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8 of the most common French gestures

The Local France
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8 of the most common French gestures
A French protester wearing a yellow vest reading "Fuck 49.3" gestures during a demonstration (Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP)

The most famous one of them all is of course the Gallic shrug, but on spending time in France you'll notice that gesticulation is common - and some of the gestures' meanings might not be immediately obvious to foreigners.

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The expressive hand gestures that are part of everyday life are like an entirely different language. Some are obvious, but there are others you need to be in the know to decode.

The eye

This one involves pulling your lower eyelid down with one finger. It means you don’t believe what someone’s just told you.

It's often accompanied with the expression mon oeuil (my eye), which is similar to the English expression "my foot", except it actually seems to make sense.

It’s like "unless I see it with my own eyes, I don’t believe it." 

The arm chop

When someone makes a gesture like they’re chopping their wrist with their other hand, gather your stuff because it’s time to go.

And make it quick, the chop is for when you’ve really got to get out of there.  

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The limp hand move

Don’t be surprised if a French person starts whipping their hand back and forth in the middle of your story, they’re just being empathetic.

The back and forth hand shake means "oh là là là là là, that’s so bad" or "that’s crazy".

The nose fist twist

 It might not look like it but the nose twist means "drunk". This one involves scrunching up your hand into a ball, and then twisting your nose as if it were a corkscrew.

You can use it to say you’re drunk, or jokingly aim it at one of your friends who’s had a bit too much wine.

Some French people we asked told us it’s to do with your nose going red when you drink too much.

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The Gallic shrug

Raised shoulders, turned out palms, and a pout if you really want to do the full job. Sometimes accompanied by a groaning 'bah' sound or a 'pff'.

The Gallic shrug is the pièce de resistance of French gestures and it can mean whatever you want it.

The shrug can be anything from 'it’s not my fault' to 'I don’t know' and 'I doubt it'. It's commonly accompanied by a promise that 'there’s nothing I can do' (perhaps in the middle of a complicated admin appointment) - if someone does this to you then it probably means that you're unlikely to get what you want out of the conversation.

On the other hand, it's an excellent and wordless way to express your own confusion or frustration and neatly absolve yourself of responsibility.

Beard stroking

Beware: there are two types. The first involves pensively stroking an imaginary beard, like the British 'chinny reckon'.

This conveys doubt - you're basically saying that you don't believe the tall story that someone is telling you (for example that their friend/neighbour/brother regularly sees Emmanuel Macron dressed in drag in Paris gay bars).

The second involves stroking the side of your cheek a few times with your knuckles. You'll probably be able to tell by the person's facial expression that this one means 'I'm bored'. It can be accompanied by the expression quelle barbe (what a drag).

Hand over the head

This one involves moving your hand horizontally over the top of your head. It means that you have hit your limit. If someone does this, they are saying that they have had enough.

It might be accompanied by the phrase j'en ai marre (I've had enough, or I'm fed up).

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Bras d'honneur (forearm jerk)

A car almost hits someone while they're in the middle of the cross walk. They turn and angrily put one arm into an L shape with a fist pointing upward, and then use the other arm to slap it in the crease. 

This 'f*ck you' gesture is pretty universal, but in French it has a name - le bras d'honneur (the arm of honour). You might also see it in print as a way to convey that someone has disrespected a person or group, for example la réforme du président était un bras d'honneur aux Français - the resident's reform was a middle finger to the country.

There's also of course the middle finger gesture, which again is widely used around the word. In French this is known as le doigt d'honneur (finger of honour) and again can be used to describe someone who has - literally or metaphorically - flipped the bird at someone. 

Are there any other French gestures that we missed? Let us know in the comments below.

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