How to shrug like the French

New online guide aims to explain Parisians' body language to baffled British visitors

Jonathan Thompson
Sunday 17 December 2006 01:00

The infamous Gallic shrug - one of the most impenetrable and ubiquitous sights of modern Paris - is being translated for the benefit of baffled British visitors to the French capital.

A new visual dictionary - an online initiative by the city's tourist board - translates widely used Parisian sign language and facial expressions to encourage more foreigners to understand the mannerisms. It follows a tourist board survey which found that two-thirds of British visitors thought communication with Parisians "difficult". Fifty-five per cent of communication in the city is non-verbal, according to separate research.

The guide aims to show Britons "you don't need to speak French to understand Parisians". It includes an image of a woman holding her hand flat above her head, which does not mean, as 60 per cent of survey respondents believed, that it was about to rain, but that she was fed up. Another shows a young man holding his hand at shoulder height in an inverted L shape: the sign to shut up. Other images on the website,, include "la moue", the classic pout, and of course, the "bof", or shrug, usually used to "deny knowledge, agreement or responsibility".

Henriette Zoughebi, president of the Regional Committee of Tourism for Paris Ile-de-France, said visitors often misunderstand Parisians' attitude, adding: "We hope this small gesture will go some way to improving the relationship between the English and the French."

Agnès Poirier, the Paris-born author, journalist and television presenter, based in London, greeted news of the guide with amusement - but said it could be a useful tool. "We Parisians do have a lot of hand gestures, but it's our faces we use too," said Ms Poirier, 33. "When there are no words you just puff and shrug, it's like a kind of existential explanation."

Ms Poirier, author of Touché: A French Woman's Take on the English, said: "My British friends tend to think of Parisians as cold, moody and brooding, so perhaps this guide will help them decipher our smokescreen. Even the rest of the French think we are arrogant pigs with high-pitched accents."

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