How to understand the gestures and mimics of the French?

So, you’ve been studying French for a while and feel like you’re ready to take your skills to the next level by conversing with native speakers. But, before you can do that, you need to know how to understand all of the gestures and mimics that they use!

Lucky for you, I’m here to help. In this post, I’ll teach you about some of the most common French gestures and explain what they mean. Stay tuned – it’s going to be fun! 🙂

Some French vocabulary!

Faire un geste (ou un signe): is to express something with your body, with your hands.

Faire une mimique: is to communicate a feeling with his facial expression, with the movements of his face.

Une interjection: it is a small invariable word which expresses a feeling, an order, a spontaneous emotion:

  • aïe expresses pain, suffering,
  • allo is the trigger for a phone conversation,
  • chut is an interjection to ask for silence.

Une onomatopée: it is an invariable word that imitates a sound, a noise.

  • Miaou is the onomatopoeia for the noise a cat makes,
  • atchoum is the onomatopoeia used when someone sneezes.
  • Tic-tac imitates the sound of a mechanism, a watch, a bomb about to explode.

💡 Interjections and onomatopées are widely used in comics… And are also found in the mouth of the French.

📌 NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION DIFFERS FROM COUNTRY TO COUNTRY
In Germany, for example, one of the most commonly used gestures is the following:
you pass your hand in front of your face several times, with an annoyed or disgusted expression. 

This gesture does not mean anything in France, nor in Italy, nor in England, nor…
It is a gesture that is used exclusively by German speakers when they want to say:
You are completely crazy, you are crazy!!

The gestures of the French

For each expression, I will give you a description of the gesture in the caption of the picture.
You will also find a list of expressions used with the gesture. Some belong to the familiar register, others to the standard register.

1. être fou (be crazy)

The gesture

The index finger is placed on the temple and rotated several times.

A bit of lexicon:

  • il est fou, elle est folle,
  • il/elle est malade, c’est un grand malade, une grande malade,
  • il/elle est ouf. Ouf, that’s verlan. (colloquial language)

    The verlan? What is it? Do the French really speak it?
    👉 YouTube video on verlan
  • il/elle est zinzin, (colloquial language)
  • il/elle est dingue, (colloquial language)
  • il/elle est fada (colloquial language).

2. être énervé(e) (be upset)

The gesture

The hands go up to the neck, to the right and to the left, the fingers tightened as if they were holding… balls! The expression of the face is irritated.

A bit of lexicon:

  • Il/elle est énervé(e),
  • Il/elle est en colère,
  • Il/elle est furieux, furieuse,
  • Il/elle est véner. Véner, that’s verlan. (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle a les boules. (colloquial language)

3. être ivre (be drunk)

The gesture

The fingers form a circle which is placed in front of the nose, the hand turns around the nose, from right to left, as if one was closing a bottle by turning the cork: you have drunk enough!

A bit of lexicon:

  • Il/elle est ivre,
  • Il/elle est saoul, saoule,
  • Il/elle est bourré(e), (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle est beurré(e), (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle est pété(e), (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle est schlass, (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle est bleu(e). (colloquial language)

4. partir (go to)

The gesture

One hand is open, vertical, static. The other is horizontal and moves from right to left in the direction you want to go.

A bit of lexicon:

  • Il/elle part (partir), (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle s’en va (s’en aller), (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle se casse (se casser), (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle se tire (se tirer), (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle se barre (se barrer). (colloquial language)

5. se taire (be quiet)

The gesture

The hand is at the level of the mouth, the fingers are directed towards the front, close and open.

A bit of lexicon:

  • Il/elle se tait (se taire),
  • Il/elle garde le silence,
  • Il/elle arrête de parler,
  • Il/elle la boucle, (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle ferme son bec, (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle ferme sa gueule. (⚠️ vulgar)

6. se taire (be quiet): alternative

The gesture

The lips are tightened, the fingers closed, pass in front of the mouth as if we were pulling up a zipper.

A bit of lexicon:

  • Motus et bouche cousue : this expression is used less to order someone to keep quiet than to ask them to keep a secret that I have entrusted to them.

7. en avoir assez (be fed up)

The gesture

The hand passes over the head in a horizontal movement, from front to back. You can tell that the person is upset by their facial expression. They may blow to accompany their gesture.

