Many conversations in France begin with a sigh and a lament: what if the weather is bad; that if the harvest is worse; what if politicians are inept and stupid.
When I first moved to France, more than a decade ago, I was a 19-year-old American girl who was fascinated by everything and was disturbed by the constant complaints.
I wondered why the French were always in such a bad mood, but when I finally plucked up the courage to ask a French friend, he corrected me: they don’t complain, he said. Are râleurs.
In France, there are several words to complain. Exists be plaind, which is used for the usual complaints; is also porter plaintand, for more formal complaints. And then there is râler, which is to complain for the simple joy of doing it.
“Raler It’s informal (…) You may complain about doing something, but you still do it (even if reluctantly) ”, explains Gemma King, professor of French at the Australian National University and editor of the blog Les Musées de Paris.
“While porter plainte it implies that you will not do it and someone will find out why ”.
When I was about to apply for my residence permit in France, and obtaining French citizenship was just a big dream, I used to joke that I would find out that I had become French before I received the letter because I would wake up with the uncontrollable need to complainI.
Preparing for that fateful day, I jokingly complained to anyone who would listen to me: the soup is too cold; the salad too hot; a neighbor didn’t tell me “bonjour“.
How to start a conversation in France
My friends laughed at my attempts to sigh like a French woman and the relevance of when, with whom and what to complain about is a very delicate art, which I had not yet fully mastered.
In France, complaining is an appropriate and frequent way to start a conversation.
You can start talking about a restaurant by focusing on bad service in a place where you eat very well, or highlight the fact that because the windows in your new apartment face east, now You will have to buy curtains.
“To Americans, saying something negative sounds like you’re ending the conversation,” explains Julie Barlow, Canadian journalist and co-author of “The Bonjour Effect“.
But in France, such comments are perceived as “a way of inviting others to comment.”
According to the author, Americans are not as comfortable with confrontation and criticism as the French. Raler, then, “it is perceived as something smarter to be too optimistic. “
Anna Polonyi, a Franco-Hungarian-American writer and director of the department of creative writing at the Institute for Critical Thinking in Paris, believes this distinction may be due to a fear shared by many Americans: that of being perceived as “a loser”.
A show of intellect
In France, some conversations could be compared to “duels”, according to Barlow, and to start them many often use a complaint: it is like a show of intellect, “something that makes people seem critical, like they think, and that they do not seem naive ”.
Polonyi experienced this first-hand when she moved from France, where she grew up, to Iowa, USA There she noticed that people stayed away from negative speech. as long as could avoid it, and only complained when he accumulated much more than they could bear.
“They weren’t complaining in the way we were used to; they let off steam, “he adds.
“It was as if people weren’t giving themselves permission to complain in a way that (helped them) build intimacy. They just didn’t do it until it was impossible not to. “
Polonyi even got hit a tic American. “When I complain in English (…) I have a certain expectation that at the end of that conversation I have to say: ‘oh, but I’m going to get over it.’
In French, on the other hand, it is not necessary to reach a conclusion. “I feel that the more specific my complaint is, the more I can make the other person feel empathy,” he continues.
The French attitude towards the complaint is uncomfortable for many Anglo-Saxon, who argue that negativity attracts negativity.
But according to some experts, the French attitude may be better for your health. A 2013 study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry found that attempts to regulate negative emotions could be linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
And another 2011 study from the University of Texas, USA, says that repressing negative emotions can make people more aggressive.
This is not to say that complaining is always positive.
In fact, complaining too often can make you stay caught in a spiral and reconfigure your brain to always focus on the negative.
But many râleurs French people manage to avoid this unfortunate side effect, partly because they rarely complain about their own lives but about external problems.
What are the French complaining about?
According to a survey on the matter, 48% of the French surveyed said that they complained the most about the government.
This may not come as a surprise: an article published by Politicianstates that the French opinion on the handling of the pandemic by President Emmanuel Macron is overwhelmingly negative.
Meanwhile, the personal problems rank very low on the list of things the French choose to talk about. According to the same survey, 23% complain when people do not return their call, 33% complain when they cannot find their keys or phone and only 12% complain about problems related to their children.
“I think the French are optimistic and positive about themselves and about their lives, but they tend to be very hard on their countryBarlow said. “Don’t go to a party and praise France; people are going to laugh at you ”.
Margot Bastin, a researcher at the Belgian Katholieke Universiteit Leuven – which has published peer-reviewed articles on the effects of internalizing negative emotions – asserts that the fact that the French focus on issues that “are not personal and are not related to themselves ”may be healthier.
However, research also ensures that while a certain amount of ventilation can be helpful, it is “detrimental (when) it becomes a very long process and when it occurs in excess.”
A cultural and conversational tic
But the French, in general, do not tend to see catastrophes at all and, as Polonyi observed, most of their complaints are not even intended to resolve the matter.
While not a few Americans want to speak to the manager to correct something, nor are British let out a loud sigh when someone is not queuing well, in France, complaining is not seen as a means to an end.
“I don’t think they complain because they want to change something,” says Barlow. “I think it’s a cultural and conversational tic.”
As with most other conversational tics – such as asktell someone How is it going without worrying about the answer – complaining in France is primarily a means of forging an interpersonal connection. And a suitable one.
A study conducted by the University of Oklahoma indicates that complaints can have a positive impact on connectivity; Research also shows that bonding can be a useful tool.
“The other person listens to you, makes you feel connected to the other person, makes you feel really close to the other person, tea makes feel understoodBastin explains.
In reality, I never felt more French than when I spoke of an argument that only served to emphasize that I am a foreigner: going to the prefecture to renew my residence.
After a super Kafkaesque trip through the bowels of that bureaucratic office, I complained to anyone who would listen to me, drawing a portrait of the ineptitude of those responsible, of the absurdity of the list of documents they had asked me to prepare.
And although my French friends did not share this experience, they used it as a starting point for their own complaints– Experiences with the tax office or the zoning department where other bureaucrats do their thing. Apparently it was a complaint they all had in common.
After years of living in France, he was finally managing to build intimacy with the locals; But I just never knew I would have to complain so much to get there.
“If someone complains, I feel like it’s authentic,” says Polonyi, “and that authenticity reassures me, because I feel that, in a way, complaining means being vulnerable.”
You can read the original version of this article in English at BBC Travel.
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