seem so skewed here. And in addition, working harder doesn’t actually seem to get you any more respect or credentials. Taking a writing class, for example, means a lot more hours in marking and checking assignments, in helping students get their writing together. But nobody is actually willing to take that into account. So why take a writing class? Unless it’s useful as a bargaining chip (and now, I’ve realized, it won’t be, not where I work anyway), there’s no reason to do so, and every reason in the world not to do so.

The one difference is that I don’t think what I do is completely meaningless. I think I do actually help a small number of students. Not whole classes of them, of course; I can’t help those who won’t help themselves. If they won’t even study or review, nothing I do will implant English into their heads. But for those who do try, those very few people, I do give some little help.

Perhaps it’s because I set reasonable goals: in conversation class, students will use what they know and what little they learn from their often-unread textbooks to develop a repertory of questions that they can ask and answer and fashion into conversations-of-a-sort. In the writing class, students will learn how to use a few basic techniques to structure the major building blocks of their writing so that, even if the details are messy, the whole is generally structurally coherent. (There are, after all, grammar classes for those who want better grammar.) At only a few hours a week, there’s little more I can expect from students. Furthermore, those goals are fair to my students, who are after all only getting one credit-hour a term for this class in the conversations courses… and these goals are quite achieveable. Which means I am able to do my job and whatever successes failures there are tend to be the result of particular students’ willingness to try. When they succeed, they do it on their own work, and when they fail, they’ve nobody to blame but themselves. After all, learning a language is something that involves self-motivation, private study, and dedication. The best I can do is give them resources to do that more easily, effectively, and interestingly, and cheer them along.

But back to Bonjour paresse… outside of the classroom itself, I think it’s eminently suited for English teachers in Korea. I think, in fact, a lot of Korean English teachers evidently subscribe to the philosophy, given the state of the English ability among students I meet. You know, the kids who have been taking English for five or six years now and can’t even make a sentence out loud.

I’m seriously considering getting my hands on this book and adapting it to the world of ESL, at least as a satire if not as a guidebook to survival.

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