(asked by db, the same as the previous question)

What is the Gallic shrug ?

Other than that, best blog yet, and quite true too.

First of all, thanks for the kind word.

Now, the Gallic shrug.
First of all, I must underline that the Gallic Shrug “exists” only in the English speaking world, or should I say in the eyes of the English speaking world.
I have never heard of the Gallic shrug in the mouth of people from other countries.
Most likely because:
- Most other countries have their own equivalent to the Gallic shrug.
- I guess it surprises (or used to surprise) the Anglos to encounter this in France (you know how they are with France, always fantasizing and imagining France as heaven on Earth and other foolish things like that) while they expect it and are not surprised by it in other countries that are “less civilized” in their unconscious mind.

Then, what does it consist in?
Well, you’ll find sites, books, people that’ll tell you it’s a shrug, with sometimes a pout or whatever else.
Actually, the Gallic shrug is more a state of mind than an actual gesture.
For example, I almost never shrug when I do a Gallic shrug.

And what does it mean?
Well, it basically means “I didn’t mess it up, you did (or somebody else), not me, so why should it be my problem?”
It’s more or less the French equivalent to “Deal with it” and/or “Shit happens.”

And I assume it’s an issue for the Anglos, and especially the Americans because they’re under the strange assumption that they never have to fix their own problems or clean after themselves.
The most obvious thing being the customer service thing.
While I agree that customer service is good in the US and sometimes sucks in France (but not as much as Anglos think, they just don’t know the unwritten rules), the general understanding that the one who pays that has all the rights, and the one that is being paid who has to be a slave to the former one just doesn’t apply in France.
Money doesn’t regulate the relationship between customers and sellers. It’s just one of the two items that are being exchanged.

Hence, people encountering the “Gallic shrug” if they ask the wrong person to solve the wrong problem. Because not anybody will help you in a store when you have a problem, only the person whose job is to solve this problem, if such a person exists.

Now, I’ll conclude by saying that this state of mind that I find very healthy and honest has one major downside: the administration!
Because everything administrative is so complex, nonsensical and quite Kafkaesque in France, nothing is nobody’s problem, and yes it is a big pain in the ass to deal with the administration when there’s a problem in this country, because it’s never the clerk problem (of course it’s not) so they’ll be rarely helpful on the matter, and believe me it makes the French mad too…

pixel What is the Gallic shrug ?

10 Responses to “What is the Gallic shrug ?”

  1. Bill Bryson, in Neither Here nor There, has this down to a T. I can’t remember the exact wording, and I’m away from my copy, but it’s along the same lines as you describe: “Alas, monsieur, that is indeed a problem, but, monsieur, shit happens, and this, monsieur, is, alas, not my shit” - or words to that effect.

    But there is a piece of body language that I associate with France, which is a slight rise of the shoulders, a lift of the eyebrows, possibly an extension or opening of the arms, and some form of vocalisation (not necessarily a meaningful word or phrase). De Gaulle would do it to emphasise a point rather than express resignation (when did he ever decline to comment?!): but in my mind’s eye, it’s associated with a “Ca alors!”.

  2. A couple years ago I dealt with the Department of Homeland Security for more than a year. I might be a weird case but I can say that I never had this Kafka zone effect happen as intensively during the 30+ years I’ve lived in France. It’s to the point where I’m sick to listen to French guys complain about French administration. I didn’t know how good I had it until I moved to the US. I didn’t realize how maternal and devoted to helping citizens my Republic is. Now that I’ve experienced another mode of administration where users are treated like shit in a jargon pretending to be plain English, where information is nowhere to be found and the very submissions of procedures cost thousands of dollars, I can proudly say “vive l’administration francaise !” This last decade has seen lots of improvement, the internet forms being a huge one. For instance I asked for judicial records (3 copies) to French administration, after a week and a half and without paying a cent I had those copies at my address in the US. Beat that !

