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English humour vs. French humour

22 Mar

During these bleak times, through the recession and dark longish  nights…I thought I might cheer you up with a bit of lightness and…humour….

Humour is by definition an Anglo-Saxon concept i.e. the equivalent in French would be “esprit”, farce (prank) and humeur (a state of mind, or mood), but not humour. Only in 1932 did the French Academicians give their approval to the noun “humour”!!! (Economist 18/12/2003)

As quoted in the movie Ridicule by Patrice Leconte: “the French have jokes but do they have a sense of Humour ?”…

I asked a Brit living in France what she thought about French humour and her answer was: “only a couple of words..!!”…typically British dry reply I assume..!

French esprit is unique in the sense that it can be described by the Anglo-Saxon as ‘Grinçant’ a concept typically French where the object of the humour is usually somebody else …(cf le diner de cons). The main aim of la “derision” consisting of mocking someone else’s weak point or naïve attitude.

Where British humour has a lot to do with self derision – which is perceived as demonstrating low self-esteem in France. However I’d like to point out that when one does mock oneself it does avoid others mocking him or her …!!! One can therefore set the limit to the extent of self derision which they are prepared to reach…

French humour is usually under the belt and fairly straightforward known as “l’esprit Gaulois” It is a licentious humour one would describe as visual and according to David Trotter in l’Esprit Gaulois: Humour and national Mythologie “a form of coarse humour characteristic of the lower orders of society, and thus inevitably concerned with the baser instincts”. My own perception of French Gaulois humour is that it can be as naughty as English humour, the only difference being…in the way it is laid out!!! (er…so to speak!!!)

French version is usually quite literal (we call a spade a spade!!) and situation based (cf all Feydeau plays based on a “quiproquo” ie situations being mixed up, the lover being taken for the husband and the servant for the mistress etc… Whether British humour possess (equivalent) several levels  : the first level which is quite literal, second level usually a bit more complex to understand …however…fairly naughty and finally a last level that one would not dare even think about…as it is far too shocking…!!! But everybody…eventually… works it out !

Contrepétrie is another form of French humour: where one changes one letter for another and it becomes fairly salacious…; the fun part being creating “contrepétries”: ie mixing letters so it becomes witty. Making an innocent remark such as: “nous avons convenu de la date…”if you reverse the C for the D, then things becomes somehow… more interesting!

The goal of the contrepétrie game is to banter with colleagues or friends without the audience understanding how cheeky the sentence can really be…in this sense this form of humour is similar to Cockney slang i.e in the way it is structured…by association of ideas.

English humour is somehow more subtle: it comes at several levels and in different shapes.

For example Pantomimes at Christmas times are one of my favourite entertainments ever… as I come from another culture… it becomes the d challenge of a few days to fully understand the different messages delivered…hence making my enjoyment bigger when I finally get it !.

Traditionally performed at Christmas, with family audiences consisting mainly of children and parents, British pantomime is now a popular form of theatre, incorporating song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, cross-dressing, in-jokes, audience participation, and mild sexual innuendo. There are a number of traditional story-lines, and there is also a fairly well-defined set of performance conventions. Lists of these items follow, along with a special discussion of the ‘guest celebrity’ tradition, which emerged in the late 19th century. Panto story lines and scripts typically make no reference to Christmas, and are almost always based on traditional children stories, including several written or popularized by the French pioneer of the ‘fairy tale’ genre, Charles Perrault. Plot lines are often ‘adapted’ for comic or satirical effects, and certain familiar scenes tend to recur, regardless of plot relevance. (Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia)

The first level of the humour developed in the panto is for the children and the more subtle one is usually salacious …geared to the adult’s tastes.

Potter called humour an “English inherent reaction” and considered this as one of the pillars of the English society. It was cherished by the upper social class but has now spread to the whole society.

It tends to analyse a given situation and extract the most absurd sides in order to highlight the ridicule of the situation. This allows the person to distance him or herself from the situation, thus enabling them, in some cases, to take an objective decision. This nonsense approach forms the art of developing absurd ways of thinking based on a logical approach!!! Absolutely fantastic for imaginative personalities as it brings one to unkown territories of fantasy …one can banter indefinitely …

To summarize : English humour or French esprit?? Of course I will give you a twisted answer as I believe both have their defined role to play in their given culture. According to Pierre Desproges in Les étrangers “ Comment reconnaitre l’humour anglais de l’humour français ? l’humour anglais souligne avec amertume et désespoir l’absurdité du monde. L’humour français se rit de ma belle-mère ».

My personal choice would go for English humour with a French je ne sais quoi …! and I do not hesitate to use humour in large doses during my training sessions and in my coaching practice when I need my client to relax slightly before starting the hard work !

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