The French language is a very versatile language when it comes to expressing emotions.
The emotional life of a French person going about their day in the Paris metro and navigating the tourists on the Champs Élysées requires a wide palette of emotion, ranging from impatience, disapproval and disdain.
Jokes aside, that is nothing more than a stereotype, of course! Just as French-speakers can be very direct about expressing their unhappiness, they can be just as effusive when it comes to expressing delight.
It is not for nothing that English-speakers use French words to express their «Joie de vivre»!
A fundamental thing a foreigner needs to understand about a French-speaker's expression of emotions is that it is not because they express annoyance and dissatisfaction that they are necessarily unhappy.
Letting others know how they feel, even negative feelings, gives the French satisfaction. Whereas people from other cultures will keep their feelings to themselves in order not to annoy their company with minor grievances, the French will insist on sharing.
This must not be taken personally. In French, a feeling must be shared and expressed. To people who have learned to keep feelings to themselves, this might sound rude.
This is most probably more a consequence of the way the French express their feelings, not by the feelings expressed.
A feeling expressed in French is stated forcefully and without ambiguity.
(editor's note: In different languages, emotions are expressed differently, depending on cultural norms. See, for example the articles on expressing emotions in Japanese and on expressing emotions in Italian )
Where a traveler from a less confrontational culture would say:“The cheese back home tastes different.”
the French person will say:“I don’t like this cheese. Cheese does not taste like this in France.”
Do not see this as disrespect. See it as an invitation to a discussion. When you speak as if your companion cannot handle strong emotions is to disrespect him or her.
Tell them how you really feel using strong language and you will discover that they will enthusiastically welcome the opportunity to tell you how they feel and be grateful for the opportunity.
If you are to judge by the backdrop of the romantic comedies available on your favorite streaming app, the one emotion that French is uniquely apt at expressing is love.
French, it seems, has just the right softness and musicality to look deep into your partner’s eyes after throwing the key of the lock you just attached to the Pont Neuf into the Seine and whisper into their ear:Je t’aime (I love you)
This is interesting considering that the French verb «aimer» (to love), is used much more casually in French than it is in other languages such as English.
Whereas in English «to love» is reserved for stronger emotions, and «to like» is used the rest of the time, in French «aimer» expresses both sentiments.
In French, the love for your mother and your love for a new tiktoker you found out about 20 minutes ago are expressed with the same verb:
Another verb you can use to express a degree of love is «adorer», as in:
That said, to express your love for your partner, stick to the classic “aimer”.
Fear, in French, is often expressed less as a personal feeling experienced by a single person than something ambient or atmospheric. Instead of saying:
the French will say:
It is as if the French experience the feeling of fear from without, rather than within.
As if something from outside is disturbing their natural inner well-being, as expressed by the phrase one would say when worry starts to creep in:
Sadness in French, like fear, is also something that comes from outside. But contrary to fear, which is a dread that you feel around you, sadness is something you have, an object weighing you down. While it is certainly Ok to say:
it will be much more common for a French-speaking person to express sadness as a thing which has been handed to her against their will:
(Editor's note: the last two examples above are specific to Quebec French)
Anger in French is often expressed as intense disappointment and disbelief. An angry French-speaker will verbalize the feeling as surprise that a situation did not resolve in their prefered outcome. Rather than say:
a French-speaker will say:
The French language has evolved a very rich vocabulary to express frustration, much of which is best left out of this article and left to the reader to research on his own.
I can suggest heading out to your local expat café whenever France’s national soccer team is playing England or Germany.
One notable way French-speakers have of expressing frustration, however, is by literally describing their physical and mental state:
Another way would be:
That last one is the equivalent of the English “at wits end”, which is a way for a French-speaker to express that they have run out of patience.
“Je suis à bout” can express frustration, but it can also express tiredness. As a very common feeling, fatigue is a feeling of many levels and nuances which can be expressed many different ways.
