When only one word to describe friendship simply won’t do
Saying “I love you” is still a big deal. At least it is in French.
Which is why, even though some of my nearest and dearest friends are French, signing off with a quick “Je t’aime!” when we speak is by no means the norm.
When I speak with most of my American friends, saying “Love you” feels natural. And when I see British friends tagging pictures of their best friends, calling them “wifey” or “the love of my life,” it tells me that easy, demonstrative affection is very much an anglophone thing (and most likely generational for the Brits).
You know us well enough by now to understand that, at The French Collective, we’re not going to pick a side here. One culture’s way of celebrating friendship shouldn’t ever be deemed superior to another’s.
But, mon Dieu, isn’t it interesting to dissect?
Before we get into cultural norms when it comes to declaring platonic love, let’s dive in and look at the body language first. In France, when you greet a friend, you kiss them on both cheeks (and we are going to take a side here: two kisses are the perfect amount, three kisses are confusing, four kisses - oh yes, some people do four - is insanity). Faire la bise - to perform the kiss - is considered far more appropriate than a big, long hug where your body would rub up against someone else.
For many in North America, though, touching your face to someone else’s - even if it’s just cheek to cheek and you’re not actually kissing - is wildly intimate and would feel strange to experience with even the closest of friends.
So it can be deduced that for both French and American friendships, showing affection is considered completely normal - but boundaries still exist.
Consider, for a moment, the fact that you would never in a million years ask to do the bises multiple times while hanging out with a close friend in France, but reaching out and sporadically hugging a friend in America mid-conversation would be fine. Also consider that, post hug, the American friend is going to likely have a bigger personal-space bubble while the French person might sit or stand closer to you while speaking (I am 100% French when it comes to personal space and often find American friends taking a step back from me when I talk to them).
One of the most fascinating ways of looking at the differences between the two cultures, however, is to examine the language. In French, there are two words for “friend.” Understanding the meaning behind both words is, I think, crucial.
There’s un ami/ une amie which is what most of us learn first in our French courses; this word is likely the closest translation to “friend,” if we’re being completely honest. But no one should overlook un copain/ une copine. Purists try to say that copain is closer in likeness to the English word “acquaintance,” but never would I translate the common phrases “Je vais voir mes copains ce soir” to “I’m going to see my acquaintances tonight.” Both words, in English, mean friend. But the nuance between different tiers of friendship is entirely French.
The root word for ami is âme... the French word for soul. Your ami(e) is a person who shares a soul connection with you. A person who gets invited to your wedding, drives you to the airport, listens to you vent about your mother over the phone, buys the bottle of wine to bring over following a breakup, goes on vacation with you, texts and DMs you whenever the hell they want, celebrates your birthday with you… They are there with the bail money or to help hide the bodies if it ever came to that, but most likely, they are just there through thick and thin.
The origin of copain is right there in plain sight. Co-pain. Pain, as in bread. Someone you break bread with. A copain or a copine is a wonderful thing to have (don’t get confused, the French also use these words to describe your boyfriend or girlfriend, as in your significant other, but here we are using the platonic definition). Pre-COVID, they were the people you’d go have drinks with after work, the co-workers who sat with you during lunch and gossiped with you, the friends you made in a Pilates class, the people who follow you on Instagram and like all your posts, the group you felt comfortable going out to dinner with or attending a party with.
The French sometimes view American friendship as placing heavy emphasis on having a large group of copains... easy, fair-weather friends who toss out “Love ya!” and “Let’s hang!” at a faster pace than they do. And any American who has lived in France will likely tell you that the price of admission to becoming un(e) ami(e) to a French person usually means spending lots of time getting to know one another and going through certain formalities before being considered close.
To be perfectly honest, I enjoy both. I love that my closest friendships - on either side of the pond - have taken time to forge and feel more intimate than the rest. But I also enjoy the hugs, high fives, and “Oh-my-god-I-love-you-so-much” from friends I haven’t known as long.
Saying I love you is a big deal to me, too. And I would encourage all of us to appreciate the times that we get to say those words - by Zoom or Facetime or text messages these days, more often than not - whether it’s just a quirky little “ily” in a DM or the real thing face to face with those we share a soul connection with.
On vous aime ! Et bon week-end !