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How to answer a first “I love you”: is humour the best policy when it comes to those three little words?

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Audrey Diwan

Editor-at-large of Stylist France, Audrey Diwan reveals the secret to becoming a little more French


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The funny thing about love is that some things never change. Society never stops reinventing its behaviours, modes of communication, sexuality – but certain romantic rituals stand firm to the passing of time. Especially when it concerns talking about how we feel. For me, there are two ways of making love: with the body and with the tongue. And when I say tongue, I’m talking about words. Words play a crucial role in the way a story is told and how to formulate the first “I love you” remains a fundamental problem that each couple must overcome in the best way possible.

But you must be careful; there is an intrinsic pressure to this phrase. It’s a test that hopes for just one response: “I love you too.” We might be tempted to concede to make things easier, whether it is true or not. But it’s not necessarily the best idea.

Sense of mystery

A couple of weeks ago, I took this issue up with a friend of mine – a woman I admire enormously for the appealing way she never settles into the rhythm of everyone else. She told me about a man who had just declared his love for her.

“He said to me, ‘You know that I love you?’ And I replied, ‘I thought as much, but it’s not a reason to talk about it.’”

I loved her reply so much that I wanted to frame it. Why such an off-the-wall response? My friend didn’t want to hurt this man. She wanted to maintain the mystery and prolong that moment of doubt where each person is terrified they might lose the other. With her silence, she wanted to construct this quest for emotion. She liked the fragile state that had been created between the pair of them, and I can understand that. The majority of the time, “I love you” starts the clock ticking on a story, which ends with “I don’t love you any more”. As soon as the phrase is uttered, it seems to trigger a countdown.

But in France, there are other ways of responding to a proclamation of love. One life-changing example was invented by Serge Gainsbourg, who wrote the song Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus (I Love You, Me Neither). In the video, we see Serge and Jane Birkin on the Place du Trocadéro. Behind them is the phallic monument of the Eiffel Tower. Breathing heavily, Jane murmurs, “Je t’aime, oh oui, je t’aime,” and Serge replies with similar depth, “Moi non plus”. I dream of stealing his turn of phrase because it’s terribly poetic. It’s a lucid yet dreamy way of telling the other person that the feeling is mutual, but fragile. And could in an instant, if they’re not careful, turn against them.

There is one final comeback that has caught my attention. It’s a kind of pirouette. A way of making the other person wait by not replying until you are sure, without rejecting them completely. It comes from Sacha Guitry, a French playwright who was married five times. You might think it’s misogynistic but you have to admire the skill of his dialogue. When a woman made the mistake of saying, “I love you”, he liked to reply with, “Me too, me too, I love me.” It remains to be seen whether your partner would find it funny. Otherwise, you risk ending up alone, on the pavement, with only your sense of humour for company.

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