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Do You Have Savoir-Faire, Guys?

In the film versions of Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels, 007 often wins the day through the use of special high-tech gadgets furnished by the Q Division.

But in the books that birthed the character, Bond very rarely relies on wiz-bang gizmos, or really, very many tools at all, to defeat the world’s super villains.

The literary Bond certainly knows how to wield a gun and drive a car like his cinematic counterpart, but his equipment is comparatively minimal. The secret to his success instead rests more primarily on his possession of a singular quality:

Savoir-faire.

It’s a wonderful French phrase that roughly means: knowing what to do in any situation.

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A man with savoir-faire is adaptable and adroit and has the knowledge and ability – the capacity for action – that enables him to respond appropriately in a wide variety of circumstances. It especially refers, Merriam-Webster tells us, to demonstrating “a polished sureness in social behavior,” but it broadly applies to having the confidence to deftly handle every conceivable scenario.

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Bond is able to adapt to and navigate any environment, whether rural or urban. No matter whether he finds himself in a high-stakes casino in France, a posh ski lodge in the Swiss Alps, or a poor fishing village in Japan, Bond knows what to do. Whether he’s trying to seduce a beautiful woman, confidently converse with a megalomaniac, or discern whether someone is friend or foe, he knows how to respond. Polished sureness in social behavior? Bond’s got it in spades. And he also knows how to make invisible ink with his urine, dive from great heights, and kill a man with a single stab.

Not only that, 007 does it all with seeming ease and smoothness. He’s debonair. He’s suave. Indeed, that which Mr. Big, Bond’s nemesis in Live and Let Die, says about his own approach to life, could also be said of Bond’s:

“I take pleasure…in the polish and finesse which I can bring to my operations…to impart an absolute rightness, a high elegance, to the exaction of my affairs. Each day…I try to set myself still higher standards of subtlety and technical polish so that each of my proceedings may be a work of art, bearing my signature.”

If you’ve ever wanted to develop James Bond-like savoir-faire, you’re in luck. Below we offer all the secrets of 007’s playbook.

Note: All quotes come from original Bond novels written by Ian Fleming. A list of the books used is found at the bottom of the article. 

How to Develop the Savoir-Faire of James Bond

The paradox of any performance that seems effortless, is that tons of effort invariably went into producing that effect. When a master pianist plays a sweeping, flawless concerto, all the audience sees is the beautiful finished product, while missing the thousands upon thousands of hours in practice it took to achieve the seamless result.

So it is with the attainment of savoir-faire. Knowing how to act in any situation, and do so smoothly, requires extensive training, preparation, and practice. To look like you’re not trying hard, you have to try very hard when no one’s looking.

This training involves the development both of one’s skillset and one’s mindset. We’ll thoroughly cover each.

The Preparation

“As a gambler [Bond] knew it was a mistake to rely on too small a capital.” –Casino Royale

Fleming was referring to monetary capital, but the same principle applies to all of our everyday “operations.” There are many kinds of capital, from social alliances to brain knowledge, and amassing these resources is something you should do before you set out in an endeavor.

Indeed, rigorous, thorough preparation was arguably the central key in Bond’s ability to pull off a mission. As noted in Moonraker, he was a follower of war strategist Carl von Clausewitz’s principle of first making your base secure and then proceeding to action.

Here are the various strategies Bond employed to secure his base:

The Foundation of Savoir-Faire: Competence in a Wide Variety of Skills

If you wish to know what to do in any situation, you quite obviously need to have a diverse set of skills in your back pocket. You never know what kind of environment you’ll end up in and what circumstances you’ll find yourself facing.

Bond’s missions took him all around the world and dropped him into all kinds of settings; success thus required that he develop a diverse skillset that encompassed a wide variety of areas, from the hard to the soft.

