HOME HEARTSTRING 12: GOSSIP

Despite what you may think, Quebec’s most powerful mass medium isn’t television, radio or the newspapers. Even combined, these three popular sources for news are no match for the good old clothesline.

The spoken word usually takes precedence over the written.

Professor Georges-Maurice Hénault explained that, “Francis Bournes’s experiment has proven that interpersonal contacts – or word of mouth – have greater influence on the purchase of everyday goods than mass media like newspapers and radio. The same also applies when choosing what films to see. However, mass media play a pivotal role in decision making when it comes to buying products that infringe on cultural taboos.”

“If the French always have something new to teach others,” writes historian Marcel Rioux, “Quebecers always have something to say to others. And it usually isn’t to teach them something, but rather to make them laugh and try to strengthen the bonds within a group. Anything can make for a good story to tell in Quebec.”

Even rocks talk in Quebec. And the walls have ears. Quebecers admit Americans made their fortunes by minding their own business. But that doesn’t stop us from sticking our noses where they don’t belong. It’s way too much fun!

Based on what part of the province we’re from, we talk, chitchat, rattle on, blab, deliver the news or spread the word.

Newspapers mirror their readers. And as you know, a new revolution ripples through Quebec every month. It’s a good thing most of them only lead to inkshed.

Marcel Rioux says that, “Quebecers stopped talking to each other in public a long time ago. Members of the elite would only open up when they were in each other’s company. Only priests, notaries and lawyers really had to talk to ensure their livelihood. Regular people would mostly just listen. But things have changed over the last ten years or so, and now we find ourselves in the Age of Speech.

Or rather the age of chitchat, as the people refer to it. Chitchat in itself is a harmless hobby, but just add a pinch of Heartstring 9 (Envy) and it quickly becomes Gossip. Adman André Contant lashes out at gossips in the Montreal Publicity Club magazine:


“I’m referring to professional rumourmongers, the real gossips. They often use terms like I heard that…Did you know that…and Apparently in their conversations. When ad agencies are doing well, gossips find a way to make them lose clients. And when they lose clients, gossips take it a step further and make them close their doors. And if by the slightest chance they survive the slander, gossips keep talking until the businesses have to shut down completely. These troublemakers don’t stop until they’ve told their stories at every single media and production company and all the agencies in town. They visit clients and show up at all the cocktail parties just to spread the word.”


All advertisers are gossips. It’s part of the job description. At the turn of the 20th Century, Georges Vattier wrote:


“Reasoning and linking ideas logically are of the utmost importance to French Canadians. It explains why they like to talk, argue and discuss so much. It’s also why they tend to be such eloquent speakers. We can often see these qualities in action during election campaigns by watching the crowd listen to candidates go on for hours with great patience, even as they stand in rain, sleet or snow. And they always cheer at the end of the really passionate, well-versed speeches they love so well.”


Reporter Jean-Pierre Richard has the following to say about chitchat:


“The genius of a people shines through in their speech whether they’re standing in line waiting to check out at the grocery store or on Parliament Hill. You can even notice it in the newspaper columns they write. At some point between Point de mire (Focal Point) and Appelez-moi Lise (Call Me Lise), Quebecers decided to drop the formalities and embrace chitchat, a type of communication combining simplicity, accuracy, good-naturedness and the quest for truth. Our ancestors weren’t discussing the road to perdition after church on Sundays...unless it was to complain about what terrible shape it was in!”


Swearing is another manifestation of this very vocal Heartstring. In a very witty essay entitled Le Livre des sacres et des blasphèmes Québécois (The Book of Quebec Swear Words), author Gilles Charest explains the origins of our religious expletives (and there are many). “In Quebec, as opposed to other countries, swearing is a big part of everyday life,” he writes. “It’s more of a verbal sport than a linguistic tool or means of expression.”

Nowadays, swearing in Quebec isn’t as blasphemous as it used to be. Joe openly admits to doing it on occasion:


“Why do I curse? Everybody curses. My father used to curse all the time. My mother put up a picture of the Sacred Heart with a caption that said Don’t desecrate me, but it never stopped our father from swearing like a sailor even though he worked hard on following the other commandments every single day. His grandfather swore, too. He used to tell a story about this habitant who gets to the market late because his horse won’t cooperate. The farmer’s really pissed off, as you can imagine, so he gets out of his carriage and picks up a couple of frozen road apples. He crams them into the horse’s mouth and yells at him to, ‘Choke on shit, you lazy son of a bitch!’ Now that’s cursing! My grandfather tried to top that insult for the rest of his life.”


Parle, parle, jase, jase (a Quebec talk show) reaches a million viewers five days a week. That’s a lot of chitchat! In absolute numbers, the show actually ends up reaching the entire French-speaking population of Quebec every week. Réal Giguère (the host) really knows how to get his guests talking, which is quite different from other interviewers who usually can’t keep their mouths shut.

We are a tribal, intuitive and verbal society!

Our Earth and Minority Roots predispose us to making everyone else’s private business our own. That isn’t surprising when you consider what tight-knit family units we live in.

This Heartstring helps make Quebec an impressive feedback laboratory. All advertisers have to do is add a little fuel and watch as the entire province catches fire. Quebecers solve their problems by talking things out.

Joe Tremblay feels the need to share. “It’s by talking to each other that we understand one another,” he says.

Even though today’s world is all about word of mouth, we still buy over a million copies of tabloids every week to find out what’s going on with everybody. These rags can spread a false rumour or a juicy bit of gossip like wildfire, destroying reputations and killing sales without warning. Gossipers like to report news, and reporters like to gossip. No one knows that better than people in politics. Whisper campaigns have led to the demise of many a good politician. In fact, Daniel Johnson may be the only one to have successfully survived the psychological warfare created by the rumours we spread while hanging our laundry out to dry.

I’ve been able to test this Heartstring many, many times over. In one of my TV commercials, for example, Juliette Huot tells the audience she’s fallen in love with someone named Philippe. That wouldn’t be of much interest to anyone except everybody knows Juliette is a spinster. And now that they’re intrigued and want to know more, we’ve got their full attention. Sporting a grin that could sell a fridge to an Eskimo, Juliette explains that Philippe, the object of her desire, is not a man at all but a Philips colour TV with no performance issues whatsoever. The viewer’s curiosity is satisfied and the adman behind the commercial has plucked Heartstring 12.

Advertising campaigns of the teaser variety that include an element of mystery or require viewers to figure out the next chapter or conclusion fare well with audiences that have an almost insane need to know everything about everybody and everything in order to repeat it to anyone who’ll listen (and even sometimes to those who won’t).

Joe points out that, “When you drive down Charest Boulevard to get into Quebec City, the people in the surrounding cars crane their necks to see who you are and immediately start wagging their tongues.”

But please don’t go repeating what Joe just said about Quebecers...

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© 2014 – English translation and website by Lawrence Creaghan. Published online with the permission of Guérin Éditeur Ltée and the Fondation Jacques-Bouchard.