La Bonne Foi
How to be honest and earnest in French...sincèrement
Unlike so many traditional letters in English that end with that word, you will never find it used that way in French. I’m not entirely sure why that is the case, but declaring yourself to be sincere does not make you sincere. No more so than declaring yourself gracious makes you gracious, or announcing your spontaneity maks you spontaneous.
When you hear the word sincèrement in French, it may even diminish rather than augment the effect. For example, if someone leaves a job to find another (against a certain friend’s advice), that friend might say “je te souhaite sincèrement de trouver l’emploi qui te plaîra.” (I sincerely hope you’ll find another job you like better). Or how about the ex-wife who tells her unfaithful ex-husband: je te souhaite sincèrement de trouver la femme que tu mérites. If she says so sincerely, he’ll likely regret having left her for the rest of his life!
In either case, the true meaning depends on the context and the sincerity of the speaker.
La sincérité, just like sincerity, refers to the quality of truth and authenticity in what you say to others. The matter of truth, among the weightier matters of our lives, cannot be contained within that word alone…neither in English nor in French.
What about honesty? Calling a person “honnête” in French is not much of a compliment…unless you’re referring to a politician. It’s on the same level as “law-abiding” (for which there is also no equivalent in French). A cheater is clearly malhonnête. Even though the word honnêteté is a perfectly honest translation of honesty, it is far too complicated to write using an US keyboard, and is not as commonly used as la bonne foi.
Buckle down now for some finer French as we explore honesty through la bonne foi.
If you really enjoyed your foie de veau au vinaigre balsamique et aux onions (a typically French dish), you might mix up your genders and thank the chef for his/her “bonne foi” instead of “bon foie”. That may (or may not) get you a laugh, and you can then add:
“Je voulais dire que le foie était délicieux !” Rest assured, it took me many years as well to remember that “liver” is a masculin noun in French.
If you goof up your French, it won’t be taken too seriously. The natives will assume you are de bonne foi (with only good intent). During my first three months in France, long before mastering the language, I greeted a girl with this question “je te baise ? when I should have asked on se fait la bise ? She trusted in my bonne foi, otherwise she would have delivered a solid slap in the face.
La bonne foi is all about being honest and earnest. An honest person is earnest. An earnest person is usually honest. La bonne foi tends to cover both. You may commonly hear: “Il / Elle est de mauvaise foi.” Mauvaise foi is of course the opposite of bonne foi. It’s not used for a liar, who would instead be called un menteur. It refers instead to someone who is denying what he knows to be true, or manipulating the facts, or dissimulating important information. Indeed, all of the myriad forms of deceit of which human beings are capable fall under the label of mauvaise foi.
The terms bonne foi and mauvaise foi are used extensively in day-to-day life but also a legal context. Derived from the Latin “bona fide”, note that bonne foi does not carry the same meaning at all as “bona fide” in English. The legal meaning in French is the same as the common meaning: honest and earnest.
Real estate litigation is a case in point. Sellers are not liable for any vices cachés unless it can be demonstrated that they willfully dissimulated what they knew. Without such proof, they are presumed de bonne foi. I have come to the conclusion that finding a seller who demonstrates bonne foi is as important as the property you purchase. If you fall upon a bad seller, prepare to add on load of unexpected costs and negative emotions. How can you know for sure that your seller is honest and earnest, or at least more so than not? The very nature of deceit means you can’t know for sure, but perhaps the best place to start is with yourself.
La bonne foi is also a matter between you and yourself. If you are fooling yourself about one thing or another, how can you possibly expect that others will not try to fool you? When surrounded by a sea of lies and deceit, you can at least remain your own island of truth. Not some absolute truth to impose on others, but your own truth that you hold, de bonne foi.