  3. CUSTOMER service, David! COSTUMERS are (or I suppose they are) people who make or sell costumes!

    I don’t actually think of the gesture in this picture as what would be generally recognised by the English-speaking world as the classic ‘Gallic shrug’, but I’d agree with the suggestion that it can have a range of meanings - I don’t know/Search me/I don’t care/It should be obvious, you idiot etc etc:


    I’m not French, but have lived in France when I was younger, including a stint as a jeune fille au pair in a family with a maniacal four year old, during which I perfected the shrug that said ‘Madame, c’est pas ma faute que Baptiste a tuĂ© votre fils! Que voulez-vous? C’est un diable…’

    I think the shrug has just become a sort of shorthand for the way in which English-speakers (or a lot of them, I suppose I’m thinking primarily of English people and Americans) are struck by the French having a wider body-language vocabulary than they do. I think you notice this kind of thing more when you don’t speak the language that well, because you’re more reliant on verbal clues. I notice myself being more conscious of Italian body language if I’m in Italy, because my Italian isn’t good - I have to remind myself that what looks like an all-out fight, with two guys raising their voices and tapping one another’s chests, is in all likelihood a friendly conversation about the price of artichokes…

  4. Since you touched on it in your answer, perhaps you could tell us more about the unwritten rules of customer service (or would writing it break the ‘unwritten’ part of the rule?)
    That would be very helpful for someone planning on visiting/living in france….

  5. “Costumer rights”? That’s pretty funny. I think you meant to say, “customer service”, n’est-ce pas? (Feel free to respond with a Gallic shrug).

  6. i would be interested in hearing more about these “unwritten rules” of commerce in France. i know small things, like to ask for a caraffe d’eau at a cafe so you won’t be given a 5 euro bottle of mineral water, but i feel like a lot of it eludes me.

  7. David: I had a little trouble accessing to the resident status (even being married to an American) because I didn’t use the fiancee visa. My fault there, no doubt. But every single form to submit costing hundreds of dollars and taking more than 6 months to be treated and just to be told “wrong paperwork”… it was killing us and we ended up hiring a lawyer (yeah more fees)

    I dealt with the usual DMV and social security administrations too. To me it was just equivalent to going to a prefecture or la secu, 30 minutes waiting in line, apathic employees, but it’s not really hell.

  8. I was looking up images of gallic shrugs so that I can get it fixed in my mind - I need to adopt the state of mind that goes with it -that is how I came across your blog I am half french half english - I just wanted to add that i see a lot of body language here in England & there might be outdated notions of what to be English or French is - There seems to have been a lot of toing and froing over our history with only 27 miles separating us we are nearer to France from London than scotland and ireland. Just wanted to say that the Gallic shrug is not the only misperception the stiff upper lip is also not in evidence.

  9. Ok, I know it is months since anyone posted on this topic- but I want to add my two cents.

    I work as a cashier, trust me, Americans do this too. Not very adeptly, but we are learning. Sometimes customers want something unrealistic.

    People ask for things such as “Can you order me a replacement widget for the vacuum cleaner I bought here 10 years ago?”
    Or try to haggle, which you can’t do in a regular store in the US “I want you to give me a 50% discount on this because the box is dented.”
    And sometimes they just freak out “Let me talk to your manager! You are way out of line, how dare you decline my credit card!” the last of which has *nothing* to do with anyone at the store and everything to do with a bank somewhere out in cyberspace.)

    And when this happens you just smile fakly and say, “I am sure we can find someone to help with that, I’ll be right back.” and disappear. Bad customer service, yes…sanity saver for employees, absolutely.

    The customer is always right is one of the worst business models ever conceived. That is why big companies are so eager to use an automated telephone system.

    • I agree with you, it’s hard to find a right balance. And I agree that sometimes in the US, customers are being total dicks just because they can. On two occasions (with two separate people) I was with some very good friends, nice, respectful and overall good people who turned into total bitches with employees in stores just because they could. It made me vomit inside a little bit.

      When I’m in a store, I always try to be as respectful to the staff as possible, especially the people at the bottom of the ladder and it will take a certain dose of disrespect from them because I starts disrespecting them (strangely it never happens with the people at the bottom).

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