In France, a complaint is an appropriate and frequent conversation starter – but the appropriateness of when, to whom and about what to complain is a delicate art.
- By Emily Monaco
1 September 2020
Many a conversation in France begins with a sigh and a lament: the weather is bad; the grape harvest is worse; politicians are inept and stupid to boot. When I first moved to France more than a decade ago as a starry-eyed 19-year-old American, I was disquieted by this constant barrage of complaints. Why, I wondered, were the French always in such a bad mood? But when I finally got up the courage to ask a French friend, he baulked: they weren’t complainers, he said. They were râleurs.
In France, there are several words for “to complain”: there’s “se plaindre”, used for regular old complaining; there’s “porter plainte”, for complaining more officially. And then there’s “râler”: complaining just for the fun of it.
The French love to complain – and have several words for it (Credit: Julian Elliott Photography/Getty Images)
“Râleris informal, even curmudgeonly (think “grumble” or “grouch”),” explained Dr Gemma King, senior lecturer in French at the Australian National University and editor of the blog Les Musées de Paris. “You might râler about doing something but still do it (albeit begrudgingly), whereas porter plainte implies you will not be doing something and someone will be hearing about why.”
When I was still in the throes of applying for French residency permits, and French citizenship was still a lofty dream, I used to joke that I would know I was truly French before receiving the confirmation letter because I would certainly waken with the uncontrollable urge to moan and groan. In preparation for that fateful day, I would mock-whine to anyone who would listen:the soup is too cold; the salad is too warm; a neighbour neglected to say “bonjour” to me.
But while my friends laughed at my attempts to sigh like a French person, it was a bit, I imagine, like watching a child who has yet to fully grasp language pretend to talk on the phone. The appropriateness of when, to whom and about what to râle is a delicate art, and one that I had yet to fully master.
In France, a complaint is an appropriate – and frequent – conversation starter. One could begin talking about a restaurant by focusing on the poor service during an otherwise great meal, or highlight the fact that the east-facing windows in your new flat mean you now have to buy curtains. But while, as Julie Barlow, Canadian journalist and co-author of The Bonjour Effect, explained, “To Americans, saying something negative sounds like you’re closing the conversation”, in France, such comments are perceived as “a way to invite other people’s opinions”. North Americans, she said, are not as comfortable with confrontation – or with criticism – as the French are. Râler, then, “comes across as something that’s more intelligent than being too starry-eyed and optimistic about things”.
Conversations can be likened to “duels” and are seen as a display of intellect (Credit: Frank Rothe/Getty Images)
Anna Polonyi, a Franco-Hungarian-American writer and head of the creative writing department at the Paris Institute for Critical Thinking, posited that this distinction may stem from a core fear shared by many Americans: that of being perceived as “a loser”.
“There’s no word for that, in France,” she said. “In order to be a loser, the world around you needs to think of things in terms of winning. And I’m not sure that that’s necessarily how people see social interactions [here].”
In France, conversations could instead be likened to “duels,” according to Barlow, and the opening punch may well be a complaint – a display of demonstrable intellect, “something that makes people seem critical and like they’re thinking and not naïve”.
Polonyi experienced this first-hand when she moved from France, where she was raised, to Iowa. There, she noticed, people kept themselves from negative speech as long as they could, only unleashing a barrage of complaints when it had built up far beyond what they could stand.
The appropriateness of when, to whom and about what to râle is a delicate art (Credit: John Harper/Getty Images)
“It wasn’t complaining the way that we knew it; it was venting,” she said. “It felt like people weren’t giving themselves permission to complain in a way that actually built intimacy. They were just sort of not doing it until it was impossible not to.”
Polonyi even found herself picking up on an American tic: concluding her complaining with an addendum. “When I complain in English, it gets slotted into this narrative,” she said. “I have a certain expectation that at the end of that conversation I need to be like, ‘Oh, but I’m gonna get through it!’.”
I think the French are optimistic and positive about themselves and their lives, but they tend to be really 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 move the other person to feel sort of empathetic about how horrible something is,” she said.
The French attitude towards complaining is uncomfortable for many Anglophones, many of whom argue that negativity breeds negativity. But according to some experts, the French attitude may in fact be better for your health. A 2013 study in Biological Psychiatry found that attempts to regulate negative emotions could be linked with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, while 2011 study from the University of Texas at Austin found that bottling up negative emotions can make people more aggressive.
Many a conversation in France begins with a sigh and a lament (Credit: Fotostorm/Getty Images)
This isn’t to say that complaining is always positive. Complaining too often can get you caught in a spiral, actually rewiring your brain to always focus on the negative. But French râleurs 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 poll on the practice, 48% of French people surveyed said that the thing that they complained about most was the government. It’s perhaps no surprise then, according to a recent article in Politico, that the French opinion of President Emmanuel Macron’s handling of the pandemic was overwhelmingly negative. Personal issues, meanwhile, are very low on the list of things the French choose to râle about, according to the poll, with 23% complaining when people don’t call them back, 33% complaining when they can’t find their keys or phone and only 12% complaining about issues linked to their children.
“I think the French are optimistic and positive about themselves and their lives, but they tend to be really hard on their country,” said Barlow. “Don’t go to a party and praise France; people will laugh at you.”
French people rarely complain about their own lives but rather about external issues, such as the government (Credit: Adisa/Getty Images)
According to Margot Bastin, a researcher at Belgian university Katholieke Universiteit Leuven who has published peer-reviewed papers on the effects of internalising negative emotions, the fact that the French focus on issues that are “not personal, not related to themselves” may indeed be healthier. But Bastin’s research has also found that while a certain amount of venting can be helpful, it is “detrimental [when it] becomes a very prolonged process, when it happens excessively”.
If someone’s complaining, I feel like there’s authenticity there
But the French on the whole, do not tend to catastrophise – nor, as Polonyi noticed, rarely does their complaining even have a goal of resolution. While there’s no dearth of Americans wanting to speak to a manager to right a wrong or Brits audibly sighing when someone is queuing improperly, in France, complaining is not seen as a means to an end.
“I don’t think that they’re complaining because they necessarily want to change anything,” said Barlow. “I think it’s a cultural, conversational tic.”
As with most conversational tics – like asking how someone is without actually caring to know the answer – complaining in France is above all a means of forging interpersonal connection. And it’s an apt one. One study conducted at the University of Oklahoma showed that complaining may have a positive impact on connectivity; and research also shows that it can be a useful tool for bonding.
Complaining is seen as a way of forging interpersonal connections (Credit: Busa Photography/Getty Images)
“The other person is listening to you, you really feel connected with the other person, you really feel close to the other person, you feel understood,” said Bastin.
To wit, I never felt more French as when I left a scenario that only served to highlight my foreignness: going to the police prefecture to renew my residency card. After a truly Kafka-esque journey through the bowels of the bureaucratic office, I complained to anyone who would listen, painting a portrait of the ineptitude of those in charge, of obsoleteness of the list of documents I had been asked to prepare.
And while my French friends did not share this specific experience, they used it as a jumping-off point for complaints of their own: experiences with the tax office or zoning department, where other bureaucrats threw other wrenches in other wheels. It was, apparently, a common complaint.
After years of living in France, I was finally building intimacy with locals; I just hadn’t known I would have to complain so much to get there.
“If someone’s complaining, I feel like there’s authenticity there,” Polonyi said, “and I’m reassured by that authenticity. Because I feel like, in a way, complaining is, in some sense, being vulnerable.”
Source: BBC Travel