What is the Gallic shrug?



What is the Gallic shrug ?


Ask a FrenchmanMmm… Let’s see…

First of all – but I could be wrong – I’m under the impression that the Gallic Shrug “exists” only in the English speaking world, or should I say in the eyes of the English speaking world.

I don’t think I have ever heard of the Gallic shrug in the mouth of people from other countries. I’d say it’s most likely because:

  •  Most other countries have their own equivalent to the Gallic shrug.
  •  I guess it surprises (or used to surprise) or even shocks Anglos to encounter this behavior in France (you know how they are with France, always fantasizing and imagining France as heaven on Earth and other silly things like that) while they expect it and are not surprised by it in other countries that are “less civilized” in their unconscious mind.

What does it consist in?
Well, you’ll find sites, books, people that’ll tell you it’s a shrug, with sometimes a pout or whatever else.
Actually, I think that the Gallic shrug is more a state of mind than an actual gesture.
For example, I personally almost never shrug when I do a Gallic shrug.

What does it mean?
Well, it basically means “I didn’t mess it up, you did (or somebody else), not me, so why should it be my problem?”
It’s more or less the French equivalent to “Deal with it” and/or “Shit happens.”

I assume that it’s an issue for some Anglos, and especially some Americans because they’re under the strange assumption that they never have to fix their own problems or clean after themselves, that there always will be someone to do it for them, while the gallic shrug is basically telling them “not my problem, yours”.

A good example is customer service.
While I agree that customer service is good in the US and sometimes sucks in France (but not as much as Anglos think, they just don’t know the unwritten rules), the general understanding that the one who pays has all the rights, and the one that is being paid is basically a slave to the former one just doesn’t apply in France.
Money doesn’t regulate the relation between customers and sellers. It’s just happens to be one of the two items that are being exchanged within the larger frame of that relation.

Hence, people will encounter the “Gallic shrug” if they ask the wrong person to solve their problem. Because, not any staff member of a store will help you when you have a problem, only the person whose job is to solve this problem will do so, if such a person exists.


OK, I can’t finish that relatively short post without showing you what the Gallic shrug is supposed to look like. Here are my attempts at the best possible Gallic shrug (understand: the most stereotypical), over not one but two shooting sessions. Which one is the best?




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David Billa

David was born and raised in the French South West. After a few years in the US and a few more in Paris, he finally settled down in Japan. He blogs here about his various experiences and travels, with an emphasis on his home country, France.

18 Responses

  1. Rurousha says:

    Bottom row, middle. That’s the best. ^^

    PS: “The general understanding that the one who pays has all the rights, and the one that is being paid is basically a slave to the former one just doesn’t apply in France.” If only it didn’t apply to eikaiwa in Japan, either …

    • David says:

      The pictures show in random order, so not sure which one you mean. 🙂

      Yeah, customer service makes me uncomfortable in Japan too at times.

  2. Steph says:

    Great post. I think each of your photos is good – it’s the facial expression that’s the clincher!

  3. Jason Jehosephat says:

    The top with the horizontal stripes is uber-French.

  4. Nathan says:

    As a French person myself i think the middle one in the top row is the most accurate because the Gallic shrug is mostly about the expression on the face and the photo on the middle of the top row is how I’ve always done the Gallic shrug and how I’ve always seen people do it… 🙂

    • David says:

      Jason and Nathan,
      I’m afraid I need to remind you that the pictures appear in random order (but when you hover with your mouse, the name/number of the picture appear)

  5. Xavier says:

    Hi !

    I’m french too. You’re right David, the Gallic shrug as you called it and as we use it in France means a lot of things. Most of the time (i mean spontaneously) it means : I don’t know / I can’t say / I have no idea…

    When the pout turns into a “kind of” little smile, it means : Shit happens / C’est la vie…

    and when the palms are exposed, raised up (at the level of the chest, i would say) it means : It’s not my business / I have nothing to do with that…

    Wish I am clear

  6. Sean says:

    I think that the Gallic shrug became synonymous with Robert De Niro in America.

    • David Billa says:

      How so?

      • Kat says:

        actually, yeah, I see it, but it’s exaggerated with him even more than in these pictures. Think of the way he’ll hunch his shoulders up and put his hands out while sarcastically telling someone what they did… It’s the same idea, ‘What do you want me to do about it, eh?’ But more hostile, because if there’s not a spoken ‘moron’ you can feel that’s what he means lol.

  7. sunny says:

    This is exactly what I’ve been searching for. My former French teacher in Québec would often make that “gallic shrug”. Moreover my mother language is not English, it was such a great difficulty for me in learning French.
    Looking back on it now, everything becomes clear.
    Thanks for your valuable posting.

  8. Jon Fu says:

    Thank you very much! P.S. It applies in Greece 🙂 (alongside with a variation that reminds of “we got a badass over here)

  9. Graeme Phillips says:

    The things you forgot to include are puffing away on a Gauloise and a speech bubble saying “bof”.

  10. Jenny Rid says:

    My husband is French; I’m American, and we live in the States. One of our 4 yo twin daughters takes after his side of the family more, especially physically. Lately, we’ve been noticing that she does a “Gallic shrug” naturally whereas our other daughter doesn’t. Seems like it might be partly genetic 🙂

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