When ‘thanks’ means ‘no thanks’

So, what’s one of the first words you learn in French? For me, ‘merci‘, was one of the few I already knew before the battle with this lovely language began. For years, I’ve been using this word to thank people for everything from giving me a free chocolate to getting a receipt for some work at rip-off prices, unknown to me at the time. That mechanic in Thônes who charged me €100 for literally wiggling an ignition fuse must have laughed heartily after my gracious thankyou. If only my skills of communication had been greater at the time to go back when I realised he’d done nothing. Instead, my lovely mechanic fixed the problem properly – for merely the cost of the replacement part (which was much less than €100). You learn as you go.

Anyway, let’s get back to ‘merci‘. Beware, beware! Merci‘ can also mean ‘not thanks’.

Can you hear the difference?Click to play the two ‘merci’s

As if  using ‘terrible‘ isn’t hard to understand, along comes one of the most basic words used in any language to represent gratitude about something, and it can also mean: ‘Nope, I don’t want what you’re offering’ in French. So, how can you tell the difference? Sometimes, when someone says ‘merci‘ to indicate ‘no thanks’, they’ll raise the palm of their hand — a handy sign for us non-native speakers. Unfortunately, the hand gesture is not mandatory, and then it all depends on the intonation. I often sit confused in a restaurant trying to figure out if a friend meant yes or no to having their glass refilled when I offer. It’s an ongoing struggle for my ears to hear the difference in this intonation, but the ‘no thanks’ version of ‘merci‘ seems to start low and go lower, whereas the ‘yes thanks’ version seems to start low and go higher. Would you like me to go through it again? What’s that you say? ‘Merci‘? Err…..


I’m a technical author, journalist and writer from Australia who has been living in Europe since 2000 and exploring the world from there. My passions are writing, snow sports and travel.

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3 comments on “When ‘thanks’ means ‘no thanks’
  1. When in doubt–fill up the glass.(especially if it’s wine)

    Happy New Year, Wendy and Bruno

  2. merci Wendy pour ce post !!

  3. Wendy says:

    Thanks Samantha – and happy new year to you too.
    Caroline – errr….? 🙂

About me

Wendy Hollands writer in Annecy, France

I'm an experienced technical writer based in the French Alps. I enjoy learning French language nuances, winter sports and travel. Drop by wendyhollands.com, my other site.

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