Who hasn’t been insulted on the streets of Paris? As a former police officer and security consultant today I’ve seen my share of how French insults can ruin someone’s day.
“Il m’a traité de noms d’oiseaux ”
He called me names.
It is estimated that roughly 10% of the French population between the ages of 14 and 75 is insulted every year, which equals 5 million people. Younger people are typically targeted more frequently than elderly people, and females are targeted more often than males (56 % of the insulted are females). Most insults are anonymous and happen – in decreasing order of occurrence – in the street, at work, on public transportation, and other public places.
Gros mots have long been studied by linguists, sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists. Besides being considered a “hot-headed Latin culture”, we don’t have a clear explanation on why the French would insult more than others, but there has been plenty of research on the general psychology of it. Similar to the bullying phenomenon, we know that insecure people try to cope with their own vulnerabilities by being openly aggressive with others, even a random passerby.
This was also true when I worked in a French police station. Nearly every day, we had people coming to report random encounters that had turned badly. Based on this experience and a recent French victimization survey from INSEE/ONDRP, I have compiled a short list of some typical French insults, as well as some suggestions on how to react if you are being insulted.
Most common way to be insulted in French
49% of insults use a prefix
Nearly half of insults are preceded by a stressor, which gives them more weight. Examples of this would be: sale […], putain de […], pauvre […], espèce de […], vieux […], etc.
1/3 of insults are generalities
A lot of insults in France are situational. Some will target your lack of courage (e.g.: dégonflé, lâche, mauviette) or insinuate you lack maturity (e.g.: bébé, amateur, guignol, petit fils à sa maman). Others will compare you to garbage (e.g.: grosse merde, sac à merde, trouduc) or insult your mother (ta mère, enculé de ta mère, fils de pute). However, the most generic and often-heard are connard, salaud, enfoiré , enculé, connasse, pauvre type and pauvre mec (pronounced “pauv’ type” and “pauv’ mec”).
Sexist comments make up 22% of insults
It’s sad to say, but sexist insults are almost exclusively oriented towards women, especially women who refuse to respond to a man’s come-on in the street or at a bar. Examples are: allumeuse, garce, pute, salope, pouffiasse, etc.
Insulting physical appearance (21%)
Then come the insults about physical appearance. They often target the body type (e.g.: gros thon, boudin, gringalet, grosse vache), beauty (e.g.: thon, laidron), or a person’s hair (e.g.: gothique, blondasse).
Insults on intellectual capacities (16%)
Another typical insult is to tell someone they are not smart. Examples of this are crétin, incompétent, gourde, con, fainéant, mongolien, blaireau, imbécile or incapable.
Racist or religious insults (13%)
Fortunately, this category of insults is the least used in France, as it is clearly prohibited by a specific section of the French criminal law. This doesn’t mean of course that French insulters won’t target your skin color or religion, but it is less likely to occur than in other countries. And when it does, it usually reflects nothing else than their fear of the other.
Physical gestures also make up a fair portion of French insults, especially since they can be done from afar. This can be the doigt d’honneur, bras d’honneur or crachat.
How to react to insults?
Insults don’t impact everyone the same way. While they leave some people indifferent, others will feel hurt or stressed, and it can cause enough anxiety to disturb their daily life. No doubt, non-French people are particular sensitive to French emotion hurled at them.
Unfortunately, there is no magical solution to cope with an insulter, and it can sometimes be quite difficult to keep one’s sang-froid. Insults appeal directly to our reptilian brain, which can make us either scared, stressed, or aggressive. These natural reflexes are needed at times, but in the case of insults, they are generally un-productive.
Even if there is no perfect universal response to a verbal assault, you can choose to react and adapt to situations.
Size up your insulter
Maintain a minimum physical distance with the aggressor. An insulter can be compared to a barking dog. You wouldn’t try to convince a barking dog to stop barking. The same applies to an aggressor. So if you can, leave. If you are cornered, say “Stop!” as loudly as possible, and leave as quickly as possible.
Take a deep breath
A good way to keep your calm is to take a deep breath. It helps by controlling your nervous system, improving your focus and concentration, and decreasing tension.
If you decide to answer, do not insult back. Using polite and calm sentences will give you an advantage, because it will show the assaulter that you are confident and unaffected by his words.
Leave your emotions out of the picture
If you feel destabilized by a series of insults, remember to stick to the facts. Use clear, concise phrases and avoid talking about emotions.
Set some limits
Sometimes with insults, the author will try to play it off as a bad joke to make it more publicly acceptable. In cases like this, it is necessary to set your boundaries. You can tell them to stop politely or say “Là tu vas trop loin” (“Now you’ve gone too far”).
Take a self-defense class
The best way to learn how to improve one’s reaction to insults is to take a self-defense class. This will teach you to master your situational awareness, self-control, and self-confidence. Staying calm and being prepared are the keys to mastering an unpleasant encounter and keep it from ruining your day.