The French, part 3: Patronising announcements

Posted on 19 February, 2015.

It’s been a while since i’ve complained bitterly about French food, customs, culture, geography, bureaucracy, or whatever other aspect living in France happened to confront me with now. That’s not to say nothing has been incessantly gnawing away at my sanity, that no insurmountable cultural chasms have been presenting themselves – on the contrary! Daily i tackle – bravely, head-on – such horrid assaults to common decency, as people meddling with the contents of my plate at lunchtime, or insisting on touching me each and every morning, before having given me a chance to imbibe the swill that passes for coffee here.

Anyway, i digress. The axe i have to grind today concerns the language. Not about how heavily gendered French, being a romance language, is. Nor about how it’s impossible to express the concept of self-deprecation, or how such abominable misappropriations of the magnificent English language as “fooding” or “footing” have made it into the yuppie lexicon (fear not, i will return to their deplorable love affair with gerunds another time). No, i have a much graver gripe.

Public announcements in French are super condescending, yo

When i first arrived in France, i chuckled about an announcement i saw in the tram. There were little signboards everywhere saying “dans le tram je respire”, with the well-known no-smoking symbol. “Haha,” i said to myself, naively making light of what would turn out to be a pandemic, all-encompassing, infuriating mannerism, “haha, look how passive-aggressive the public transport company is – they could’ve just said do not smoke or smoking prohibited. Haha.” I even joked about this with friends.

Slowly, i started noticing a trend. For example, stickers were placed in buses, discouraging people from riding without paying: “je monte, je valide”. I started to get uneasy, but i nervously laughed it off, thinking it could be rationalised away as still being the same transport company – perhaps their communications department was just a little snarky. But i couldn’t deny it much longer: i started seeing these patronising, condescendingly-worded announcements everywhere. There was a book lying on my coffee table, entitled “je réussis mon compost et lombricompost”, and my online banking service had buttons helpfully holding my hand by proclaiming that if i clicked them, that in fact “je me connecte” and the governmental tax website straight-facedly offers me a button marked “je paye mes impôts en ligne”.

Why am i getting my gender-neutral undergarments in a knot, you ask? What is so frustrating about these clumsily-worded but earnest and well-meaning phrases1? It’s probably the fact that i am just not used to this mode of sentence construction, but they all feel incredibly condescending, insulting almost. It’s as if the person writing them thinks to themselves that their target audience must have the intellect of at most a 4-year old, or at the very least a serious lack of theory of mind capabilities. As if whoever reads the instructions clearly wouldn’t have the mental fortitude to read a sentence written in the imperative, realise it applies to them, and accordingly decide to act upon it. No, everything should be preprocessed into the first person, so that the bumbling imbecile in the bus can mouth the sentence to themselves, and then, as if taken by surprise at what they just verbalised, follow the instructions they have read to themselves. Indeed, i get on the bus. Oh! That means i validate my ticket! *beep* Shudder.

Super tasteless copywriting aimed at self-satisfied do-gooders exists too, yo

Yes, there is another category of text aimed at the public that drives me up the wall! I’m sure you would never have guessed that could be possible. I’ll provide samples here and here. In case you’re super lethargic and couldn’t be arsed to follow those links, the first one is a pack of sugar which screams “That which i love: cane sugar; what i defend: vague ecological ideals,” while the second one is a pack of teabags which hollers “What i drink: tea!!! What i defend: vague feel-good statements about fair trade!!!111!1” Seriously. The box of tea says, “i drink tea”. Literally. My god, what am i supposed to do, stumble into the supermarket distractedly mumbling “i drink tea i drink tea i drink tea” to myself, and then, “oh good a label! I read the label! I drink tea!!! Bingo, i look for the cashier now!!” This time, not only have the copywriters managed to insult my intelligence via their obtuse application of the first person where it’s completely inappropriate, they now also manage to imply that the people who are likely to buy their products would feel better about themselves after having had to do the supermarket-shelf-to-till walk of shame while sheepishly trying to smuggle a garish wrapper shouting “look at me! I think i’m saving the world by paying €0.30 more for my organic chocolate!!!”. Honestly, i’m probably somebody who is precisely in their target demographic and is, all things being equal, pretty likely to buy their stuff anyway, but this grates so hard i almost don’t want to any more. I mean, i don’t actually think i’m saving the world, so i feel ridiculous buying something which tries to convince everybody around me that i do!

Anyway, fuck this. I finish writing now. If i am tired, i go to bed. Also, i send Paul fanmail.

  1. Of course, anybody, no matter who, who is too earnest, straight-faced and irony-free should be immediately categorised as not to be trusted. These shifty individuals pop up all over the place, trying their damnedest to spoil any good old black, bile-filled sarcastic mocking.

If you feel inclined to read further, i have rambled on other subjects, too.



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