Tactical Skills. As a secret agent, being proficient in the primary tricks of his trade was a matter of life and death. He was, therefore, adept with combatives, weaponry, and other miscellaneous tactical skills, including:

  • Gunmanship. According to M, Bond was the best marksman in the Secret Service. He started his career with a .25 Berretta, then moved to the 7.65mm Walther PPK, and he knew his pistols so well he could dismantle and reassemble them with his eyes closed. He also kept a long-barreled Colt Army Special .45 in the glove compartment of his car and sometimes slipped a .38 Colt Police Positive under his pillow. Besides his proficiency with handguns, he also knew how to handle a variety of rifles, including the Savage Model 99 and the Winchester .308. This experience with a range of guns meant that when his own were lost or confiscated, he was able to pick up and competently employ the discarded firearms of antagonists.
  • Knifemanship. Bond often kept a blade strapped to his forearm, and was not only proficient with knives in close fighting, but could also throw them at distant opponents with deadly accuracy.
  • Unarmed Combatives. As a young man at Fettes College, Bond had boxed competitively and formed the school’s first serious judo class. As a member of the British Secret Service, he continued his training in unarmed combatives. Bond often wore steel-capped shoes to give himself a literal leg up in turning himself into a human weapon.
  • Tactical Driving. Bond’s one hobby outside of work was cars, and he greatly enjoyed first his supercharged battleship-grey Bentley 4.5 liter, and then his Mark II Continental Bentley. Bond drove his cars “hard and well and with an almost sensual pleasure,” but he also knew how to drive them with a high-stakes purpose. When pursuing a bad guy, Bond could pilot vehicles at over 100 mph without losing control, “caressing the great car against the camber with an easy sway of body and hands.”
  • Lock Picking. Bond knew how to jimmy his way into most any door, and how to make improvised lock picks from things he found in his environment.
  • Stealthy Maneuvering. An expert in walking quietly across floors and up stairs, Bond could traverse a house with ninja-like silence.

Physical Skills. The Russians’ dossier on Bond described him as an “all-around athlete” and he did indeed strive to keep himself fit and ready for the physical demands of his job. Fitness isn’t often thought of as a skill, but it should be; the ability to effectively move objects and one’s body in space requires training and practice. In addition to Bond’s competency with fighting mentioned above, he was also a strong swimmer, and a good skier.

Before certain missions, he’d begin a training routine to strengthen himself in the specific skills that would be needed in the operation, but he also did a regular workout of bodyweight exercises to keep himself in decent shape between assignments:

“Bond went down on his hands and did twenty slow press-ups, lingering over each one so that his muscles had no rest. When his arms could stand the pain no longer, he rolled over on his back and, with his hands at his sides, did the straight leg-lift until his stomach muscles screamed. He got to his feet and, after touching his toes twenty times, went over to arm and chest exercises combined with deep breathing until he was dizzy. Panting with the exertion, he went into the big white-tiled bathroom and stood in the glass shower cabinet under very hot and then cold hissing water for five minutes.”

Bond also possessed a remarkably high tolerance for pain, a quality likely strengthened by all the cold showers and baths he took.

Diplomatic Skills. Even though Bond’s missions invariably ended up with a violent confrontation with the villain and his henchman, the majority of his operations typically consisted of a lot of social tangoing – conversations with allies, the feeling out of potential moles, and of course, the wooing of beautiful women who were always thrown in the mix.

Bond excelled on all counts.