A bit of lexicon:

  • Il/elle en a assez,
  • ça m’énerve !
  • ça me gonfle ! (colloquial language)
  • ça me gave ! (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle en a marre, (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle en a par dessus la tête, (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle en a ras-le-bol. (colloquial language)

8. ne pas croire (not to believe)

The gesture

The index finger is placed under the eye and pulls the skin downwards.

A bit of lexicon:

  • Il/elle ment (mentir),
  • Il/elle me dit des mensonges,
  • Il/elle ne dit pas la vérité,
  • Je ne le/la crois pas,
  • Mon œil ! (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle me raconte des salades, (colloquial language)
  • C’est du pipeau. (colloquial language)

9. porter chance (bring luck)

The gesture

The fingers are folded and come to tap the forehead several times.

A bit of lexicon:

  • Je touche du bois.

The French associate gesture with speech: they will say je touche du bois (I touch wood) and tap their hand on a piece of wooden furniture.

But as there is often more plastic than wood in our society, they will make the same gesture, but by tapping their forehead with their hand.

In fact, they have a hard head, a wooden head… So, it will have the same value as knocking on the living room table!

10. porter chance (bring luck): alternative

The gesture

The index and middle fingers are crossed, the hand is placed at face level.

A bit of lexicon:

  • Je te souhaite bonne chance,
  • Bonne chance !
  • J’espère que ça va marcher,
  • Je croise les doigts pour toi,
  • Je te dis merde. (⚠️ vulgar)

⚠️ The expression « Je te dis merde » belongs to a vulgar language level.

However, it is very much used by the French, because wishing someone luck may bring him bad luck!

On the other hand, saying Merde to someone is supposed to bring him luck…
Strange superstitions of the French! 😂

11. avoir peur (be afraid)

The gesture

The hands are oriented palms up, the fingers are clenched and the whole moves vertically, from bottom to top and from top to bottom.

A bit of lexicon:

  • Il/elle a peur,
  • il/elle a les chocottes, (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle a la frousse, (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle a la pétoche, (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle a la trouille, (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle a le trouillomètre à zéro, (colloquial language)
  • Il/elle flippe. (colloquial language)

12. super (great)

The gesture

Thumb(s) up.

A bit of lexicon:

  • C’est, Il/elle est fantastique,
  • C’est, Il/elle est génial(e),
  • C’est, Il/elle est extraordinaire,
  • C’est, Il/elle est super,
  • C’est, Il/elle est d’enfer, (colloquial language)
  • C’est, Il/elle est trop bien, (colloquial language)
  • C’est, Il/elle est vachement bien, (colloquial language)
  • C’est, Il/elle est cool, trop cool, super cool ! (colloquial language)

13. Comment les Français comptent sur leurs doigts (How the French count on their fingers)

The gesture

A bit of lexicon:

  • Zéro, un, deux, trois

14. Oh là là (Oh dear)

The gesture

The hand is at face level, palm down, fingers facing the cheek. You move the whole thing back and forth.

A bit of lexicon:

The expression Oh là là, and the gesture that accompanies it, are extremely rich in meaning:

  • surprise,
  • disappointment,
  • irritation,
  • admiration,
  • compassion…

Everything will depend on the mimicry that the person makes and the tone in which he pronounces the expression Oh là là.

15. comme ci, comme ça (like this, like that)

The gesture

The hand is at shoulder height, horizontal, palm down and moves from left to right several times.

A bit of lexicon:

This gesture and the verbal expression Comme ci, comme ça are used a lot to answer the question: Ça va?
Well, no, it’s not going too well, it’s going like this, like that.

  • Ça va ? Tu vas bien ? Vous allez bien ?
  • Non, je ne me sens pas en forme,
  • J’ai une petite forme,
  • Non. Ça ne va pas fort,
  • Bof, (colloquial language)
  • Non, j’ai pas la pêche en ce moment ! (colloquial language)

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Conclusion

It’s always interesting to learn about the quirks of other cultures, and French non-verbal communication is certainly no exception. By understanding a few basic gestures and mimics, you can go a long way in impressing your French friends (or just avoiding any embarrassing faux pas).

Bon voyage !

Do you have any favorite French non-verbal expressions? Let us know in the comments below.


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