When you first get to know French people, the shrugs and intonations can seem rather negative, particularly if your own culture is more upbeat.
There is not a lot of ‘hey, how are you doing today?’ with wide grins and bouncy greetings, which can leave visitors feeling under-appreciated.
If an American friend is impressed, she might react with wide-eyed congratulations and a hug – and even British people will show a bit of enthusiasm and a ‘well done’.
Here in Brittany, by contrast, one of the greatest compliments you can receive is pas mal (not bad), accompanied by a slow nod and a Robert De Niro-style mouth-shrug.
Notice that the approval centres around a negative.
Masterclass in negative-as-positive phrases
We have a few of these expressions ourselves, such as ‘you’re not wrong’ (which the French also love – c’est pas faux!).
However, the French excel in negative-as-positive phrases.
At this time of year, you will certainly hear fait pas chaud, hein? (it’s not warm) or pas très beau ce matin (not very nice this morning).
To warm you up, you might be offered a coffee but even this might need some interpreting.
Tu veux pas un café could be misconstrued as a declaration that you do not want a coffee, but with a verbal lift it becomes a question.
In English, ‘don’t you want a coffee?’ suggests you have already turned one down, but tu veux pas un café? is an offer – more like ‘wouldn’t you like a nice coffee?’.
What to make of jamais
Purists will have noticed I have missed out the ne in these examples, because in speech you do not often hear it.
There is a whole list of negation pairs.
We learn that je ne mange pas is ‘I don’t eat’, je ne mange jamais is ‘I never eat’ and je ne mange plus is ‘I no longer eat’.
It is not that simple.
While je n’ai jamais vu ce film is ‘I have never seen this film’, c’est le meilleur film que j’aie jamais vu tells you ‘it’s the best film I have ever seen’.
In short, the French are not really negative – it’s just another language thing.