At a most basic level, one would express fatigue straightforwardly:
Another way of expressing tiredness in French is to describe the feeling of fatigue:
Or the more colloquial:
Now that you understand that the French favor blunt expressions of emotions, you have to understand that they also, paradoxically, pride themselves on speaking a language that they consider more exact and precise than any other.
This was the main argument of the proponents of French as the language of science in the first half of the 20th century, before English established itself in that role.
The French language does offer the tools to express nuance. Emotions, like coffee in an American chain, can be graded from Small to XX-Large:emotion –> très emotion –> vraiment emotion –> tellement emotion.
So, to express the different nuances of happiness in French, one would start at:Je suis content –> Je suis TRÈS content –> Je suis VRAIMENT content –> Je suis TELLEMENT content. (I’m glad –> I’m very glad –> I’m really glad –> I’m so glad)
In casual spoken French, there is another level which tops all others. That level is «TROP» ("too much").
The same gradation exists for negative emotions. To express unhappiness, for example, the scale would start at happy, all the way down to not at all happy:Je suis heureux–> Je suis assez heureux–> Je suis peu heureux–>Je ne suis pas heureux (I’m happy–>I’m pretty happy–>I’m not very happy–>I’m not happy)
In negativity as in positivity, an emotion can be too much, but in this case, to beTrop triste (too sad)
has to be understood literally :-(.
That said, for all the nuance and precision of the French language, the French-speakers prefer to express their opinions forcefully. Speaking French, you very quickly run into the need for hyperbole. A thing is not just good, it very quickly escalates to:
In some varieties of French, ambiguous adjectives like crazy are not enough to express extreme emotions. Some things are so positive that negative adjectives have to be used to convey the emotion they provoke:
All the way to the pinnacle of positivity as expressed in Canadian French: disgust!
So, if anything you really like is «génial»!–(genius), how do you talk about just a regular "like"?
While anything you're reasonably enthusiastic about can be quickly escalated to «trop», «top» and «génial», anything else that does not warrant a big emotion will be “not bad”.
As a rule, in spoken French, emotions are expressed as black or white. Something is either just barely on the side of good – «pas mauvais» – or they are so good that positive words struggle to convey how good they are – «c’est fou!».
Nuance is reserved for occasions where the expression of degree is absolutely necessary:
To ask someone you would say:
In French, as in most other cultures, you are not expected to answer with your actual emotional and physical state.
As a matter of fact, in regular conversation, you dispense with the question, and simply state, in the interrogative form, the answer you are hoping for:
To which one usually responds by confirming that all is indeed good.
To express gratitude, a simple «Thank You» will do:
If you are really grateful, you can give many thanks:
If that is not sufficient, you can give up to one thousand thanks:
When one thousands thank yous do not suffice, you can open a line of credit:
When someone gives you gratitude, it is polite to respond with any of many formulas that express that you actually are happy to oblige. You can use the literal:
Or the shorter:
Sometimes we involuntarily cause other people to feel emotions. To express regret in French it is polite to turn towards the person you’re with to express regret to.
If it is a very delicate matter and it is socially acceptable, you might want to take the person's hands in yours:
You can, as in other cultures, ask for forgiveness, but you have to be careful with the context.
That phrase, taken literally, is how you ask for someone to forgive you, but in another context, and with an interrogative tone, is just a way of asking someone to repeat themselves. Then it is the equivalent of saying «I’m sorry?» when you have misheard someone.
For very minor offenses, such as bumping into someone at the supermarket, a simple «Pardon» or «Désolé» will suffice. For extra effect, put your hand on your chest.
A last word of advice for you, the student of French who wants to not only be fluent, but also in tune with French-speaking culture: do not try to use the word «Sacrebleu».
Yes, not not a day goes by, no matter where I am in the world, that someone does not ask me “Monsieur! Monsieur! What does it mean: Sacrebleu?”
Truth is it doesn’t matter, as no French-speaker has uttered the word since Robespierre and the Cardinal de Richelieu.
Today, the only emotion «Sacrebleu» will arouse is the legendary impatience and contempt of the French-speaker.
Editor's note: You can use our free language tool to make your own vocabulary lists, and record your own phrases.