Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Art of French Small Talk

The French can talk , no body is going to dispute that but when it comes to small talk, idle chit chat and just plain shooting the breeze with strangers, they, frankly, haven't got a clue.
I teach English to a group of retirees locally and we've organised a rencontre with English speaking people next week for an hour of conversation ; 30 minutes of English and 30 minutes of French, so that both parties can practice their oral skills. In preparation for the 'talk off" we've been planning what to say to the English speakers who all live in France.
Me : 'Ok class, give me a few suggestions as to what we will ask them'
Class : Blank faces
Me : 'Right, they are English speaking people, not from here and have relocated to France for some reason or another .. any ideas what you might want to ask them/talk about"
Class : Furrowed brows, deep concentration
Me : 'Okaaay, forget about the English, just give me your thoughts in French and we'll translate them' ( thinking it was the English that was blocking them)
Class : Shrugs, pffs, more eyebrow knitting ...
So what started as a lesson in teaching small talk English became a lesson in 'How to make small talk'. It's going to be a long hour!

Now, the french are great conversationalists, don't get me wrong and they love a good debate about anything .. but as for the chit chat at the school gate, the pleasant pass the time inane stuff ' how were your holidays / weather / traffic etc ' forget it. For an Irish person living in France, this can leave you squirming in certain social situations. Going on a school outing with the kids for example, with a handful of other parents who don't know each other, they are happy not to speak to each other and ride the bus in silence rather than turn to their fellow parent and have a nice oul chat. At first, I thought it was just me, they don't want to talk to the weird Irish one, but then I noticed they weren't talking to each other either, when they have so much in common ; kids the same age, same teachers, similiar age group, common neighbourhood etc etc. There are rich pickings there for hours of chit chat.

What is it about the French that they can't do small talk? I think, deep down( really really deep down) that the french are a little insecure. They've been through an educational system that heartily endorses the 'children should be seen and not heard rule' ( and look beautifully turned out as well). They dress conservatively ( black is always the new black in France), they toe the line, never speak out ( unless en masse as in strikes etc) and very rarely do anything spontaneous in their lives ( I'm generalising of course). Their lives are regimented, you eat at a certain hour, bathe avery day, dress a certain way and so launching into a chatty conversation with a stranger is a scary concept for them..
Or maybe, just maybe, they just couldn't be arsed!


  1. I think it's more of a cultural thing - the French save all of their time and effort for those within their small circle of family & friends (all people they have known for years). Anybody outside that circle doesn't matter, so why would you "waste" your time talking to them?

    To me, this also explains why they don't hold the door for you, why they don't help strangers out, why you get bad customer service, etc - helping an inconnu is something you just don't do!

  2. good point Ksam, like your blog too!

  3. Can definately identify with this sort of thing. Despite being in France 16 years, I have two very young children. One is in Grande Section at school. Doing the school run you wonder why the other parents give you the cold shoulder...


    1. Interesting John, thanks for commenting.
      We'll never really understand them, will we?


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