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“Well, It Isn’t French!”

It won’t take long living in France before you notice that the French say the glass is half empty, while we say the glass is half full. It’s any wonder we get along at all.

Sure, there are tons of books about the cultural differences between the French and Anglo-Saxons by all the best authorities: Ruth Mastron and Gilles Asselin who wrote “Au Contraire: Figuring Out the French,” Polly Platt who wrote “French or Foe?” and “Savoir Flair” and “Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong” by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, to name of few. Of course, they are educated, studied and right. Spending any length of time here without researching the subject to prepare you for the cultural clash would be foolish, but until you’ve experienced it for yourself, it may seem like just theory.

(See /parlerparis/books/booksaboutfrance.html for our listing of great books about Paris and France!)

As I write this it’s raining cats and dogs (“il pleut des cordes”) and it would be pretty easy to be negative about Summer in Paris that keeps us under cool, gray skies and blinding downpours such as this. French friends would be complaining, while we might see it as good for the plants and a way to clean the streets!

When you ask a French person if something or other can be accomplished, such as “Can you substitute French fries with a salad?” you can expect to get “no” as a first response, before any thought is even given to it, while we were taught that everything is possible and hate to say no to anything. In “Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide To Finding Her Inner French Girl” (St Martins Press), Debra Ollivier writes, “No (non!) is one of the most useful words in a French girl’s vocabulary. The French girl’s preference for quality over quantity ties directly into her ability to say no: no to excess in people, things or ideas; no to what doesn’t grace her world.” Meanwhile, there are numerous articles and books written by psychologists for the American market to teach how to say “No,” such as “Assertiveness: The Art of Saying ‘No'” and “When I Say No, I Feel Guilty” (Mass Market Paperback) by Manuel J. Smith. Remember the “Just Say No” television advertising campaign, as part of the US “War on Drugs” during the 1980s and early 1990s?

So, what came first? The “poulet” or the “oeuf?” Did the attitude start with the language or does the language reflect the attitude? It’s a habit and curiosity to read the French subtitles on English-language films. Amazingly often, if the expression is positive, the French equivalent will be negative. For example:

French English
Ne quittez pas. Please hold.
Ne réveillez pas le chat qui dort. Let sleeping dogs lie.
N’y voir que du feu… To be completely fooled…
Pas mal Great!
De rien and Il n’y a pas de quoi You’re welcome

And then there are all the “n’importe…”


N’importe comment Any way
N’importe lequel Any (one)
N’importe où Anywhere
N’importe quand Anytime
N’importe quel Any
N’importe qui Anyone
N’importe quoi Anything

I’ll bet you can think of more, too!

Last night I had this conversation with a French friend who is incessantly negative about everything, taking no notice to offending those he actually wishes to win over, without even being conscious of it. You know the expression, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?” Well, it isn’t French…or should I say in a more positive way, “Well, it’s English?”

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris

P.S. Author Maxine Schur of “Places in Time” will be speaking Sunday night, August 12 at Paris Soirées…about the hippie trail of adventure and independent travel. “Places in Time” was named Best Travel Book of 2006 by the North American Travel Journalists Association and was also just awarded First Place as Best Travel Book of the Year by the Western Region of the Society of American Travel Writers. Maxine Schur is sure to entertain and weave some magic. Be there! Visit for more information.


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