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French Body Talk: 20 Fun Gestures for Fluency without Words

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Have you ever traveled to a foreign country without speaking a word of its language? How can anybody survive in such a predicament? If you’ve ever been in that situation, you already know the answer: body talk and gestures!

Far too often, body gestures are neglected by language teachers and hardly mentioned at all. Nonetheless, learning the specifics of French body language and gestures will help you understand people better and allow you to convey meaning without words.

Once you start learning the gestures and using them in daily interactions with your French friends, you’ll become more comfortable with them and you’ll appear much more fluent than you are! If you already know everything about spoken French, there’s a whole new silent world waiting to be explored. If you’re a beginner, it’s a quick and easy way to communicate.

Some of these may already be familiar to you if you’re coming from a similar culture or a neighbor country. Otherwise, the first time you see locals in a French bar turning their fist at the tip of their nose like they’re trying to unscrew it, you’ll be glad you learned what it means!

And because I couldn’t find any satisfactory illustrations in my image bank, I’ve decided to make it myself and break my vows of anonymity to present you with my overly expressive mug.

Without further ado, here’s a comprehensive list of the most common French gestures to help you communicate with French people with flair. Start with a bonus, and download your FREE cheat sheet - How to Improve Your French Skills! (Logged-In Member Only)

Table of Contents

  1. Greetings
  2. Positive Gestures
  3. Negative Gestures
  4. Neutral Gestures
  5. Why are the French so Rude?
  6. How FrenchPod101 can Help You Learn Faster

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1. Greetings

1- Bonjour

Meaning: “Hello”
How: Raise a hand and wave by moving it from side to side with a swaying motion.
Where / When: It’s used in informal situations to greet or say goodbye as a substitute for handshakes or kisses, whether you’re out of arm-reach or greeting many people at once. It’s a bit too casual for serious business settings but still acceptable in many other professional settings. This is one of the most common French hand gestures to use.

Bonjour Gesture

2- Bienvenue

Meaning: “Welcome”
How: Open up your arms, spreading them wide with a smile. (Casual)
Open only one arm, with a smile. (Formal)
Where / When: The casual form of this gesture can be used to greet friends or peers in a warm and enthusiastic way. The formal one is common for professional or commercial encounters.

Bienvenue Gesture

3- La bise

Meaning: La bise means “The kiss” in a casual non-romantic way.
It’s a very typical French greeting custom.
How: Lean forward and slightly brush cheeks with the other person while mimicking a kiss (with the sound and lips gesture). Then, switch cheeks and repeat.
Where / When: Well…it’s complicated! Luckily, our complete guide about “How to Say Hello in French” will tell you everything you need to know about the Art of French air-kissing! Essentially this is where you and the person you’re greeting pretend to kiss each others’ cheeks.

4- Se serrer la main

Meaning: To shake hands.
How: French handshakes are brisk and firm, with one or two up-and-down movements while looking the person you’re greeting straight in the eyes.
Where / When: Shaking hands is the most common way to greet friends, colleagues, or strangers in France.

In casual settings, the Afro-American “Check” is growing increasingly popular. For the French, the “Check” is a generational thing, spread through hip-hop and urban culture without any racial aspect. Checks can range from a simple fist bump to a highly choreographed sequence of moves.

To back up your gestures with words, check out our list of Common Ways to say Hello with audio recordings on FrenchPod101.

Hand Gestures


2. Positive Gestures

Here’s a list of French expressions and gestures that tend to have a positive connotation. You’ll be glad you know these next time you’re in France!

1- Oui !

Meaning: “Yes; Excellent!”
How: Make a fist and extend your thumb upward.
Where / When: In France, you can’t go wrong with the all-time classic thumbs-up.
However, beware of the “OK” sign from the U.K. and U.S., where you join your index and thumb to make a circle. In several European countries, including France, it’s a negative sign meaning “Zero” or “Worthless.”

Oui Gesture

2- Ca va être génial !

Meaning: “It’s gonna be great!”
How: Rub your palms together.
Where / When: Although it can mean that you’re cold, depending on the context, rubbing your palms together usually conveys that you’re excited or expecting something amazing. For example, you can use this gesture if you’re expecting to make good money or before eating a gorgeous-looking meal.

