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Are the British just not serious enough for the French?

The French would not have elected Boris Johnson in a million years: A man who treats himself as a joke in le Palais de l’Elysée? Non, non et non. Samantha David shares her thoughts on this cultural difference

Being serious is a desirable quality for French people Pic: fizkes / Shutterstock

I was recently told off for not being serious enough.

“You find everything amusing or treat it as a social occasion,” this person complained. 

Telling various friends about the encounter, one of them simply rolled her eyes: “Being serious is such a desirable quality that the French even put it in dating adverts.”

It is true. Profiles on French dating sites are full of people describing themselves as serious and looking for serious partners. On anglophone sites, you will find almost the direct opposite: lots of people with a good sense of humour, looking for the same.

If it is possible to generalise about entire nations, I think the light-hearted response to a serious situation is a very British characteristic. I knew a man once who enjoyed extreme challenges, such as skiing down incredibly narrow, almost vertical gullies. Whenever he was asked about the danger, he would say it was the only way to check his skis still worked.

“And do they?” we would ask.

“Not sure. Might have to check them again tomorrow,” he would reply.

French adrenaline junkies, meanwhile, admit they are taking risks, talk in depth about training they have undertaken to minimise the danger, and the safety measures in place. All very sensible.

I think this plays into a general admiration for serious writers, singers, artists and politicians. I do not think the French would have elected Boris Johnson in a million years. Put a man who treats himself as a joke in le Palais de l’Elysée? Non, non et non! They do not regard his clown antics as funny, just embarrassing.

In the same way, it seems that to be ‘prestigious’, all creative endeavours – novels, films, plays, visual arts, music – must be deadly serious, doom-laden and possibly even intellectual, to boot.

Jacques Tati is beloved because his comedy springs from the sadness of an innocent man navigating a world gone mad. More recently, Intouchables hit the mark because although it was hysterically funny, it dealt with disability, poverty, racial prejudice, inequality and personal redemption.

Light froth might be guiltily consumed, but it is not admired. Dany Boon is regarded as very funny but a bit American, a bit declassé, because, well, all he does is make people laugh. There was not really a serious side to Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis.

In some ways, all this pays off for French women. They do not joke about drinking entire bottles of wine for the good reason that they never do: they drink, but not excessively. 

It is not cool to get blotto. 

Hangovers and expanding waistlines are not really for them, and that is a positive thing. It is also laudable that they take their careers seriously, and that they do not sacrifice themselves for a clean kitchen sink. On the other hand, occasionally this can all come across as a bit uptight.

I am afraid I will always love the way British people can kick back, crack jokes, and laugh at life and themselves.

Related stories:

When naming places and streets, France should honour women too

Opinion: UK-France bickering is hard on us bicultural ‘kids’ in middle

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