Imagine this: You’re walking down the street, and you see two people shaking their heads, throwing their hands in the air, and rolling their eyes. They’re speaking a language you don’t know, but you know they’re in a disagreement. Body language is the most widely used language of them all, but French gestures and greetings are still going to look different than Spanish or English ones. Since body language changes depending on where you’re from, it’s essential to learn both positive and negative body language examples when learning a new language.
French body language is just as varied and unique as English body language. If you haven’t been exposed to a particular French gesture, you could be left out of a conversation. 55% of communication is non-verbal, so even if you’ve been keeping up with your French lessons, you might be missing out on some non-verbal vocabulary. When you speak to a French person for the first time, you might understand when they roll their eyes, but do you know what it means when they twist their fist in front of their nose?
If you don’t, keep reading and we’ll share some of the most common French gestures and greetings.
French Body Language 101
1. The French hand gesture for drunkenness
If you find yourself in a French bar or a French apéro with someone who has had a few too many glasses of red wine, you might see one of their friends making a specific gesture in their direction. The friend might put their fist in front of their nose and twist it to the left as if they are revving the engine on a motorcycle. This gesture usually accompanies a few laughs.
2. The French hand gesture for when you’re frustrated
The French are stereotyped as complainers, so you won’t be surprised when you see that they have particular body language for when they’re frustrated, annoyed, or angry. When French people want to show that they’ve “had it up to here,” they move their hand over their head from front to back. In English, we would use this gesture to show that something went right over our heads, so be sure not to mix this one up.
3. The French hand gesture for when you’re angry
This hand gesture comes from the phrase “avoir les boules,” which literally means to “have balls.” When you as les boules, it means you’re pissed off; so pissed off in fact that, for some reason, your balls are in your neck. To show that you’re angry, you curve your hands, so it looks like you’re holding a ball in each hand and put them right up under your chin.
4. The French hand gesture to use when you’re right and they’re wrong
Let’s say you are so sure that Virginia’s capital is Richmond, but your friend really thinks it’s Charlottesville. Your friend is fighting you so hard that you decide to Google it and reveal that Virginia’s capital is indeed Richmond. If you want to say something to them like “in your face!” or “boom!” you can simply put your thumb under your chin and then flick it out towards them.
5. French body language to use when you have no clue
The French have a straightforward way to say they don’t know something. You might see the French shrugging, but it’s more common to see them pouting their lips and pushing a tiny bit of air out of their mouth to make a “p” sound. You’ll especially notice this one if you’re around sassy teenagers. It definitely isn’t something you would do to your boss or a stranger.
6. French hand gesture to use when you’re annoyed
This French gesture also goes along with a French phrase, which is “Quelle barbe !” Literally, quelle barbe means “what a beard,” but in everyday communication, it means “what a pain.” You’ll make this gesture by turning around your palm towards your cheek and moving it from side to side.
7. French body language to say hello
In the United States, you’ll usually greet someone with a little wave, a hug, or a handshake. In France, la bise rules the realm of greetings. Depending on where you are in France, how many kisses you give, and which cheek you start on may differ. The rules for who does the la bise with and who you don’t is pretty gendered, which can be confusing, but don’t worry because the French person will usually lead. In general, la bise is done between family members of all genders, between female friends and acquaintances, female and male friends and acquaintances, and between close male friends. Men who don’t know each other well tend to shake each other’s hands. The French also do a little wave to greet a larger group of people.
8. French hand gesture to show that someone is crazy or stupid
In the U.S., when we think someone or something is crazy, we’ll usually twirl our finger next to our temple. The French hand gesture isn’t too different from this. Instead, the French simply tap the side of their head to show that someone may be a little fou. This gesture can also be used to mean stupid and is usually accompanied by the sound “toc, toc.”
9. French gesture to show that you want to get out of here or that someone just left
If you’ve been asking your friends to leave a party for a while, but they’re still gabbing it up, you might try to make this gesture. All you do is point one hand on its side towards wherever you want to go and then slap your other hand on top of it. This can also be used if someone ran off, and you’re telling someone else where they went.
Congratulations! You can now converse with a French person without even learning one word of vocabulary.