It's a rude gesture in the UK; in this French poster it advertises two pairs of sunglasses for the price of one

The French and British are historic foes. The wars may be over but the rivalry continues. Tomorrow (2 November) Christophe Gagne from the French Department will discuss our contrasting communication styles.

On one side, there’s the stereotype of the insufferable Frenchman, the frog – and on the other, there’s the toffee-nosed Englishman, le boeuf. It’s often a question of mirror images.

Christophe Gagne, Department of French

Sorry, sorry, sorry. It’s a word that the British use a lot.  We even apologise for overusing it: witness the scene in the film Les Poupées russes. The French equivalents of sorry are pardon and désolé. But they are not a direct translation and the French don’t say pardon or désolé nearly as often as the British say sorry. Small differences like this can make for major misunderstandings when the two nationalities interact. We all know that the French are rude and arrogant and that les Anglais sont froids et hypocrites.

Tomorrow (2 November), Christophe Gagne from the Department of French will give a talk on the contrasting communicative styles of the two nations as part of the Festival of Ideas. In a presentation that promises to be amusing as well as enlightening, he will weave cartoons and film clips into a narrative that also looks at the deeper linguistic questions of how people from different cultures interact and how easy it is to descend into mindless stereotyping.

As a native French speaker, translator and university teacher of French who married into an English family, Gagne is fascinated by the ways in which the two nations, separated by a small stretch of water, continue to consider each other rude. “What interests me is not intentional rudeness but behaviour that is interpreted as impolite simply because it does not fit with what is expected and jars with one or other of the speakers,” he says.

“Of course, there’s a long historical context to this. The French and English have a rivalry that goes back way beyond the battles of Agincourt, Trafalgar and Waterloo – and is imbedded in how we gaze at each other from across what the British call the Channel and the French, La Manche. On one side, there’s the stereotype of the insufferable Frenchman, the frog – and on the other, there’s the toffee-nosed Englishman, le boeuf. It’s often a question of mirror images.”

Contrasting conventions surrounding the use of language, and small nuances of address and verbal interaction, make riveting anecdotes simply because both the French and the English exult in the otherness of each other.  The drawing of lines between tribes is, after all, an important aspect of creating an identity – where would we be without them?

When the chilly, crowded British began to take holidays in sunny, unspoilt France, and seek out the good life in rural areas where shockingly few inhabitants spoke English, a surge of books resulted – from Peter Mayle’s phenomenally successful A Year in Provence to Stephen Clarke’s more recent hit A Year in the Merde. Interestingly, the French don’t appear to show the same fascination for the British and the French publishing industry has not so far retaliated with anything similar.

The words we use are only one aspect of the ways in which we communicate with each other.  “A whole set of other factors come into play – what people who study linguistics call paraverbal and nonverbal communication – such as distance, gesture, eye contact, style of delivery and touch. An often quoted  piece of research – uncorroborated – looked at an interaction in Paris and London and kept a tally of the number of times two pairs of interlocutors touched each other: the result was 100 touches in Paris, nil in London,” says Gagne.

“Recent research has looked at conversational styles, comparing the ways in which Americans conduct conversations with the ways in which the French do so. The French frequently interrupt each other while Americans tend to take turns in speaking.  The Americans think the French are rude for interrupting - and the French think the Americans are rude for talking at such length without letting other people speak.”

Other research suggests that the French have a more combative conversational style than the British. The French are not afraid to disagree and put across opposing views while the British are more placatory and keep their opinions to themselves.  This leads the French to argue that the British don’t say what they mean, they are standoffish and cold – and the British to assert that the French are, well, downright rude. In discussion the French use the imperative – écoute moi – and make generous use of the first person (moi, je pense, moi je trouve) when expressing their views.

As a teacher of French, Gagne gives an annual lecture to prepare Cambridge students of France for their year in La France. He points them to a fascinating web resource built by Lancaster University – the Intercultural Project gathered reports from language students spending a year overseas. The student diaries sharing experiences of social hiccups and sudden homesickness, not to mention hair-raising accounts of clubbing in Calais and partying in Paris, are particularly revealing.

“By raising awareness of what the communication process involves, not solely an ability to form grammatically-correct sentences, one may hope that those involved in intercultural exchanges will be better equipped to avoid misunderstandings and combat stereotypes,” says Gagne. “Vive l’entente cordiale!”

The talk Rude, moi? takes place in the Little Hall, Sidgwick Site, University of Cambridge, from 5.15 to 6.30pm on Friday 2 November. Suitable for ages 12 and upwards. No charge, no need to book. For the full Festival of Ideas programme go to

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