Although the default answer to almost every question, request or suggestion is a disheartening ‘non’, a ‘oui’ is often hiding in the context of what is being said.

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Non, ce n’est pas possible. I keep telling you, it can’t be done,” the airline booking agent insisted. We’d been on the phone for 20 minutes as I tried to exchange a full-fare, exchangeable plane ticket. Sitting calmly at home, my eyes took in the cliché of our Parisian apartment, complete with 19th-Century gilded mirrors and mouldings of flowers cascading from the ceiling. Over the last 18 years, I’d learned to see the beauty that surrounded me as compensation for living in a society where the default answer to almost every question, request or suggestion is a disheartening ‘non’ (no).

Answering ‘non’ gives you the option to say ‘oui’ later; [it’s] the opposite when you say ‘oui’, you can no longer say ‘non’!

A conversation with French friends and family about their use of ‘non’ and why it seems to be the national default reads like the script for a Gérard Depardieu comedy. “No, it’s not true, we don’t always say ‘no’ first,” retorted the 60-something CEO. “No, you’re right, even when we agree, we start with no,” reacted the lawyer. “Hunh, no… I don’t know why…” pondered the young artist.

Olivier Giraud, a French comedian who has been sharing insights into French culture for over a decade with his one man show, How to become Parisian in One Hour, explains this reflex by saying, “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’.”

Indeed, the French have been protesting more-or-less nonstop since the citizens of Paris stormed the Bastille prison in 1789. Those first protests launched the French Revolution, bringing an end to more than 900 years of monarchical rule. In more modern times, today's ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests) protestors took to the streets in November 2018 to march against a fuel tax hike and have continued protesting – sometimes violently – since then, marching for new causes every Saturday and demonstrating that protesting is something of a national hobby for many. 

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Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau, co-authors of The Bonjour Effect, the Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed, agree with Giraud about non and its roots in the French obsession for protests. “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,” they write in their book.

Beyond taking to the streets, the French have crafted a variety of ways to say no. ‘Ça risque d'être compliqué’ (‘that may be complicated’) is likely the least confrontational way of saying that a request is unlikely to be granted. ‘Ç'est hors de question’ (‘it’s out of the question’) is perhaps the most definitive version, cutting off any hopes of arguing one’s case.

Because often, there is hope. “Contrary to popular opinion, the French do listen, and well, but this usually happens after they say no a couple of times. It takes a certain amount of faith, and sometimes a lot of talking, but you can almost always find the yes hiding behind a French no, if it’s there,” write Barlow and Nadeau.

Back in my apartment, the now exasperated booking agent huffed, “How many times are you going to ask if you can exchange this ticket for a departure tomorrow?”. I smiled to myself, knowing I would ask the question as many times as it would take to find a solution. As I’ve found out over the years, the ‘oui’ is often hiding in the context of what is being said.

The ‘oui’ is often hiding in the context of what is being said

Context includes tone, body language, setting and situation; basically, everything that is not expressly put into words. In her book The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, INSEAD Business School professor Erin Meyer identifies eight scales to demonstrate how different cultures relate. The first scale addresses context’s role in communication. Countries like the US and Australia are low-context cultures where people generally say what they mean and mean what they say. However, France, like Russia and Japan, tends to be a high-context culture, where “good communication is sophisticated, nuanced and layered. Messages are both spoken and read between the lines,” she writes.

Meyer suspects one of the factors leading to this divide can be found in the numbers: according to her book, 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. 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’.

This reliance on the word no doesn’t mean the French are a fundamentally negative people, either. In part, their approach starts at school. French children learn to argue a thesis, antithesis and synthesis when preparing essays, which teaches them to argue their point, argue against their own argument, then develop a summary. Meyer writes, “Consequently, French business people intuitively conduct meetings in this fashion, viewing conflict and dissonance as bringing hidden contradictions to light and stimulating fresh thinking.” In fact, the French ‘no’ is often an invitation to debate, engage and better understand one another, which has encouraged the development of a bouquet of different nos, used in various situations.

The first and most important no is the one that really means ‘je ne sais pas’ the ‘I have no idea’ no. Barlow and Nadeau estimate that nearly 75% of the nos they encountered were to conceal a lack of knowledge. This likely comes from the terror of ridicule for being wrong. It is a fear French students first encounter in elementary school where individual grades are shared in class, setting the stage for an environment of humiliation and vulnerability.

The fear is compounded when teenagers sit the Baccalauréat, a series of exams at the end of secondary school. Grading is fierce, with a score of 12 out of a possible 20 earning an honourable mention and a full 20 being virtually unheard of. The results are posted online for the world to see, leaving students open to comments about why they didn’t get an honourable mention, and if they did, why they didn’t get higher honours. After 13 years of anxiety, survivors of the French academic system are relieved to offer a debatable ‘no’, rather than an erroneous ‘yes’.

Perhaps the easiest no to handle is the flirtatious no. Accompanied by a wink and a smile, it is an invitation to dialogue used by anyone from a butcher playfully making her clients beg for a desired cut of meat, to a young child hoping for a treat. At its most innocuous, the flirtatious no can seduce customers back to the same café every afternoon for a chat with their friendly waiter. Other times, like all games, it gets tiresome.

The authoritarian no is more difficult to manage. Barlow and Nadeau suggest that the no used by many French people comes from an obsession with not getting blamed for being wrong. And while this is true in all walks of life, the fonctionnaires (bureaucrats) of France have turned it into a complex system that seems archaic and inefficient.

When going to the Tribunal d’Instance to apply for citizenship, for example, I was handed a pen and a blank piece of paper as the clerk dictated a list of required documents. 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 of documents does not guarantee success, it is considered a reliable shield against countless nos.

The reflex no is perhaps the most intimate of all the no, common among friends and life partners. In the early 2000s, I met cultural consultant Polly Platt, author of French or Foe, to discuss raising a family in France. From her apartment in Paris’ upscale 7th arrondissement, Platt shared her strategy for getting a yes from her French husband. For summer holiday plans, for example, she would suggest a destination she was not interested in and knew her husband would never accept – perhaps somewhere too hot or near the in-laws, like Marrakesh or Philadelphia. The second suggestion would pose another set of problems. Suggesting a place like the Hôtel Negresco in Nice would start him on a rant against crowds and high-season prices. By the time she suggested her first choice of going to their second home in the Dordogne, his ‘oui’ would come easily. She knew if she’d started with the idea of staying close to home, he would have said no before giving it any consideration

Hoping the booking agent had used the reflex no on me, I re-explained my need for a flight the following day. She replied that the airline required one day’s notice to exchange tickets. I asked if that was 24 hours or one calendar day. Since that was not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, she was able to tell me it was a calendar day. “When is the very first flight the next day?” I enquired. It was five minutes after midnight – exactly 35 minutes after the flight I had been trying to book for my trip.

At last, I had my yes.

Why We Are What We Are is a BBC Travel series examining the characteristics of a country and investigating whether they are true.

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