10 Ways to Express Frustration in French

10 Ways to Express Frustration in French

by Marie-Pascale Michaux

Updated November 9, 2022

Use at your own risk

Whether you’re on vacation or moving to a French country, no one expects you to go through life in exemplary peace. Just getting those travel papers or official documents to move abroad can be a bit… frustrating. However, especially abroad, you don’t want to get into too much trouble either.

So, here are 10 ways you can express frustration, or detect if someone is frustrated with you, in a French country.

But remember, use with moderation and at your own risk!

It’s not what you say, but how you say it

  1. Attitude: Just ask a teenager to do something and you’ll know everything about attitude. Either moving your upper body back from your hips as if putting some distance between yourself and the object of your frustration. Or moving your head forward, chin up as if getting ready to charge or challenge the other person.
  2. Gestures: All cultures have their own variations on rude or threatening gestures but some are so well known that they are almost universal. For example, that solitary middle finger raised in defiance. Another gesture used by the French with more or less the same intent is hitting your upper arm/inside elbow with the opposite hand while bending the elbow, palm towards you, hand open or closed.
  3. Hitting objects: Usually for emphasis, indicating the degree of emotion, rather than for any actual damage or threat. One can usually hit a table or counter-top or even a wall or door, with either a flat hand (more noise) or a closed fist.
  4. Tone of voice: As any dog trainer would tell you, everything is in your tone. If you say “Bad dog” in a happy voice, the dog will understand you’re happy. If you say “Good dog” in an angry voice, the dog will understand you’re angry. The same holds true with people. Bark an excuse at someone who just stepped on your foot and, even if your words say Excusez-moi! (excuse me), watch them jump backwards.
  5. Sarcasm: Saying something while meaning the opposite is the art of sarcasm. It can be very subtle… or not. Usually, the words are benign enough or even very positive and pleasant. But the non verbal clues indicate that the intent is neither positive nor benign. The degree of subtlety is indicative of the intensity of the frustration. However, the subtle meaning can be totally ignored by its intended target which makes it less satisfying.


Enough dancing around, let’s have words

  1. Denial: The first reflex when presented with a source of frustration is to simply say no. Such expressions as Non, mais… (No, but…) are so commonplace in France that they almost became meaningless… almost. It’s usually followed by more details or more expressions of frustration.
  2. Send off: One of the most common expression of frustration is to simply send people away to someplace unpleasant or to do things more or less offensive. You might want to brush up on the imperative form of the verb “to go”: Va…, Allez…, Va te faire…, Allez tous vous faire…, etc. In writing, what follows is often not spelled out completely: Va ch…, Allez vous faire f
  3. Incredulity/Hypothesis: Stating things in the form of a hypothesis or to emphasize the fact that the source of frustration is unbelievable: Je ne peux pas croire que… (I can’t believe that…), S’il s’imagine que… (If he thinks that…), Il n’en est pas question (It’s out of the question). Note that negation is often part of the construct. A variation of this involves questioning the mental capacity of the other person: Ça ne va pas la tête? (Something’s wrong in your head?), À quoi t’as pensé? (What were you thinking?), Non, mais, t’es idiot ou quoi? (No, but, are you an idiot or what?)
  4. Name calling: Childish, but very efficient. Here, the range of possibilities is limitless. From the simple expletive, like Putain! (use with caution), which doesn’t really target anyone, to the very real insults that can earn you a slap in the face or an all-out fight. Since the purpose here is not to get yourself beaten up, let’s skip examples for this one.
  5. Swearing: Depending on the country or region, there are various swear words. A special note about Quebec, where swearing is used for the expression of emotions but also for emphasis and to add a certain flavor to the local language, becoming verbs, adverbs, nouns, etc. as needed. 

Remember, the key is to use diplomacy and humor to try and smooth things out, but don’t hesitate to be creative and imaginative when expressing your frustration. If nothing else, it will give you time to escape while the other one is trying to figure out if it was an insult!


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