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English Copywriter in Paris: positively negative

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about understanding French and the French. And ever since I’ve been mulling over the whole idea of French unenthusiasm, its whens and its whys. I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that it is more a question of positive negativity.

Sounds bizarre?

Yes, it’s a little head spinning especially for us Brits and Americans who have been bought up in a world of positive praise where even the most unrecognisable drawing gets a ‘nice try’ from the teacher.

Yet, in French (and this has been confirmed by numerous French friends on even more numerous occasions) seemingly negative phrases are actually more positive than their affirmative equivalents.

Examples of this strange phenomena include*:

C’est pas mal (literal meaning = it’s not bad, actual meaning = it’s great!)

C’est pas si con (it’s not that stupid = it’s really clever)

Pourquoi pas? (Why not? = I’d love to)

*Such expressions are frequently accompanied by nonchalant gestures, monotonous intonation and an attitude of apparent apathy.

But why do the French affirm themselves through negation? Is this an unwillingness to fully commit? An underlying fear of rejection? A desire for discretion? Or are the French highly critical with themselves and others?

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