Pas de Souci: Why French language experts are divided over ‘no worries’

The quirks of the French language are an eternal puzzle for many foreign learners. But what students often don’t know is that they are also the matter of heated debates and controversies within France itself, writes language expert Pierre-Yves Modicom.

Should the French worry about the 'no worries' language battle?
Should the French worry about 'no worries'? Photo by Sammy Williams on Unsplash
The evolution of the language and the variety of linguistic practices throughout society in France are commented upon with passion in the press, and governed by the famous Académie Française – the semi-official authority on the French language whose members, known as “immortals”, issue decrees on how it should be used.

Among the phenomena to which purists take much exception, probably none is more contentious than the now highly frequent use of “pas de souci!”, an expression mirroring then English “no problem!” or “no worries!”

The noun “souci” normally means worry, care or concern, but “pas de souci!” can be used in all sorts of contexts, including as an equivalent of English “all right” or even “you’re welcome”, to signify that the speaker has taken note of the other’s statement or expressed intention.

READ ALSO Bonne journée v belle journée: The latest French language battle

For instance, if I am sitting in a café and I order a coffee, the waiter may answer “pas de souci!” to acknowledge my order. There is of course no concern or no worry at stake here.

The case against “pas de souci!”

Some,including the Académie Française, say this expression is a mistake; the immortals have ruled that it is a phrase heard “too often”, when the speaker could instead simply say “oui”.

Others say that “pas de souci!” is rude. In a sketch, stand-up comedian Blanche Gardin said the phrase was symptom of a “parano-megalomaniac” disposition. For Gardin and others, “pas de souci!” is a self-centred display of excessive vulnerability, or alternatively a misplaced demonstration of one’s own magnanimity.

The claim is the following: by saying “pas de souci!”, or “no worries!”, I am supposedly implying that the other person’s statement might indeed have raised a grave concern or worry, in which case I would have demanded that they withdraw their request.

Some raise a second objection to the use of this expression: its similarity to the English “no worries!” and, above all, “no problem!”. This was the most frequent remark I received after the French-language version of this article was published on The Conversation. “Pas de souci!” is suspected of being a loan translation, a disguised borrowing from English, which, at least for some, is a problem (or… a worry?).

Taking care without worrying

But we need not fear “pas de souci”.

These days, it is false to say that in French, “souci” stands for “worry” or “concern”. For instance, “dans un souci de quelque chose” means “for something’s sake” or “in the interest of something”.

When we say, “On a un souci”, we mean that something stands in our way, but not necessarily something to worry about. “Le souci de soi” means self-attention or self-care.In other words, the original meaning of “souci” has morphed into something else.

Currently, it is used to point our attention toward the future, anticipating plausible impediments for our plans.Just like for “no problem!” or “no worries!”, there is no real trace of first-person (je) or second-person (tu) in “pas de souci!”

There is nothing egocentric or personal here: what is addressed is the general absence of obstacles.“Pas de souci!” and “no problem!” also serve an important linguistic function. These types of phrases are known as “situation-bound utterances”. This means that these are not phrases we freely construct ourselves: their form and their meaning have become conventionalised in their entirety.

“Pas de souci!” and “no problem!” are part of what linguists call “pragmaticalisation”, where certain individual phrases become specialised for certain conversational uses. “Tell me about it!” or “So what?” are both good examples of this.

With this in mind, the question becomes: what is the specific conversational use fulfilled when we say “pas de souci”?

Saving face

“Pas de souci!” is an example of what the American sociologist Erving Goffman called facework. The aim of facework is that each speaker can “save face” throughout the conversation: everybody has to take care of their own face, but also has to preserve the face of the addressee.

“Face” here stands for the symbolic territory claimed by each participant, starting with the image of themselves that they wish to convey. Thus, facework is a matter of both competition and cooperation. It relies on the anticipation and elimination of any kind of micro-aggression, disappointment or wound that may arise from a mismatch in the shared space of conversation.

In this sense, “pas de souci!” and “no problem!” are very useful, precisely because they do not contain any personal references. By leaving aside any difference between me and you, and by not stating who may endure a concern of any kind, these expressions make an interaction smoother and show that the speaker is taking care of everybody.

Another French expression in the same vein as “pas de souci!” is “t’inquiète”, or “don’t worry”, where the second person is referred to by the “t’”. This can easily give the expression a paternalistic flavour (“I’m taking care of that for you”), whereas the impersonal “pas de souci”, means that I don’t judge it relevant to distinguish between me and you in the situation.

