BBC – Travel – Why the French like to complain

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Many conversations in France begin with a sigh and a complaint: the weather is bad; the harvest is worse; politicians are incompetent and stupid to boot. When I first moved to France over a decade ago as a star-eyed 19-year-old American, I was worried by this constant barrage of complaints. Why, I wondered, were the French always in such a bad mood? But when I finally had the courage to ask a French friend, he backed down: they weren’t complainants, he said. They were moaners.In France, there are several words for “to complain”: there is “to complain”, used for old regular complaints; there is ” lodge a complaint ”, to complain more officially. And then there is ” bitch ”: complaining just for the fun of it.

“The moaning is informal, even grumpy (think ‘grumpy’ or ‘grumpy’),” explains Dr Gemma King, lecturer in French at the Australian National University and editor-in-chief of the Paris Museums blog. “You might be hesitant to do something but do it anyway (albeit reluctantly), when filing a complaint implies that you will. do not do something and someone will hear why.

While I was still in the process of applying for a French residence permit, and French citizenship was still a noble dream, I joked that I would know how to be truly French before receiving the confirmation letter because I would certainly wake up with it. the uncontrollable urge to moan and moan. In preparation for that fateful day, I would laugh at anyone who would listen: the soup is too cold; the salad is too hot; a neighbor neglected to say “Hello« Tome.

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But while my friends laughed at my attempts to sigh like a Frenchman, it was a bit, I imagine, like watching a child who hasn’t fully grasped the tongue yet pretend to speak on the phone. The relevance of knowing when, to whom and on what rattle is a delicate art and one that I had not yet fully mastered.

In France, a complaint is an appropriate – and frequent – topic of conversation. You could start talking about a restaurant by focusing on the poor service at an otherwise excellent meal, or by pointing out that the east-facing windows in your new apartment now require you to buy curtains. But while, like Julie Barlow, Canadian journalist and co-author of The Bonjour Effect, explained: “For Americans, saying something negative is like closing the conversation”, in France such comments are seen as “a way to invite the opinions of others”. North Americans, she says, aren’t as comfortable with confrontation – or criticism – as the French. Bitching, then, “seems like something smarter than being too starry and upbeat about things.”

Anna Polonyi, a Franco-Hungarian-American writer and head of the creative writing department at the Paris Institute for Critical Thinking, hypothesized that this distinction may come from a fundamental fear shared by many Americans: that to be seen as “a loser”.

“There is no word for that in France,” she said. “To be a loser, the world around you has to think about things in terms of winning. And I’m not sure that’s necessarily how people view social interactions [here]. »

In France, conversations might instead be equated to ‘duels’, according to Barlow, and the opening punch might well be a complaint – a demonstrable display of intellect,’ something that makes people feel like are critical and they think they are thinking and not naive ”.

Polonyi experienced this when she moved from France, where she grew up, to Iowa. There, she noticed, people kept negative rhetoric for as long as they could, only triggering a barrage of complaints when they had piled up far beyond what they could handle.

“He wasn’t complaining about how we knew it; it was evacuating, ”she says. “It was as if people didn’t allow themselves to complain in a way that really enhanced privacy. They were just not doing it until it was impossible not to do it.

Polonyi even found himself taking up an American tic: the conclusion of his complaint by an addendum. “When I complain in English, it gets inserted into this story,” she says. “I expect that at the end of this conversation, I will have to say, ‘Oh, but I’ll be fine!’.”

I think the French are optimistic and positive about themselves and their life, but they tend to be very hard on their country

In French, on the contrary, there is no need for a conclusion. “I feel like the more specifically I can complain, the more I can get the other person to feel some kind of empathy about the horror of something,” she says.

The attitude of the French to the complaint is uncomfortable for many English speakers, many of whom argue that negativity breeds negativity. But according to some experts, the French attitude may actually be better for your health. A 2013 study in biological psychiatry found that attempts to regulate negative emotions may be linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, while a 2011 study from the University of Texas at Austin found that bottling negative emotions can make people more aggressive.

This doesn’t mean that complaining is always positive. Complaining too often can take you on a spiral, in effect rewiring your brain to always focus on the negative. But French moaners may well avoid this unfortunate side effect, in part because they rarely complain about their own lives but rather about external issues.

According to a survey on practice, 48% of French people polled say that what they complain about the most is the government. It is therefore perhaps not surprising, according to a recent Politico article, that French opinion on President Emmanuel Macron’s handling of the pandemic has been overwhelmingly negative. Personal issues, meanwhile, are very low on the list of things the French choose to complain about, according to the poll, 23% complaining when people don’t call them back, 33% complaining when they can’t find them. their keys or phone and only 12% complain about problems related to their children.

“I think the French are upbeat and positive about themselves and their lives, but they tend to be very hard on their country,” Barlow said. “Don’t go to a party and praise France; people will laugh at you.

According to Margot Bastin, a researcher at the Belgian Katholieke Universiteit Leuven who has published peer-reviewed papers on the effects of internalizing negative emotions, the fact that the French focus on issues that are “not personal, unrelated to themselves ”may indeed be healthier. But Bastin’s research also found that while a certain amount of ventilation can be helpful, it is “detrimental. [when it] becomes a very protracted process, when it occurs excessively ”.

If anyone complains, I feel like there is some authenticity there

But overall, the French don’t tend to catastrophize – and, as Polonyi noted, their complaints aren’t even intended to resolve. While there is no shortage of Americans wanting to speak to a manager to right a wrong, or of Britons audibly sighing when someone queues inappropriately, in France complaining is not. not seen as a means to an end.

“I don’t think they’re complaining because they necessarily want to change anything,” Barlow said. “I think it’s a cultural and conversational tic.”

As with most conversational tics – like asking how someone is doing without really caring about the answer – complaining in France is primarily a way of building people-to-people relationships. And that’s an appropriate question. A study conducted at the University of Oklahoma showed that complaining can have a positive impact on connectivity; and research also shows that it can be a useful tool for bonding.

“The other is listening to you, you feel really connected with the other person, you feel really close to the other person, you feel understood,” Bastin said.

Namely, I have never felt more French than when I left a scenario which only highlighted my foreigner: going to the police headquarters to renew my residence permit. After a truly kafka-esque journey through the bowels of the bureaucratic office, I complained to anyone who wanted to listen, paint a portrait of the ineptitude of those responsible, the obsolescence of the list of documents I had been asked to review. to prepare.

And while my French friends didn’t share this specific experience, they used it as a starting point for their own complaints: experiences with the tax administration or the zoning department, which other bureaucrats threw in. other keys in other wheels. This was, apparently, a common complaint.

After years of living in France, I was finally building an intimacy with the locals; I didn’t know I would have so much to complain to get there.

“If anyone complains, I feel like there is authenticity there,” Polonyi said, “and I’m reassured by that authenticity. Because I feel like, in a way, complaining is, in a certain sense, vulnerable.

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