Genial Gesture

3- Délicieux !

Meaning: “Delicious!”
How: Kiss the joined tips of your fingers and joyfully spread them outward.
Where / When: Sometimes referred to as “The Italian Chef Kiss,” this gesture is also popular in France, although a bit cliché. You can use it when your French host is serving you a delicious Tartiflette overflowing with cream and melted cheese… Sorry, I got emotional. What were we talking about?

Delicieux Gesture


3. Negative Gestures

Here’s a list of some gestures that are considered rude in French, or simply have a negative connotation. Life isn’t all sunshine and roses, after all!

1- Bof

Meaning: “I don’t care; I don’t know; I’m not sure.”
How: Spread your arms open with palms up. Raise and lower your shoulders.
Where / When: With the exception of a croissant holding a baguette, nothing looks more French than the infamous “Gallic shrug,” but because of its many different meanings, it’s not the easiest one to pick up.

It’s commonly used when you’re indifferent, doubtful, or indecisive, but it can express a wide range of messages: “It’s not my fault,” “There is nothing I can do,” “Don’t ask me,” and more.

Note: Halfway between Oui (“Yes”) and Non (“No”), the word Bof is very useful when you don’t want to commit to a straight answer.
- Je t’offre un verre ? (“Can I offer you a drink?”)
- Bof.

Bof

2- C’est pas mon problème !

Meaning: “Not my problem; Not my fault.”
How: Raise your hands slightly over your shoulders, palms toward the other person, with your head and shoulders defensively held back.
Where / When: This one is similar to the Bof shrug but is perceived as a stronger version where, instead of being indifferent or indecisive, you just don’t want anything to do with whatever you’re asked for.

C'est Pas Mon Probleme Gesture

3- Quelle barbe !

Meaning: “What a drag!”; “Boring!” (or literally: “What a beard!”)
How: Stroke your cheek a few times with the back of your fingers, like you’re caressing your beard.
Where / When: Quelle barbe comes from old Parisian slang and is only one of many beard-related French idioms. It’s used for annoying or boring situations or people, when your immediate environment doesn’t allow for stronger and dirtier curses.

For instance, when you’re given a tedious task at work, you can turn to your coworkers and stroke your imaginary beard.

Quelle Barbe Gesture

4- Mon oeil !

Meaning: “I don’t believe you; I highly doubt that.”
How: Using your index finger, pull down the bottom lid of one eye.
Where / When: This is the French counterpart of the American “My foot!”, to playfully express your disbelief or accuse someone of lying. Due to its childish nature, it’s not the best gesture for serious arguments or business negotiations.

Mon Oeil Gesture

5- J’en ai ras le bol !

Meaning: “I’m fed up; I’ve had enough.” (Literally: “My bowl is full,” but it has a more colorful meaning in French slang.)
How: Swipe your hand up horizontally over your head.
Where / When: Although easily confused with the “over my head” gesture of English speakers, this has a different meaning in France. Combined with an eloquent frown, it’s used to express your annoyance when trouble is piling up all the way up to your head.

J'en Ai Ras Le Bol Gesture

6- Le bras d’honneur

Meaning: “Get lost!”
How: Extend your arm with clenched fingers, palm up, and fold it up in a sudden jerk while slapping your biceps with your other hand.
Where / When: The bras d’honneur (“arm of honor”) is our equivalent of “giving the finger” or “flipping the bird”: an offensive gesture meant to insult and inflame.

While the middle finger was born in Ancient Greece, this variant originated from France, but both share the same phallic connotation and shouldn’t be used in your average mundane diner.

Le Bras D'honneur Gesture

Now that you know all about these gestures, why not complement this knowledge with our lists of Phrases to Use When You are Angry or How to Make Complaints.


4. Neutral Gestures

1- Chut !

Meaning: “Shhh; Keep quiet.”
How: Extend your index finger and place it vertically across your mouth.
Where / When: This one’s self-explanatory and shouldn’t be a shocker to most readers, but as it can take different forms in some countries, it’s worth mentioning!

Chut Gesture

2- Viens !

