Metalogue 2: Why do Frenchmen?

In this metalogue the daughter asks her father: “Daddy, why do Frenchmen wave their arms about?”

This metalogue is a discussion about body language.

The father asks her what she means, and the daughter explains that she doesn’t mean a simple gesture like smiling or stamping your foot. She means why do Frenchmen wave their arms all the time — as a cultural part of carrying on the conversation.

The father asks what it makes her think when she sees the man waving his arms. She says she thinks it looks silly, but realises that it can’t look silly to other Frenchmen. She says it also looks as if they are excited — but that can’t be true either, because if she were as excited as the Frenchmen appear to be then she would want to dance or sing or punch somebody in the nose. And the Frenchmen do none of those things. Clearly Frenchmen do not feel the same as she would feel if she behaved in the same way.

What it would mean if the man stopped waving his arms? Would she think he had stopped feeling silly and excited? The daughter realises that no: if the Frenchman stopped waving his arms, she would think that she had hurt his feelings and perhaps he might be really angry.

So waving the arms must be a way of saying something about how he feels about the other guy.

Does the Frenchman wave his arms to say he is not angry, so that later when he is angry he can tell you that by stopping? That doesn’t make sense because he doesn’t know he is going to be angry later… In our culture, lots of people smile in order to tell you that they are not angry when really they are, but that is different. That is lying with one’s face, like playing poker, which is also not what the Frenchman is doing.

What is the Frenchman doing?

The arm waving is a part of the conversation. Part of the conversation may be about exchanging information. Part of it might even be about finding out something that neither of the people knew before. But most conversations are only about people telling each other whether they are angry or friendly, and the arm waving is a way that Frenchmen have to say “I am not angry with you.” Our culture notices it, because our culture has different ways of doing this.

The question then arises, why can’t people just say “I am not cross with you” and leave it at that?

Bateson says this is now getting to the real problem. The point is that the messages we exchange in gestures are really not the same as any translation we could make of those gestures into words. No amount of telling someone in mere words that we are angry with them (or that we are not) can be the same as telling them with gestures or a tone of voice.

In fact there are no ‘mere words’. You cannot have words, even written words, without some sort of tone, rhythm, or overtone. Even if a person apparently takes out all the tone from what they are saying, then it will be clear they are withholding something, and that conveys a message also.

The idea that ‘language’ is made of ‘words’ is nonsense. Language is made up first of all of gestures, and then tones of voice, and then words (conveyed with gestures and tone of voice).

(So when they teach us French at school, why don’t they teach us to wave our hands?)


Of course this metalogue isn’t only about Frenchmen. It is about all the things we do when we communicate. What does it tell us that is useful in business?

At a basic level, we could say that it alerts us to the basic ‘diversity’ issues that arise whenever we deal with someone from a different culture. But that would be to miss the deeper insights about the structure of communication that are contained here.

It explains why a videoconference can never create the same level of trust as a face to face meeting. Why a clear telephone line can often be better than a poor quality videoconference.

It also raises the question of what are the equivalents of ‘hand waving’ in your organisation? What are the gestures and tones of voice and even dress code that are part of your organisational culture? What do they mean? What does it mean when they stop? Who are the people who display these signs? And what happens to people who do not?

In your organisation, what percentage of the general conversation is about saying “I am friendly with you” (or “I am angry with you”)? What percentage is about exchanging information? And how much of the conversation is about finding out something that neither of the people knew before?

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