Is English a Friendly Language?

A bit of a cultural insight today, but one I think will interest you. I have lived in France for six years and affirming insights continue to delight me, and if you visit France for the first time, they can be a revelation and prevent a lot of frustration.

Recently, I discussed with two French students the use of “friendly” language, words and phrases that most of us use unconsciously, but for a foreign language learner, need to be emphasized – how to write or speak so that you sound friendly. It is particular to the English language (and others perhaps?) with varying degrees of importance to the British, American and other English language speaking cultures.

The French language and the way it is spoken in conversation is more direct in some respects than English (we are not talking about the length of time to make a point). Polite, yes. Friendly, no. They are not the same thing.

La Boulangerie, by Rita Crane

Every time you enter a boulangerie (bakery), supermarket, pharmacy, catch a bus, enter a hotel or any public place you will likely be greeted with ‘Bonjour Madame/Monsieur’ and you will also receive a farewell salutation ‘Au revoir (sounds more like ‘arve-wa’ here in the South), and ‘Bonne journée’. This is politeness and by learning these few simple French phrases, a more positive experience is likely. A smile however, is a rare and precious gift, and eye contact is not guaranteed.

For more insight on the smile, there are some interesting comments by French citizens in Elaine Sciolino’s ‘La Seduction – How the French play the Game of Life’, which infer a smile is something that must be earned, it is not a gesture offered freely to strangers, it signals the beginning of a relationship. It is not being unfriendly, it is being true. To smile at a stranger can be considered false and anyone indulging in that behaviour may even be regarded as suspicious, conduct Harold and Barbara Rhode’s were baffled by in William Maxwell’s novel The Château.

So during our lesson, we read an email text with some words underlined and then we read it a second time leaving out the underlined text. Here is a short section of the text.

Hi Patti! Thanks for your email. Your new job sounds really great – I know that you’ve wanted to work as a graphic designer for ages and ages, and now it’s finally happened! Congratulations! I’m sure you’ll do really well in the job. Well, what about my news? I arrived in Prague about a month ago. It was quite difficult at first. Of course I couldn’t speak the language, and finding a place to live wasn’t easy. Then my friend Belen and I found a lovely little flat in the old part of town. It’s quite small, but it’s full of character and we love it. I’m working as a waitress in a cocktail bar. It’s okay – I don’t suppose I’ll do it for long, but it’s a way to earn some money.

One student read the entire text and the other the shorter version. At the end, I asked what the difference was.

“The second one is more like we talk” one student responded confidently.

“Well, no.” I replied.

It is true, direct conversation sounds rude unfriendly in English and can be the cause of unintentional cultural misunderstandings when foreign language students attempt to speak in English. Equally, we should not expect our smiles and warm, friendly conversational attempts to be greeted in appreciation. We are strangers until we have been introduced, or at least until we have become regulars.

So what are those friendly words/phrases that we use? Here are some of them:

It seems that        Unfortunately         So    Luckily          In Fact     Of Course     Well      Basically     To be honest       Frankly         Anyway        Apparently     Actually       Obviously       Would you mind

Can you think of any others?

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28 thoughts on “Is English a Friendly Language?

  1. When I was at the charcuterie counter at our local supermarket recently the assistant said, ‘You must be a very happy person.’
    Surprised I asked why, and she said, ‘You’re always smiling, we’ve all noticed it.’ I realised that, as I’d do in the UK, I always smile when I ask for something.

    The supermarket staff may think it unusual but at least they now slice my jambon ‘tres, tres fin’ with good grace rather than presenting me with thick slabs of meat.

    • That’s a wonderful story and illustration of cultural differences, interesting that someone actually commented and great that you’ve made ‘regular’ status!

  2. This is such an interesting post – not being even close to a good speaker in another language it is something I hadn’t even thought about. I love hearing information like this about how languages (countries/cultures) differs, especially when it makes us all better at communicating with each other!

    • Yes, I admit I had never really thought about the specific words we use to be more friendly, but I know I often add words to student’s expressions to make the phrase sound less blunt.

  3. I’ve just forwarded your blog to my daughter, whose ambition is to live in France. Very interesting post–I love learning about cultural differences in verbal expression.

  4. I love these insights into cultural differences… I’m an amalgam of English and French, main ingredients mixed with a sprinkling of others. I attended a French Catholic grammar school, first five years were half French classes, half English classes (and still I can’t speak French.)

    Fascinating.

    • The French I learnt at school taught me nothing in preparation for living here, even how to pronouce ‘Bonjour’ was way off! And cultural insights, I don’t think that was part of the syllabus at all.

  5. This is a very interesting post. I do agree that teaching students about friendly language can be a task, but it often boils down to tone. As for the French language I wouldn’t consider it to be direct at all. The French don’t smile very often and their politeness is really a formality. It definitely doesn’t guarantee good service. The friendly phrases and words at the end of the post are quite difficult for French students to grasp when writing but speaking is even more complex. As for others how about: As a matter of fact or Nevertheless
    Great post! It has given me a new idea for class. Thanks!