Meaning: “Come here!”
How: Extend your index finger, palm up, and fold it inward.
It can also be done with all fingers at once.
Where / When: This gesture isn’t as obvious as it seems and should be performed properly. For example, if you use the Japanese “palm down” version in France, it can be interpreted as rude and disrespectful.

Viens

3- Comme ci comme ça

Meaning: “So-so; More or less.”
How: Place your hand in front of you, palm down, and tip it from left to right several times.
Where / When: This convenient gesture can be used in formal or casual situations. For instance, if you’re not having a great day, you could use it when someone asks how you’re doing.

Comme ci Comme ca Gesture

4- Oh là là !

Meaning: “Oh no!”; “Wow!”
How: Raise your hand in front of your chest and shake it loosely, as if trying to revive your numb fingers.
Where / When: This oh-so-French gesture can express a wide array of emotions, ranging from surprise to annoyance, distress, or disappointment. You can also use it when you’re impressed or if someone’s in trouble. My advice is to watch as your French friends use it and learn from them.

Oh la la Gesture

5- Avoir un coup dans le nez

Meaning: “To be drunk” (or literally: “To have a drink in the nose”)
How: Place a loose fist around the tip of your nose and rotate it as if trying to unscrew it.
Where / When: This funny gesture can be used to inform your audience that you’re quite drunk, or to raise their awareness of the intoxication of a third party.

Avoir un Coup Dans le Nez

6- C’est pas donné

Meaning: “It’s expensive” (Literally: “It’s not given.”)
How: Rub your thumb against the tips of your index and middle fingers.
Where / When: This informal gesture works in many situations where lots of money is involved. It’s most commonly used for something expensive but can also mean that something is lucrative.

For example, when reading the menu of a pricey restaurant, you could use this gesture toward your friends to express your desire for something more modest.

Fric Gesture

7- Il est fou; Elle est cinglée

Meaning: “He’s crazy; She’s nuts”
How: Tap the side of your head with the tip of your index finger.
Where / When: It’s somewhat similar to the American crazy gesture that would also be understood in France. Obviously, this is a very informal gesture and could be offensive to strangers. Keep it for friends with a sense of humor!

Il Est Fou Elle est Cinglee Gesture


5. Why are the French so Rude?

Well, they’re not, but I’m sure you’ve heard that before. Even though France remains one of the top tourism destinations in the world, some argue that it’s despite its angry mob of locals. How come?

1- Body Language and Perception

Body language matters more than you can imagine, both around the world and in French culture. Before you’ve said a word, your posture and attitude speak volumes and people form an opinion right away based on your gestures as well as the way you stand or how you occupy space in the room.

And when it comes to body language, the French are more controlled than Americans, for example. Their shoulders and arms stay close to the body, their chest straight in overall rigidity. We call it restrain, but some call it being tense or stiff, and it contributes to this impression of the French being cold and unwelcoming.

2- Intonation and Gestures

Whatever space we’re not taking when we move, we compensate for when we talk! We use physical gestures to express a wide range of emotions without words, mostly using our face and hands, and it’s easy to get the wrong impression if you don’t know the language nor the gestures.

The natural French intonation is also widely guilty of this impression. It makes the French sound angry, using sharp or abusive-sounding tones when they’re just having a friendly debate over lunch.


6. How FrenchPod101 can Help You Learn Faster

In this guide, you’ve learned many of the most typical French gestures. Of course, there are many more that you’ll discover when you start meeting locals, or that you might have already heard of. For example, do you know how the French count with their hand?

Do you feel ready to practice these gestures and spice up your conversations in French? Of course, although they make everything smoother and funnier, they work even better when you can comment while gesturing. You’ll always need to learn spoken French!

To get you started, FrenchPod101 has plenty of free resources for you to practice your grammar and vocabulary!

Go even further with MyTeacher for one-on-one guidance tailored to your needs. Practice with your private teacher and learn how to express the wide range of emotions and moods associated with the gestures you’ve learned. Start with a bonus, and download your FREE cheat sheet - How to Improve Your French Skills! (Logged-In Member Only)

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Beginner Vocabulary in French

About the Author: Born and bred in the rainy north of France, Cyril Danon has been bouncing off various jobs before he left everything behind to wander around the wonders of the World. Now, after quenching his wanderlust for the last few years, he’s eager to share his passion for languages.