The Art of French Small Talk

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!

Thanks Clara, must get my hands on that book
Fiona, I agree, I once went to a dinner party, the husband asked the wife to bring out a gee string that had shrunk in the wash but would probably fit my sister. I thought of her cos it would go with her eyes he told us!! Riigghhhtt!
Sheila, love that " She’d make friends in an empty room!"

A very good book - “Touché, why Britain and France are so different and why they do things in opposite ways” by Agnes Catherine Poirier (in English) has a chapter on this very subject. It is a great book for any Brit living in France - a bit like looking in a mirror an seeing yourself how others do.

Nah - they hadn’t yet been introduced so were being frightfully British. Stiff upper lip and all that…!!!

Just watched TV coverage of the crowds outside Buck House. Lots of close-ups but didn’t see too many people having chatty conversations with their neighbours so maybe they were French.

What sums it up for me is that someone once asked me to describe my late mother (who died in January 2010), and I said “she’d make friends in an empty room”. Like most of my British friends, we Irish can make small talk, mostly about the weather! This evening, I met the young man who works as chef in one of our local restaurants. He was out for a walk with his OH and their baby, born about two weeks ago. I stopped and peered into the buggy, and admired this most beautiful and placid baby, whilst the new parents almost stood to attention whilst I “inspected” their baby. However, I remind myself that one of the reasons I wanted to live in France was to experience another culture!

They do do small talk, but not like us. I think the main difference is whether they know or don’t know the person. I will always remember my first visit to the UK years ago with my French partner: we were in a taxi taking us from Stansted Airport to the hotel and I was chatting away to the driver (as you do) and after we had arrived my partner said ‘do you know him?’ due to the familiar way (in his opinion) that we were talking. Seeing as I am from the NW of the UK and have lived in France for the past 20 years this would be extremely unlikely and a British or Irish person wouldn’t have found this familiarity strange, but the French…?

True to some extent, even my hairdresser won’t engage in small talk, which is something of a relief! But I do find here in Brittany most people do like to chat. The weather is always a good subject? as it is always changing here? as it does in Britain and in Ireland!

Spent most of yesterday on a boat on the Canal du Midi with about 60 other people, most of whom didn’t know each other. Unless everyone was talking to him(her)self somebody was making small talk. Not a problem I’ve come across except in big cities, Paris in particular. @David, didn’t know we had the same mother-in-law. When mine hadn’t anything new to say on a car journey she read all the signs out loud! “You’ll know I’m dead when I stop talking,” she once told me.

oh, silly me, I thought my colleagues were racist or had something against me when we “Ecouter Les Mouches Voler”

Hum… General rule… we are pretty bad. But many of us are working on it.

There is a book (in French) called “Devenez Remarquable”, by Didier Godart et Carine Huppermann, and it is all about small talk “la petite conversation” and how we (french) are useless at it.

ok just FYI, reading your post I remembered that book.

Great feedback. David - in business I know it’s different, I’ve worked in France doing different things for the past 10 years and of course, there is some small talk there. Strained enough I find though. And more of a chore than genuine interest in the other party.
Another example: When pregnant with my babies, I attended aqua aerobics class ( merci l’état). None of the other mums to be ever chatted with each other. Ever. Over 14 classes.

he he, I taught a little in france physics at medicine students and I tried to open some discussions or debates about how to solve a problem… The same problem: nobody said a word… Impossible to make a class oriented on discussing a problem and expect their opinions… If they have opinions these are top secret… I guess they were afraid I’m going to sell them to the americans!!!

I don`t find that at all round here (Auvergne). I joined the Croix Rouge when I first came here to try & improve my French & believe me the ladies & gents there can small talk for France!

Hmmm not so sure about this! Certainly when it comes to discussing business, my experience is that you need to engage in at least a bit of small talk before getting around to your serious topic of discussion. The length of the small talk is usually dependent on how well you know the person (if you’ve met a few times before, you should talk longer…) and what sort of business you’ve got to get done. The queen of all small-talkers is my mother-in-law (AKA Annie La Bavarde). She’ll often start stories with ‘I don’t know why people always feel this need to talk to me’, and then she’ll go on about how she talked with Y for an hour about absolutely nothing.

That’s funny Kaz, when my daughter was younger and at school here in France, I’d always try to make conversation…anything…the weather, the birds…you name it but it’s true, no-body chatted. Like you I thought it was me “the irishwoman” so I gave up. Maybe it’s as you say lol they can’t be arsed. Saying that, with French “friends” yes we have chit chat maybe not as much. I really miss saying things like, oh you,ll never guess what, did you see that, have you heard etc, all little gossipy terms I know that just lead to funny chit chat type of conversations.

Oh how funny! I’ll never forget my first conversation with an Irish friend down here. She was working in a restaurant on my street. We’d say ‘Bonjour’ every day and then one day she spoke to my dog in English… and I replied in English… to which she said “I knew you couldn’t be French, you were far too friendly!” LOL. Bless…