French people don’t make small talk. Or at least, not nearly as much as other cultures, like American culture. Why? How can you make small talk in French?
Throughout the lesson, I’ll use broad strokes and general stereotypes to talk about culture. Of course, in France, in the US and anywhere else, there are people who love small talk, some people who hate it, and the whole spectrum of personal preferences. But thinking in generalities can help us get a feel for a culture.
Today, let’s talk about French small talk, the cultural mistakes you can avoid, and some basic French small talk sentences.
C’est parti !
1) French people don’t like small talk
Un bavard = a talkative person
Bavard = talkative
Un ami proche = a close friend
Parisians are said to be more reserved, while Southern French people are more talkative. But in general, French people love silence.
French people simply don’t engage in small talk or long conversations with strangers. Friendships and sharing are seen as much more intimate than, for instance, American culture. When a French person starts talking to you about their family and their life, you know you made a strong connection!
Le silence, c’est du respect. = Silence is respectful, it’s not an insult. A polite French person would rather leave in peace someone they know they’ll never see again. In a long queue, in an elevator, on a train, in public transportation, people don’t tend to try and strike conversations.
There’s probably also an arrogant side to this, I must admit.
For better or worse, French culture prides itself of having invented l’art de la conversation (= the art of conversation) around the XVIIIth Century, le Siècle des Lumières (= “the century of the Enlightenment”) Elegant discussions with a flair for le trait d’esprit or le bon mot (= literally “spirit’s arrow,” “good word” = witticisms.)
It’s an intellectual tradition that comes in part from les salons littéraires, the literary salons where noble French women hosted conversations with the likes of Voltaire, or later with post-war philosophers in Parisian cafés, or even now with basically all artsy French cinema.
Conversation has a special place in French culture, and it might create some pressure and expectations. It might be part of the reason why French culture isn’t kind towards mere small talk.
Extra resources about “Art de la conversation” and more:
- L’Art de la conversation – the French Wikipedia page on the topic
- Les Salons littéraires des femmes – A history and explanation of the literary salons held by French women in the XVIIIth Century.
- Ridicule (1996) – A great movie about life at the Versailles court, where witty conversations can make or break political careers.
- Molière (2007) – A movie about the most famous French playwright, from the XVIIth Century, with a plot revolving around a noble woman’s salon.
- Le secret des répliques cultes de Michel Audiard – A 22-min video essay about “cult classic” dialogues in French cinema, especially the most famous dialogue-writer Michel Audiard.
- Eric Rohmer: The Art of Conversation – A 4-min video essay about dialogues in the work of Eric Rohmer’s, the famous art-house director of slow, talkative, emotional movies.
The black-and-white clip is taken from Ma Nuit Chez Maud (1969) by Eric Rohmer. Here’s their dialogue and its translation:
C’est vrai ! C’est le jésuitisme incarné. = That’s true! He’s the embodiment of Jesuitism (casuistry.)
Laisse-le se défendre ! = Let him defend himself!
Non, je disais que je n’aimais pas Pascal parce que Pascal a une conception du christianisme très.. très particulière. Qui d’ailleurs a été condamnée par l’Église. = No, I was saying that I don’t like (Blaise) Pascal because Pascal has a very… very peculiar conception of Christianity. Which, by the way, has been condemned by the Church.
2) How to say “small talk” in French
Again, these were only broad strokes. French people do make small talk at parties or when meeting new people in their different activities. They’ll be happy to talk to you!
And of course, les coiffeurs et les coiffeuses (= hairdressers,) are famously masters of this kind of conversation. It’s all stereotypes, and obviously false at the margins.
There’s no short way to translate “small talk” in French, but there are some options:
- Parler de tout et de rien. = To talk about everything and nothing (literally)
On a passé deux heures à parler de tout et de rien. = We spent two hours talking about this and that.
- Parler de la pluie et du beau temps. = Talking about rain and weather.
- Parler du temps qu’il fait. = Talking about the weather.
- Faire la conversation = to make conversation. (more positive)
Oh, je dis ça, c’est pour faire la conversation… = Oh, I only say that to make conversation…
- Échanger des banalités. = Trading trivialities. (more negative)
J’ai revu Lionel hier soir, on a simplement échangé des banalités. = I saw Lionel again yesterday evening, we simply made some small talk.
Relatedly, and even more negative, is tenir la jambe (de quelqu’un) (= “to hold (someone’s) leg,” “talking someone’s ear off, to hold them up.”)
Il m’a quand même tenu la jambe pendant une heure ! = He still talked my ear off for an hour!
3) How to make small talk in French
Sometimes we have to talk about something, and it’s easier if it starts with topics that aren’t too personal or too important. What can you use then?
Well, the easiest, most common French small talk is this full conversation:
Bonjour ! Comment allez-vous ? = Hello! How are you?
Bonjour ! Ça va bien, et vous ? = Hello. I’m fine, and you?
Très bien ! Bonne journée. = Very well! Have a good day.
Au revoir ! = Goodbye!
Or in more colloquial, everyday French, with a friend:
Salut, ça va ? = Hi! How are you?
Ça va et toi ? = Good, and you?
Super. À plus ! = Fantastic. See you!
That’s a whole small talk conversation!
Instead of Ça va ? (= How are you?), you can also hear colloquial / familiar synonyms such as:
- Ça roule ?
- Ça boume ?
- Ça gaze ?
You can go a bit further and talk about the weather instead:
- Oh là là, quel temps ! = Oh, what a weather!
- On a évité la pluie ! = We avoided the rain!
- Il fait beau chez toi ? = Is the weather good where you live?
Or you can ask other basic questions, such as:
Quoi de neuf ? (Or Quoi d’neuf ? in spoken French) = What’s up? What’s new? (Simple, effective, and a good way to check if the other person has something really important to share first!)
If you want to get to know a stranger:
- Comment tu t’appelles ? = What’s your name?
- C’est quoi, ton nom ? (same, but more informal)
- Tu fais quoi dans la vie ? = What do you do for a living?
- Sympa, tes chaussures. = Cool shoes. (And other compliments)
- Les enfants vont bien ? = Are your kids alright? / How are your kids?
- Tu as fait quoi ce week-end ? = What did you do this week end?
- Tu as passé une bonne journée ? = Did you have a nice day?
And I hope that you have a good day today!
Click here to learn more about cultural differences:
- Never Say “Mon Ami” in French (And What to Say Instead)
- Why You Shouldn’t Use “Garçon” to Call a Waiter
- French Culture: Small Talk on the Street
- How to Make Small Talk in French: About the Weather
À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!
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Ca gaze – meaning
In the expressions – C’est quoi ton nom? Tu fais quoi dans la vie? – why is it correct to use tu when this is clearly a person you have never met?
Probably just younger people talking!
This is more of a casual, informal speech for sure. You would otherwise use : “Quel est votre nom ? Que faites-vous dans la vie ?”
Comme Une Française Team