The Top 10 French Gestures

Gestures and facial expressions are iconic symbols of the French culture

women greeting each other with a kiss on the cheek
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Gestures are frequently used when speaking French. Unfortunately, many gestures are not often taught in French classes. So enjoy the following very common hand gestures. Click on the name of the gesture and you'll see a page with an image of the relevant gesture. (You may have to scroll down to find it.)

Some of these gestures involve touching other people, which is not surprising, since the French are touchy-feely.

 According to the French publication "Le Figaro Madame" (May 3, 2003), a study on heterosexual couples seated at a terrace established the number of contacts at 110 per half-hour, as compared to two for Americans.

French Body Language in General

For a full look at the intricacies of French body language, read the classic "Beaux Gestes: A Guide to French Body Talk" (1977) by Laurence Wylie, Harvard's longtime C. Douglas Dillon Professor of French Civilization. Among his telling conclusions:

  • "The French are more controlled (than Americans). Their chest remains straight, their pelvis horizontal, their shoulders do not move and their arms are close to their body....There is something stiff and tense in the French way of moving. This is why French clothes are too narrow, too tight for Americans. Being very controlled with their bodies, the French need verbal expression as an outlet....Americans need more space to move."
  • "Your [the French] obsession with rationality leads you to give major importance to your head. The most characteristic French gestures are associated with the head: mouth, eyes, nose, etc."

Of the dozens of iconic French gestures and facial expressions, the following 10 really stand out as French cultural symbols.

Note that these are not drawn-out affairs; they are done fairly quickly.

1. Faire la bise

Greeting or saying goodbye to friends and family with a sweet (nonromantic) exchange of kisses is perhaps the most essential French gesture. In most parts of France, two cheeks are kissed, right cheek first. But in some regions, it can be three or four. Men do not seem to do this as often as women, but for the most part everyone does it to everyone else, children included. La bise is more an air kiss; the lips do not actually touch the skin, although the cheeks can touch. Interestingly, this type of kiss is common in several cultures, yet many people associate it only with the French.

2. Bof

Bof, aka the Gallic shrug, is stereotypically French. It is commonly a sign of indifference or disagreement, but it could also mean: It's not my fault, I don't know, I doubt it, I don't agree or I don't really care. Raise your shoulders, hold up your arms at the elbows with your palms facing out, stick out your lower lip, raise your eyebrows and say "Bof !"

3. Se serrer la main

You can call this shaking hands (se serrer la main, or "to shake hands") or the French handshake (la poignèe de main, or "the handshake").

Shaking hands is, of course, common in many countries, but the French way of doing it is an interesting variation. A French handshake is a single downward motion, firm and brief. Male friends, business associates and coworkers shake hands when greeting and parting.

4. Un, deux, trois

The French system of counting on the fingers is a bit different. The French start with the thumb for #1, while English speakers start with the index finger or the little finger. Incidentally, our gesture for loser means #2 to the French. Plus, if you order one espresso in a French café, you'd hold up your thumb, not your index finger, as Americans would do.

5. Faire la moue

The French pout is another oh-so-classic French gesture. To show discontent, distaste or another negative emotion, pucker up and push your lips forward, then squint your eyes and look bored.

Voilà la moue. This gesture shows up when the French have to wait for long periods or they don't get their way.

6. Barrons-nous

The French gesture for "Let's get out of here!" is very common, but it's also familiar, so use it with care. It's also known as "On se tire." To make this gesture, hold your hands out, palms down, and smack one hand down onto the other.

7. J'ai du nez

When you tap the side of your nose with your index finger, you're saying that you are clever and quick-thinking, or you've done or said something smart. "J'air du nez" literally means that you have a good nose for sensing something.

8. Du fric

This gesture means that something is very expensive...or that you need money. People sometimes also say du fric ! when they make this gesture. Note that le fric is the French colloquial equivalent of "dough," "cash" or "money." To make the gesture, hold one hand up and slide your thumb back and forth across your fingertips. Everyone will understand.

9. Avoir une verre dans le nez

This is a funny way to indicate that someone has had too much to drink or that person is slightly drunk. The origin of the gesture: a glass (une verre) symbolizes alcohol; the nose (le nez) becomes red when you drink too much. To produce this gesture, make a loose fist, twist it in front of your nose, then tilt your head to the other direction while saying, Il a une verre dans le nez.

10. Mon œil

Americans express doubt or disbelief by saying, "My foot!" while the French use the eye. Mon oeil ! ("My eye!") can also be translated as: Yeah, right!

and No way! Make the gesture: With your index finger, pull down the bottom lid of one eye and say, Mon oeil !