The trouble with purism

We have to dismiss the claim that “pas de souci!” is a mistake, a manifestation of egocentric attitudes or the result of the covert influence of English.

The reference to English in particular is a strawman and has probably much to do with a more general attitude toward language change in France: the opposition to language change at the micro-level – the evolution in the meaning of individual words or phrases – is framed as opposition to language change at the macro-level – the refusal to let “the French language” turn into something different.

It is true that macro-level language change often happens via the accumulation of smaller changes. But in opposing “pas de souci!” the superficial dismissal of a small evolution in meaning is used to stigmatise individual speakers who use the disparaged expression as unfaithful to the rules of language, but also as rude, egocentric and socially unaware of the others.

What makes “pas de souci!” so interesting is the fact that a detailed analysis shows the exact contrary to be true. In fact, everybody who cares about meaning in everyday speech should also care about facework both as a concept for the analysis of speakers’ behaviour and as a rule for our own practices when we discuss language use.

Pierre-Yves Modicom is a lecturer in Germanic studies at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne.

This article first appeared on the website The Conversation.

Member comments

    1. Are you saying that it’s not feasible to have a ‘single’ worry? In English, Don’t worry & No problem are both refering to a singular worry or problem.

      1. Yes, one worry at a time is quite enough. When a call centre person asked me for my name, which I gave in full with first & surname, she answered “No worries”, to which I told her I should hope not, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with my name. I don’t think she understood.
        When on another occasion I was reporting an account problem over the phone the staff member kept telling me “no worries” after each of my answers. When I said “BUT THERE ARE, that’s why I’m ringing you” he really didn’t get it. When I outright tell them to stop saying “no worries/problem” they carry on. It’s like a nervous tic, they can’t help it, singular or plural.
        Anyway Johann’s grammar is wrong, if he reads what I’ve just corrected! I’ll just slink off quietly now….

    2. Johann, I hate jumping in but you are correcting something incorrectly: “du” is used in front of a masculine singular to replace “de + le” when saying “some” or “of” – du café, du pain etc or les parents du garçon-là, les gens du village. If it’s plural you use “des” instead of “de + les”: des gens, some people; des pommes, etc. Or “of the “: un petit tour des magasins, les parents des enfants, etc.

      *****”pas de” for “not any” is correct**** whether singular or plural. You might drop to “d’ ” in front of a vowel. Il n’y a pas d’eau par ici. That’s all. Article is correct whether you have loads of worries or not. The “de” stays “de”.

  1. It’s about time the so called “immortals” lived in the real world and and came to realise that all languages are a living being. Just say “no worries” and the vast majority will know what you mean. Let the French language grow without restriction and don’t be afraid of accepting English terms into it.

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The need-to-know vocab for getting a haircut in France

When getting a haircut in France as a foreigner, there is always the fear of using one or two phrases incorrectly, and accidentally asking the hairdresser to shave your head.

The need-to-know vocab for getting a haircut in France

So here are some commonly asked questions about hair salons in France, as well as all the vocabulary you might need to know for your next hairstyle. 

How do I find a salon?

Hairdressers in French are called les coiffeurs (coiffeuses in feminine), and it’s actually very easy to find a coiffeur in France, particularly in larger cities. Just searching the word coiffeur in Google Maps while walking down the street in Marseille will pop up with several places to choose from.

The harder part is picking a good, trustworthy salon. For this, there are several online resources, like the foreigner friendly facebook pages (ex. American Expats in Paris; Expats of Colour in Paris France) where people regularly post tips for good (and bad) hair salon experiences. Then, there are also dedicated blogs – like La Vie Locale which offers a dedicated guide “for all the girls with Afro/curly hair in Paris,” along with specific recommendations for natural hair. 

You can also use websites, like Treatwell and Sortiraparis (Paris-specific), to search and find reviews for hair salons in your area.

It seems to be a trend for some salons to have English words or phrases in their name – don’t assume that employees in that salon speak English, it’s just a fashion quirk.

What about pricing?

Prices vary, but if you are looking for a less expensive haircut, some recommend trying hair stylist schools – like “Ecole International de Coiffure.” You can go and get an affordable haircut from the students in training (which comes with some obvious risks). There is also the chain “Tchip” that offers affordable haircuts.

