How the French express their Feelings

March 03, 2024   Culture


Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you met a friend of a friend from France and felt like they were giving you the cold shoulder? You’re not alone! As someone from France myself, I’ve often heard feedback that I seem reserved or standoffish from people who later became my friends. I was surprised by this because it didn’t match how I saw myself. Was I rude? Probably not. Typically, my introduction was just a simple, “Hi, I’m Margot. Nice to meet you.” Was I overly enthusiastic or super bubbly? No–I’d just met them!

Even though French and American cultures both belong to the Western world, they have significant differences when it comes to expressing emotions, often leading to moments of confusion and discomfort. Let’s explore a few situations where French people might come off as aloof to Americans.

By Margot Tievant

 

Figures of Speech 

A picture of a message notification from a French man reading "C'est pas bête !"

In France, while we always find something to complain about, expressing positive emotions isn’t as common. Whether it’s a fear of vulnerability or a superstition against tempting fate, we tend to keep our positive feelings close to our chests. Even our language reflects this tendency to downplay positivity. Instead of outright praising something, we often use indirect expressions. For instance, rather than exclaiming “C’est trop bon !” (It’s so good!) after having  a delicious slice of cake, it’s more common to hear “C’est pas mauvais” (It’s not bad). This linguistic habit (called a litote) can be perplexing to foreigners, especially if they’re the ones who made the cake! 

  • Practice your French: Listen to this super short podcast episode or watch the video below about litotes!

 

Another aspect of French communication is the use of “second degré,” a form of speech characterized by sarcasm, irony, and absurdity. For example, we might ironically refer to a film like Fast and Furious as “un chef d’oeuvre du septième art” (a masterpiece of cinema), even though we know it’s far from it. Once again, if you’re a student of French and come from a more direct and straight-to-the-point culture, you may take it literally and not catch the joke. 


Education 

Picture of children playing in Bordeaux

Being guarded with our emotions comes, in part, from our upbringing and school system. Unlike other educational systems, where students are often praised for their accomplishments with awards and ceremonies, in French schools, success is typically acknowledged simply by passing or failing exams. As passing is often considered “the norm,” only students who have difficulties receive (negative) feedback. 

While I am grateful for the French education system which taught me how to think and express my ideas, it’s clear that the primary focus is on strengthening student’s minds rather than their individuality. In France, we are graded out of twenty points on written exams, rather than multiple-choice. I’ve never seen someone receive a 20/20 when grades came out, the logic being that this would mean that a student had written a perfect essay, which is impossible to achieve according to teachers and professors. This lack of overt recognition can make us hesitant to speak positively about ourselves, as it might come across as braggy, but it also teaches us that being good in school is not an achievement, but an expectation.

 

“love you” but not “Je t’aime”

A picture of a message reading "I love you so much!!" marked delivered 6 hours ago with no response

In casual encounters with acquaintances we typically exchange polite greetings, but we might not express overt excitement or make immediate plans to meet up for coffee like it might happen in the U.S. If someone suggests hanging out soon, we will probably worry about the upcoming hangout. We might wonder about the reasons behind the invitation and what topics we’ll discuss because, in France, if you bring up hanging out, you would mean it instead of saying it out of kindness. 

Friendship dynamics in France differ from those here as well. It often takes a considerable amount of time to establish a deep connection with someone; we’re not quick to open up to just anyone, which can sometimes give the impression of being standoffish initially. However, once a friendship is created, it lasts a lifetime.

  • Read this Coucou article for more about French friendships!

Picture of a woman on the phone

Conversations with friends typically don’t end with a casual “Bye, love you,” even though we deeply care for each other. If some French people do say “Love you,” they would say it in English as a way to keep a distance from the actual feeling. Rather, the concept of love is reserved for romantic relationships–it’s a sentiment meant exclusively for someone we’re romantically involved with. Because of this cultural norm, expressing “I love you” to a friend, or even sometimes family members, in French can feel awkward and out of place. For example, friends that I have known for years and whose lives I may know better than most have never expressed how they felt about our friendship, but cried at my going away party. Yes, alcohol was involved, but until then I didn’t think my departure would have affected them so strongly, Especially after years of tough love and second degré to express affection in a roundabout way. On the flip side, living in the U.S. without telling someone you care about them might leave them confused and hurt. 

 

Tips to interact with French people

Picture of friends at an apero

Nuances of French communication and cultural norms can often lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations, particularly when interacting with someone from the United States who would be much more expressive. From a reserved demeanor to the use of indirect expressions and sarcasm, French communication styles may come across as aloof or standoffish to those unfamiliar with it. Please do not be discouraged, chances are we’re excited to meet you and want to be your friend–we just won’t show it the same way you would. If you find yourself in France, and you think someone was rude or cold, ask them what they meant, most likely it’s a roundabout way of saying we think you’re great! Below are a few tips to forge a great connection with a French person.

 

  • Work on your conversation skills so you can be engaged and relaxed in social settings. This article is a great resource!
  • Have a sense of humor about possible mistakes you could make in French. French people love puns, if you accidentally misremember a saying, it may become our new favorite.
  • ​​Don’t take everything personally, French friendships are best expressed through gentle mockery and tough love.
  • Make the first move, your French counterpart will probably not. Make plans to go have a glass of wine with someone on a patio with some food and just people-watch. 
  • Go to local shows, if you strike up a conversation with someone, you will have at least one thing to talk about, maybe even to criticize like a true French!
  • Inquire about expat meet-ups. You may not want to be only friends with other expats but it is likely some of those already are friends with French people.
  • Get invited to (or organize!) “un apéro” by your co-workers or classmates.
  • Nurture your relationships: put time and effort towards your future friends! Flaking is a big no-no.

Category: Culture