Editor-at-large of Stylist France, Audrey Diwan reveals the secret to becoming a little more French
Today, we must broach a particularly French mystery. The subject of smiling. Anyone who has ever set foot in Paris will agree that it’s not just a myth: in the French capital, no-one smiles. In fact, no-one smiles to such an extent that you might think there’s a law banning it. The waiter drops your coffee on the table with the sombre air of someone whose mother has just died; the taxi driver looks at you disdainfully as if you’ve just broken into the car (it’s worth noting that since the arrival of Uber, taxi drivers have become even more unpleasant). And all our actresses pose for photographs with their mouths firmly closed.
Just type the name ‘Catherine Deneuve’ into Google. Next, search for Isabelle Huppert and Léa Seydoux. What do you see? At best, the corners of their mouths are raised – a Mona Lisa-esque pout, nothing more. This is not a nationwide orthodontic problem. We have very good dentists in France. The answer lies elsewhere. People often say that a smile costs nothing. But actually, in France, that’s not true. You have to earn a smile – it’s not an easy win. You have to prove your worth to someone before you receive a smile. But among French women particularly, the roots of this sullen attitude run deeper than the simple issue of manners. In my opinion, it’s more profoundly linked to a form of feminism firmly anchored in our culture.
A smile marks the difference between those who play hard to get and the flirts. The woman who plays hard to get lets others come to her, never seeking to please. She keeps her cards close to her chest so that others want to get to know her. She builds an invisible wall and waits for the other person to break through. The flirt tries too hard. Her smile reveals too much. But the hard-to-get woman wants to be liked for who she really is. There must be some intellectual connection – a conversation that creates a deeper bond which goes beyond mere appearances (although I’m not saying this is an exclusively French trait).
You may think that not smiling will create a negative impression but in France, negative impressions are often how a relationship begins. It’s a tried and tested technique to inspire fascination, one that features in Aurélien by Louis Aragon, one of our greatest authors. It begins with the words, “The first time Aurélien saw Bérénice, he found her downright ugly. She displeased him.” Despite this, it turns into an extraordinary, yet very sad, love story.
So here is my weekly tip for those who’d like to be a little more French: why not try playing the hedgehog sometime and show off your prickliest side? Let the man (or woman) make the effort to discover what hides behind. Let them break through your shell before you unveil that most intimate part of your being: your smile.
Photography: Chris Floyd, Rex Features