The true meaning of the French "non"

When a French person says « no », she often means « yes ».

This idea came to me while talking to Aisha. It is SO good to talk to expats: you give me awesome subjects for posts. All these little things are so obvious to me (and to any French person) that it would not come to my mind without you. Merci les filles !

Aisha was telling me about an anecdote with her French parents-in-law.

Her mother in law was washing the dishes and Aisha asked « May I help? ». And she answered « No, it’s fine. Don’t worry. » So Aisha left her to this task.

The same situation happened again. Twice.

Then, she could feel something was « wrong ».

(At this point in the conversation, a voice in my head screaming WARNING!. She wanted your help of course!)

And Aisha told me that her French husband had to explain to her that in these cases « Non » means « Oui bien sûr ».

So she understood how undirect we are and always helped, even if her mother-in-law was politely declining.

Once Aisha got the point and insisted, her relationship improved with her mother in law.

How to identify a false « non »?

A false « non » is a polite habit. We honour our guest or our friend or a stranger by saying « I can do it myself » but help is of course always welcome. Or we would actually LOVE to say yes but politeness urges us to say « non ».

This should turn on a red light in your brain:
– You could actually help.
– The person is « obliged to say no »: you’re a guest, not on the same hierarchy level, you’re new in the family…
– You know the person would love to say yes. Her eyes say yes.

My personal technique: a « Non » that comes too late is a hidden « yes ». Works well in English, it’s even more effective in French.

How to make a French says « oui »?

– Add « Vous êtes sûre ? » If somebody refuses your help or if you offer something. A sweet, a little present…
– Change your question in an affirmation and DO IT. « Je te dépose à la gare ? » –> « Allez, je te dépose à la gare. »
– Add « ça me fait plaisir »

What a French will answer

– A « Merci » with a big smile + eternal gratitude. It will also prove that you go beyond apparences. You will earn 100 bonus points with your mother in law.
– « Bon, d’accord. »
– « Si tu insistes. »
– « Si ca te fait plaisir… »

Conclusion: pause every time a French says « non » and ask yourself: Is it a « polite » no?

It can be very annoying that French are not as direct as other people. But this is truly in our genes. And probably even more into women’s genes, as we are supposed to handle everything ourselves.
But, without any cliché or bad jokes, always consider that when a French woman says no, it often means yes.

So being aware of this little game and going beyond politeness will earn you many many friends.

Tell me where you’ve encountered a polite « non » that meant « oui »? Did it cause you trouble? How did you identify it?

Join the conversation!

  • I have a question. How do you politely turn down an offer made by a French person when he/she keeps insisting after you’ve said ‘Non, merci’ once? Merci Mille

  • C’est une utile leçon de politesse pour les français aussi! Passer d’une question à une affirmation pour faire accepter de l’aide est évident une fois écrit dans le post, mais pas quand on est en situation 😉

  • Géraldine, I’m happy to have found your website! “Non” means “oui” in similar situations in the United States. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

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