  6. Claire, I can comment aplenty on this because I am an American who has been to France. In high school, I took two years of French and then took a trip there with a group of other high school and college students, accompanied by our high school French teacher. We spent approximately two weeks, toured all of the sights, shopped, and spent nearly a week living in pairs of two with French families (French speaking only) and received schooling in French while there.

    Even with two years of French, I was LOST! The language was so fast and there were accents (as you spoke of) to deal with, etc. Had it not been for our guides and the friend I was with who was much better at French than I, the trip would have been a bust for me. I felt so incredibly foreign! As a result, I was treated that way by many of the French. They didn’t like having to explain things with their hands, didn’t smile at me to make me feel welcome in their shops, and it seemed unfriendly. They seemed so irritated by American tourists. I must admit I was a bit put off.

    Perhaps that experience made me keenly more aware of my own speech patterns and the importance of speaking to others through gestures, body language, and inflection as well as with words. That is probably also why I use a lot of italicizing and boldface in my writing. I need more outlets in my writing for emphasis! It isn’t always what you say that matters, but how you say it. What do you make people FEEL when you speak? And then, how do you translate that properly in writing?

    I do smile more than most. A line from my favorite movie goes like this: “Always smile when you enter a room, dear. It relaxes others, and it lifts the features of the face.” Once, I noticed that when going through the drive through at fast-food restaurants, I didn’t even make eye contact with the workers, much less smile. I thought to myself, “How rude of me!” and I began looking at them and smiling when talking to them. So much better! Sometimes, a person just needs a friendly smile in their day, we deal with so many bad attitudes here in the U.S.

    I believe in the powers of positive energy and negative energy being able to directly affect others. I try to keep myself on the positive side, even though it isn’t always possible. I do feel that approaching a stranger with a smile promotes a better start to any relationship. When I meet someone who does the opposite, it comes across as disdain in my book. It immediately says, “You’re not interesting, I don’t care about knowing you, and further more, I’ve got better things to do if you’ll exit my personal space.”

    Claire, great points in this post. Like all things, I suppose it is subjective and there are many viewpoints. Thanks for talking about some other views. It does explain a bit of why I felt people were somewhat rude in France. I just hadn’t deserved their smiles yet! LOL!

    • Sounds very much like a cultural experience. Not forgetting that France is the most touristed country in the world, which has an abundance of cultural and natural resources, mountains, sea, food, arts – one of the reasons many locals also choose to take their holidays in France and one of the reasons perhaps that they are not as curious about visitors as some are. Shops close at lunchtime, some even for three weeks in the peak summer season (like the icecream shop in Paris) :)

      I am an optimist and subscribe to the positive outlook too, so I have to believe that invoking that is a good thing, one just has to find a way of continuing to be, and not be affected by the lack of a familiar response. Compassion is about all I know that seems to work and the occasional rant when the bureaucracy gets too much.

      I totally believe that if you lived in France and maintained your cheerful ways, many would love you and be inspired (but probably have some advice for you too)!

  7. You have observed well, Claire, and the exercise with your students clearly supports your comments. During our stays in France I have learned that it takes time to earn the “regular” status and that once you do, your patience is rewarded with charm and consideration. Would you agree or have I just been lucky?

    • Absolutely agree Patricia, patience, perseverance and not taking reactions personally are essential tools for a visit and indeed a life in France. But the rewards are plenty.

  8. Wow Claire, I totally have this situation at work where everyone is French but me and my coworkers often have to email our clients in English and ask me how to put the emails to be much “softer” than they would say it in French! It cracks me up. They are always commenting on how hard it is not to be direct and sound harsh since that is all they know. I died laughing the first time I had to help them write a “nice” email in English!
    Ashley

    • That’s hilarious and I know what you mean, it’s kind of ironic given how long and polite some of the French signing off protocols are for writing letters, but great to know you are able to give them some guidance so that their replies don’t appear too blunt.

  9. Pingback: Meet Claire McAlpine, Reviewer Extraordinaire « Patricia Sands' Blog

  10. A very interesting post…hope you don’t mind if I use it with a student I have. She’s Polish and comes once a week for an individual lesson. Lots of discussion ideas won’t work with an individual student but this will be great. Thanks

    • Very happy for you to use it, if you are interested, the exercise comes from a book called ‘Email English’ by Paul Emmerson, published by MacMillan. As I mention in my other reply, BBC Learning English is excellent, I also uses a book called ‘Real Listening & Speaking’.

  11. Beautiful post, Claire. Very fascinating and insightful. Every English class of yours must be a wonderful adventure. Direct and friendly speech – it is interesting how one is normal in one culture while the other is normal in another. On the smile, I thought the French smiled easily. I didn’t know that it had to be earned. I remember working hard and trying to earn the smile with my Russian friends though. And when they finally smiled at me, I realized that it was not a regular friendly smile but it really meant something, and that made me very happy.

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