Pas Mal

We visited a French friend’s home recently for the first time, and when I walked into their La Jolla area abode, complete with floor to ceiling windows and a spectacular view, I exclaimed: “This is such a fabulous house! Wow!”

My friend answered, with an indifferent shrug, “C’est pas mal.”

I stared at him. “That’s such a French answer.”

“Oui. There are some that are better, some that are worse, so: pas mal.”

And there you have it: French culture and American, juxtaposed. We Americans tend to be enthusiastic, perhaps overly so, of even the most mundane of things. “Oh my god, there is nothing better than potato chips. These ROCK.” Everything is awesome, amazing, choose your superlative. The French, on the other hand, can’t seem to muster up excitement about anything.

There’s little difference, for example, in how they describe something that’s great versus how they describe something that sucks: “C’est pas mal.” It’s not bad. This describes anything from something good to something fabulous. Then there’s: “C’est pas terrible.” Literally: It’s not terrible. This describes something awful.

As an aside, the word “terrible” in French is almost always used in the negative, except when it’s not, like here: C’est un truc terrible. Translation: It’s awesome.

Then there’s the typical response to someone proposing a great idea. Here, we’ll say, “What an amazing idea!” or something equivalent. The French will more typically say, “C’est pas bête,” Translation: That’s not stupid.

It’s easy to assume from all of this that Americans are shallow, fake, insincere, and that the French are a bunch of negative duds. No wonder we have so much trouble understanding each other!

Our interpretations of others are colored by our own biases, opinions, experiences, and of course, our cultural understandings. It is easy to generalize something, as I have above, that in truth is much more complicated and nuanced.

It’s also true that my friend’s house is really freaking awesome.


26 thoughts on “Pas Mal

  1. Oh my goodness! This is SUCH a brilliant article that illustrates the exact difference that sometimes causes our two cultures to clash. Genuis, so well-written, a perfect example 🙂 It took me a while to realize what “pas terrible” meant! I thought it wasn’t so bad instead of it being awful. Thanks so much for this! By the way, I’ll be in San Diego at the end of August/beginning of September for three weeks; I’d love to get a coffee if you’re available and up for it!

  2. That’s so true, great post! Frenchies from France never seem happy with what they have and are pretty negative/indifferent in general. French Canadians on the other hand wear their emotions on their sleeves and are very enthusiastic or not according to the situation. A good movie that shows the French Canadians emotions is the action/comedy/crime “Bon cop, bad cop” (13+).

    • The French have mastered the art of nonchalance. While sometimes I want to shake them and yell, “Get excited about something! Anything!” I must admit I find their cool, breezy, nonchalant style quite sexy 🙂

  3. I wonder if the French interest in ‘ideas’ and philosophy prevents them from getting excited about the commonplace things we British/Americans like so much. What do material possessions really matter, when we’re all going to die some day?

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