http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20190804-why-the-french-love-to-say-no?ocid=ww.social.link.email and you can see that it was published recently on a website called BBC Travel (which I had never heard of before). I wouldn't usually comment on something so far off my field, but the article came to my notice via Facebook when a teacher of English pronunciation recommended it to a group of pronunciation teachers because it " .... tells us about the complexities of teaching our students to communicate in a new language - the subtleties that each culture brings to dialogue. Not just a matter of articulation and prosody. Not to mention the nuancing of tone in English that can turn a statement into its own opposite". I completely agree with the sentiment, and I realize the article is not meant to be taken too seriously, but the article itself seems so riddled with unsubstantiated generalizations, wrong facts and a condescending attitude towards the French that I feel I want to challenge some of what is said.
There is a story running through the article that recounts how the author is on the phone in Paris trying to get an airline to change a booking, and the airline employee keeps saying that this is not possible. The author, we are told, is wise to this Parisian ploy, and she will not take "no" for an answer. In the end her persistence pays off and she gets the flight changed. I am reminded of the condescending tone of Peter Mayle's book A Year in Provence, where our British hero outwits the shifty French workmen who are supposed to be restoring his house but are always behind schedule; he tricks them into finishing on time.
Apart from this anecdote, we get quite a lot of amateur linguistics and sociology, much of it quoted from various publications. There is a quote from something written by comedian Olivier Giraud: “Answering ‘non’ gives you the option to say ‘oui’ [yes] later; [it’s] the opposite when you say ‘oui’, you can no longer say ‘non’! We must not forget that the French are a people of protest, and a protest always starts with a ‘non’.” I find that many people are fond of explaining things about French character and culture in terms of the French Revolution, and this article goes this way, on up to the Gilets Jaunes protests. This all apparently has to do with French people preferring to say "no".
Sylvia Sabes goes on to quote extensively from a book called "The Bonjour Effect: the Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed". Apparently “The French Revolution was about the irrevocable right of all citizens to refuse, and ‘non’ has a quality of ‘revanche des petits contre les grands’ [revenge of the underclasses] that seems to satisfy the inner peasant or proletarian in every French person, of any class".
Next we hear the views of "Business School professor Erin Meyer", whose book The Culture Map: Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business" is quoted at length. The quality of the material in this book (which I have not and probably will not read) can be judged by the breathtaking insight that "there are 500,000 words in the English language, but only 70,000 in French. This means that Anglophones are more likely to have the exact word to say what they want, whereas Francophones must often string together a series of words to communicate their message." It goes on "This not only forces the French to be more creative with language, it also allows them to be more ambiguous with what they want to say. As a result, ‘non’ in France does not always mean ‘no’." You should try presenting this insight to some first-year Linguistics students. There is a long explanation of different types of French "no" (the different "no"'s, including the "flirtatious no", seem to me to be exactly like different types of "no" in any other language I know about), passing through points such as the French terror of being proved wrong in public (this is to do with their educational system, it seems). If this is based on something like a scientific study it could have some merit, but I suspect it is made up from armchair speculation and remembered anecdote.
According to Sylvia Sabes, the French may require a handwritten application for an official document because "While an online document to be reviewed in advance would seem more effective, this lack of an official list empowers the clerk to say no at various stages throughout the application process. In fact, organised French citizens don’t need a list to know that for any administrative issue, they had best arrive at their appointment with copies of their birth certificate and proof of permanent address issued in the last three months, as well as proof of their identity and banking information, all photocopied in triplicate. While this sheath (sic) of documents does not guarantee success, it is considered a reliable shield against countless nos.
What leads me to doubt this stuff? Well, I have done occasional work for the French government since 1962, and lived part-time in my house in France for the last fifteen years, and the attitudes described simply don't fit with my experience. We spent yesterday evening dining in our village square with lots of our French friends and I spent this morning hiking with a group of French fellow-walkers. I can't think of any way in which any of those friends (including the Mayor of the village) ever show a tendency to say "non". I have spent lots of time in French offices dealing with such things as building permission, land boundaries, local taxes or car importing, and never found the people who work in them obstructive or negative. It's a bit depressing to read a condescending piece based on a dubious national stereotype, though I admit there is a long tradition of Brits making jokes about the French. I can't help feeling that such stereotypes are partly responsible for British people having been persuaded to vote to leave the EU.