A certain degree of passivity is accorded to a number of phrases in the French language. I’ve gone all up and convinced myself that this is a precipitant to the strange logic so many adhere to in these parts.
This logic manifests most frequently in two phrases:
(a) C’est pas possible
(b) C’est pas ma faute
T-Pain sings, “Anything is possible.” This is why they had to title the song “I’m on a Boat,” instead of “I’m in France.” Nothing is possible here. Want to make a wire transfer at the bank? C’est pas possible. Can I send a 1 kg flat rate box instead of paying extra for the 2 kg flat rate box? Non, c’est pas possible. Can you give me a photocopy of the washing machine user manual? Pas possible. Is there lemon juice at Monoprix? Yes, in plain view, but it’s on the top shelf and no one can reach it – c’est donc pas possible.
Hearing this is startlingly finite in its decisiveness. David Liebovitz puts it better than I ever could: “You just tend to nod in agreement and accept these odd incongruities around here. It becomes très normale.”
People are also averse to taking the blame. Early on in the school year I ended up with a classful of 38-secondes. I went to explain the situation to the proviseur, and he put his hands up in the air and said, “C’est pas ma faute.” Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but that was the end of conversation. Lady in the grocery store runs over my foot with her cart. Way to go, lady. Now I have to sit in front of Le Grand Journal for another hour repainting my toenails turquoise. It’s not her fault for being incapable of maneuvering a shopping cart, it’s my fault for being in the way. “C’est pas ma faute” is a total get-out-of-jail free card here.
I can’t imagine what kind of logic goes down in courts, you know, with the avocados and all.
The spoken niceties of common courtesy take on the same aversion to responsibility on the speaker’s behalf. French is sometimes inherently very passive-aggressive. Here’s a potpourri of my seven-month observations.
1. Angers is building a tramway. All around town, there are signs: “Veuillez-nous excuser pour les travaux.” Please excuse us for the construction. There is no straightforward way (c’est pas possible) in the French language to just say, “Sorry for the construction.” The client (for lack of a better word) becomes linguistically implicated in what could ordinarily be a passive experience; he must do the action of excusing the tram company for their construction. The tram company puts the responsibility of coping with construction on the customer instead of just apologizing for the inconveniences. The logic here is not “Sorry, we’re making a mess,” but “We made a mess, duh, so please go out of your way to excuse it.”
2. “Please” translates into “S’il vous plait” or “S’il te plait”: if it pleases you. Again: Instead of saying, “Pass the vegetables, please,” you would say, “Pass the vegetables, if it pleases you.” The agent in the conversation again is the indirect object, whom, in English, would remain passive.
3. The French language also makes it hard to miss people. In fact, by saying “Tu me manques,” you aren’t missing them. They are missing to you (Emily has good thoughts on this topic here) Again, the speaker is not the actor in this phrase: the person in question that you miss becomes culpable. Example: I can’t miss my friend Mina. In her act of being absent from my life, she becomes missing from me. It’s her fault, not mine. Get your shit together, Mina.
4. It’s the same thing when you don’t have something. While it is grammatically sound to say, “Je n’ai pas du sel” (I don’t have any salt), you can also say “Il me manque du sel” (literally, the salt is missing from me). This way, for example, you never have to take responsibility for running out of salt. It’s missing from you, which opens up a wide range of possible explanations for its whereabouts. Perhaps it ran off to have a shotgun wedding with the pepper, perhaps it called in sick. No one knows. But it’s missing, and c’est pas votre faute.
5. Guests are “invités.” Invited people, or inviteds, if you will. This label (derived from the verb ‘inviter,’ to invite) implicitly suggests their presence is not a singularly active one: it’s a result of someone else’s action.
6. I had to write a letter to the bank the other day. It ended in, “Je vous prie, madame/monsieur, d’agréer l’expression de mes sentiments distingués.” Let’s imagine that I concluded a cover letter by writing, in English, “I beg of you, ma’am, to accept my distinguished sentiments.” You bet your bippy that I will never work in a museum again. You can’t just offer up best wishes and be done with it. You have to beg of them to accept them. The speaker assumes the passive role and it’s up to the recipient to accept your asswipe ‘distinguished sentiments.’
Je vous prie, dear readers, d’agréer l’expression…..shit, in any case, have a good one,