I can’t help thinking that some of those intercultural misunderstandings that exist between the French and English can be caused by those non-verbal elements which have such an important part to play in our relational communications. For in the face-to-face encounters of daily life, body gestures, facial expressions, non-verbal sounds, even silences are frequently used to accompany, reinforce, or even replace the spoken language. And a pointed finger, a nod of the head, a frown, a pout or a grunt can send out a more powerful message than the spoken word in that these can be a more spontaneous, direct manifestation of the thoughts, emotions, reactions and intentions which words can frequently hide. And you’ve only got to observe two Gallics engaged in conversation to see that the French have a far more developed non-verbal system of communication than their English neighbours.
In addition, these codes can even take the form of a sign language much of which is totally incomprehensible to those raised in an Anglo-Saxon culture. When I first came to France the Englishman in me was frequently puzzled by a relatively common gesture which consists in using the finger and thumb of one hand to pluck what appears to be an imaginary hair from the open palm of the other. It had to be explained to me that this was a gesticulatory reference to the expression ‘avoir un poil dans la main’, literally ‘to have a hair in your hand’, meaning ‘to be bone idle’: for someone who is work-shy will never use his hands enough to stop hairs from growing in their palms!
Similarly, I’d bet my bottom euro that the newly-arrived Anglo Saxon would have no idea what is meant when a Frenchman rubs his cheek with the back of his fingers as if using a razor to shave. This particular sign language simply means that he finds something or someone ‘rasoir’, that’s to say, boring. The origins of the word, apparently, can be traced back to the metaphysical reasoning of the 14th century Franciscan philosopher, Guillaume d’Ockham, whose rule of simplicity maintained that ‘multiples must not be used unless necessary’. In other words, new hypotheses mustn’t be employed when those already stated suffice. The only drawback of this principle, called the ‘rasoir d’Ockham’, is that, once a statement has been shaved of all its unnecessary elements, it becomes boringly abstract.
And some of these body gestures, facial expressions and non-verbal sounds can betray spontaneous feelings which it might be considered impolite to show in less physically demonstrative, more reserved Anglo-Saxon cultures where it is considered more seemly to keep one’s emotions under strict control. Take, for example, the legendary Gallic shrug. Now in my youth the Anglo in me had a typically English love of the game of cricket. One day, during my student year in France, I heard that a cricket match had been organized between some English and Australian students, and that it was to take place on the university playing fields a couple of kilometres away on the outskirts of town. But when I arrived I couldn’t find the playing fields in question. And so, in my best French, I asked a local – an elderly monsieur wearing a shabby-looking béret – if he could tell us where ‘le match de cricket’ was being played. Without uttering a single word, he looked me incredulously in the eye before proceeding to project shoulders upwards and lower lip downwards in the previously mentioned ‘Gallic shrug’. Though my English part found his reaction typically French and, as such, quaintly amusing, the thought did cross my mind that the message he transmitted (which corresponded to little more than, ‘How on earth do you expect me to know where such a stupid foreign sport is being played?’) would have been barely acceptable, and could even have given offense in an English culture where a polite, friendly, helpful and even apologetic verbal response would have been the rule. Had a similar scenario taken place in an English setting (where a Frenchman had enquired as to the whereabouts of, say, a competition of pétanque), the reply would certainly have been something like, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve got no idea. If I were you I’d ask in the shop over there. They’ll probably know.’