  • Conversation. Bond could carry on a conversation and win the allegiance of people from all walks of life, from the daughters of mafia bosses, to salt-of-the-earth fishermen. His fluency in French and German also allowed him to make international ties.
  • Taste. In addition to being adept at the art of conversation, Bond also knew how to navigate two common social lubricants – meals and games – with finesse. While in his ordinary life, this bachelor subsisted “on grilled soles, oeufs cocotte [eggs in pots] and cold roast beef with potato salad,” on the job he enjoyed gourmet meals “as a welcome break in the day, something to look forward to, something to break the tension.” Though a taste for well-made cocktails and “paté de foie gras and cold langouste” constituted a personal pleasure, an appreciation for gourmet fare, along with a refined set of table manners, allowed Bond to comfortably and confidently dine in fancy establishments and build bridges with the well-heeled allies (and villains) with which he frequently rubbed shoulders.
  • Gamesmanship. Bond received ample training in astute card playing, both in regards to how to win by the rules, and how to win through deception (a skill only employed for the sake of a mission). Bond knew how to play baccarat, roulette, bridge – most any game hosted in casinos and gentlemen’s clubs. While, like dining, he took personal pleasure in games and gambling, being able to join in, and, when needed, beat opponents at the card table, was another skill that allowed Bond to comfortably mingle in different environments, and further his purposes.
  • Seduction. 007 certainly knew his way around the ladies. While women didn’t always fall for him (even Bond gets turned down in Moonraker!), they typically found him pretty irresistible. He achieved his magnetic charm through the combination of two seemingly antithetical qualities: toughness and tenderness. Bond put on a kind of cool, “alpha,” personality when he met beautiful specimens of the opposite sex; he was a little cocky and never seemed desperate, which was attractive to these women. But despite this detached, confident exterior, he would quickly fall hard for them and take them under his wing. Rather than being domineering or combative, he was enormously protective of the ladies in his life, a quality which proved as attractive as his aloofness. James Bond Ultimate Co... Best Price: $72.10 Buy New $403.98 (as of 10:46 UTC - Details)
  • Style. Bond was well-versed in the sartorial arts. He knew how to dress to conceal his weapon, naturally, but also how to fit into the environment he’d be navigating, and make a good impression on others. He knew how to wear a tux with elegance, but also what to wear to look sharp while staying cool in the Caribbean: “dark-blue tropical worsted trousers, white sea-island cotton shirt, socks and black casual shoes (he abhorred shoe-laces).” He could even stay stylish while dressing down to shortsand sandals, as he did when his missions took him Jamaica. And he did it all in a natural way that didn’t give the impression he was trying too hard – a behavior he disliked in other men. For example, “he mistrusted anyone who tied his tie with a Windsor knot,” as “It showed too much vanity” and “was often the mark of a cad.” Instead, he typically opted to knot his signature thin, knitted ties with the less formal four-in-hand.

Improvisation. Bond’s grasp of such a wide variety of abilities granted him access to another kind of skill: improvisation. When you’re familiar with a lot of different domains, you gain the ability to mix and manipulate them together, and a mind that can brainstorm back-up solutions when your typical tools fail.

Bond’s familiarity with lock picks helped him identify when a strip of plastic for ski bindings could be turned into one. His knowledge of weaponry helped him recognize when the grill of an air vent could be transformed into a spear, and that placing the top of a bladeless safety razor between his fingers, or his heavy Rolex Oyster Perpetual watch across them, could create two effective knucklebusters. Indeed, whenever Bond found himself in a situation where he’d been stripped of his knife and gun, he’d immediately scan the environment for anything that might work as an improvised weapon – scissors, a lighter, whatever he could find. If he didn’t have the tool he needed, he made one with what he had.

Train for Specific Situations

Having a broad range of skills under your belt is useful for tackling whatever situation comes your way. But sometimes you know a specific scenario is imminent, and it’s wise to particularly bone up in that area.

For example, when Bond is called upon to pretend to be an ancestry researcher in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he throws himself into studying the field until he can talk about family pedigrees and crests with the semblance of a real expert.

In Live and Let Die, when Bond prepares to swim out to an island under the darkness of night and through shark- and barracuda-infested waters, he asks his local guide to teach him everything he needs to know about the carnivorous fish and other creatures he may encounter on the way.

He also adopts specific physical training plans to get ready for specific missions. For example, in his work as a “genealogical researcher,” Bond ends up at a ski resort high in the Swiss Alps. He quickly realizes he’ll likely need to eventually make an escape down the slopes, and decides “he must keep fit…that, despite all the mystery and its demand for solution, there would come a moment when he would need all his muscle. Reluctantly he proceeded to a quarter of an hour of knee-bends and press-ups and deep-breathing chest-expansions – exercises of the skiing muscles.”

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“Every morning he swam a mile up the beach before breakfast and then ran back along the firm sand to the bungalow,” so that “By the end of the week, Bond was sunburned and hard. He had cut his cigarettes down to ten a day and had not had a single drink. He could swim two miles without tiring.”

Carry an Ample EDC

Bond never left home without the tools of his trade – a gun, and sometimes a knife as well. He also always carried his black gunmetal cigarette-box and his black-oxidized Ronson lighter, which came in handy for more than smoking; for example, in From Russia With Love, the cigarette case ends up functioning as a shield that protects Bond’s heart from a bullet. Ever strapped to his wrist (or around his knuckles!) was a Rolex watch, which sported luminous numerals essential for readings in the dark.

This basic EDC varied according to the mission. Sometimes Bond took a flashlight, extra ammo, or handkerchiefs, which came in handy in the card sharping trick he performed in Moonraker.

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