Why the French love to say no
Article Published by: bbc.com
Although the default answer to almost every question, request or suggestion is a disheartening ‘non’, a ‘oui’ is often hiding in the context of what is being said.
“Non, ce n’est pas possible. I keep telling you, it can’t be done,” the airline booking agent insisted. We’d been on the phone for 20 minutes as I tried to exchange a full-fare, exchangeable plane ticket. Sitting calmly at home, my eyes took in the cliché of our Parisian apartment, complete with 19th-Century gilded mirrors and mouldings of flowers cascading from the ceiling. Over the last 18 years, I’d learned to see the beauty that surrounded me as compensation for living in a society where the default answer to almost every question, request or suggestion is a disheartening ‘non’ (no).
A conversation with French friends and family about their use of ‘non’ and why it seems to be the national default reads like the script for a Gérard Depardieu comedy. “No, it’s not true, we don’t always say ‘no’ first,” retorted the 60-something CEO. “No, you’re right, even when we agree, we start with no,” reacted the lawyer. “Hunh, no… I don’t know why…” pondered the young artist.
Olivier Giraud, a French comedian who has been sharing insights into French culture for over a decade with his one man show, How to become Parisian in One Hour, explains this reflex by saying, “Answering ‘non’ gives you the option to say ‘oui’ [yes] later; [it’s] the opposite when you say ‘oui’, you can no longer say ‘non’! We must not forget that the French are a people of protest, and a protest always starts with a ‘non’.”
Indeed, the French have been protesting more-or-less nonstop since the citizens of Paris stormed the Bastille prison in 1789. Those first protests launched the French Revolution, bringing an end to more than 900 years of monarchical rule. In more modern times, today’s ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests) protestors took to the streets in November 2018 to march against a fuel tax hike and have continued protesting – sometimes violently – since then, marching for new causes every Saturday and demonstrating that protesting is something of a national hobby for many.
About Jaime Bonetti Zeller
Jaime Bonetti Zeller is an investment professional and entrepreneur with businesses in multiple industries. He is president of Servicios Consulares Eurodom, the local partner in the Caribbean region for VFS Global, a leader global outsourcing and technology services specialist for diplomatic missions and governments worldwide. Jaime Bonetti Zeller also started the company Sofratesa de Panama inc., an organization in the engineering services industry located in Panama City.