Pricing for a cut and colour will depend on the length of your hair – the shorter your hair the less expensive typically.

You can count on spending a minimum of €25-30 for just a cut (coupe), and this will be considerably more expensive at fancier salons. Keep in mind that both un soin (the part of where the stylist massages your head and applies conditioner) and un brushing (a blowdry) often cost extra in French salons.

How do I make an appointment?

Many hair salons in France are sans rendez-vous (no appointment needed) – typically these also tend to be the more affordable locations. 

Otherwise, if you find a salon that you like, usually you can just make an appointment on their website or on ‘planity.’ They might ask you to specify exactly what you would like done to your hair (what type of cut or colour; whether you want a blowdry; etc), so you might want to consult our vocabulary list below prior to making the appointment.

Also, you can always call the salon to ask how they handle appointments. If you feel confident in your French, simply look up the salon online and call them to ask about how they handle appointments: whether they are “sans ou avec rendez-vous.”

What to ask for

It is best to arrive with a very clear idea of the haircut you want. Bring a photo, or be prepared to detail the exact cut, length, layering, and colour. In anglophone countries, you might be used to arriving at the salon and telling the hairdresser to just do what they think would look best. In France, your hairdresser might sit you down in the chair and just say “Dîtes-moi” (tell me what you want). 

You might also notice your hairdresser is more forthright about what would or would not look good on you. Don’t worry – if this happens to you, it is not meant to be offensive. 

What about tipping?

It’s not usual to tip hairdressers in France. In fact, sometimes tipping at the hair salon can be considered offensive.

Common phrases you might use:

S’il vous plaît, ne les coupez pas trop courts – Please do not cut it too short.

Je veux seulement une coloration des racines – I only want my roots redone

J’aimerais que vous me coupiez seulement les pointes – I would just like to trim the ends

Est-ce que c’est possible avec mon type de cheveux? – Is that possible with my hair type?

Ça coûte combien ? – How much does that cost?

Est-ce que j’ai besoin d’un rendez-vous ? – Do I need an appointment?

Vous pouvez diminuer sur les pattes ? – Could you take a bit more off the sides?

Je voudrais seulement avoir la couleur retouchée/refaire – I am just looking to have my colour retouched.

Pas trop serré, s’il vous plaît – Not too tight, please

C’est très joli. Merci beaucoup. – It’s very pretty, thank you. 

The key terms

Couper – to cut

Mes cheveux – my hair (hair is always plural in French and be careful of pronunciation – chevaux is horses, cheveux is hair)

Colorer – to colour or to dye

Un coiffeur (ou salon de coiffure) haut de gamme – A top salon

Un coiffeur de quartier – A local salon

Cheveux courts – short hair

Cheveux mi-longs – medium length hair

Cheveux longs – long hair

Décoloration – bleach

Des mèches – highlights

Dégradé – layered

Les points – the ends (you can ask for a trim by just asking to ‘couper les points’)

Racines – roots

Gloss – a semi-permanent colouring treatment that is more of a top coat on your hair to give it an extra shiny look

Patine – called a Patina in English. It is similar to gloss, this is exclusively for coloured hair and gives a shinier look.

Un lisseur – a straightener

Brushing – blow dry

Un soin/ traitement – a treatment, typically involving a head massage where a treatment or conditioner is also applied

Une fringe – bangs

Séchage – to dry 

Rafraichissement – a trim

Tresses – Braids 

Types of hair

Cheveux fins – fine hair 

Cheveux épais – Thick hair

Cheveux gras – Oily hair

Cheveux secs – Dry hair

Cheveux bouclés – Curly hair

Cheveux frisés – Frizzy hair

Cheveux lisses/ doux – Smooth/ soft hair

Cheveux abîmés – Damaged hair

Cheveux colorés – Dyed hair

For Men (and people with short-hair)

Couper avec les ciseaux – To cut with scissors

Avec un rasoir électrique – with an electric razor 

Le rasage et la coupe de cheveux – A shave and a haircut

Un fondu de nuque – To shave your neck 

Les pattes courtes/ désépaissies – Short/ thinned sideburns 

Garder la longueur mais coupez le haut – Keep the length please, but cut the top 

Court Partout – Short all over

Des pattes – Sideburns

Une barbe – A beard

Une tondeuse – Clippers

Une coupe en brosse – A crew cut

La nuque – The nape 

L’implantation – The hairline

Dégradé – A fade (also the term for layers)