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  • Writer's pictureAlexandre Richard

French Gen Z's verbal tics: the "FAMILY"​ obsession

One way to better understand the latest generations is to listen to the words they’re using. With this article, I wanted to stop a bit on neologisms and verbal tics used by Gen Z that were not used by former generations.

Doing so obviously leads to a quite substantial list. However, we can make sense of them by identifying sub linguistic fields.

Picture: "Wesh mon Frère" ("[hyper tainted slang for "yeah"] + "my brother")

The first macro linguistic cluster that appears revolves around the notion of FAMILY. A very busy linguistic space amongst French Gen Z with words such as:

  • Frère (brother, to refer to someone who’s not your brother), reuf (slang for “frère”), mon reuf (my + slang for “brother"*) *"brother" here is a new word use in French, it's not as old as "bro" in the US. Previously, people who use local equivalents of "dude" (and other words not tied to the notion of family)

  • Soeur, ma soeur (sister, my sister – again, still for someone who’s not your sister)*

  • Le sang (“the blood” – used in many instances, often as a stand-alone to qualify someone and say they are “from the same blood as you”, same group, same values and battles)

Picture: "T'es le sang!" ("you're the blood!")

  • La mif (contraction/ slang for “the family”; used to refer to a group of people who see as family even though they are not)

  • Couz (contradiction of “cousin”)

A good way to check the meaningfulness of this trend is to ask ourselves: “Would Chantal, 75yo, see her neighbour and tell her as greetings ‘’ Bonjour le sang, bien ou bien ?””?” (in literal translation: “Good morning the blood, good or good?”. In assisted translation “Hey [person who I see as being made from the same blood as mine], [are you doing well or what?]?”. And the answer is obviously no for Chantal, 75yo.

Why would youngster punctuate their sentences overnight by words qualifying total strangers of “brothers”, “flesh of my flesh” (as we hear in the sentence “wesh le sang” (“yo, the blood”), simply used to say high to someone of the same age.

The omnipresence of words revolving around the idea of FAMILY seems to be the outcome of several phenomena:

- A world that the youth often sees as scary and dangerous (grim news, dark horizons)

- Having a hard time telling a friend from a foe in a life spent both online and offline. Hardship is knowing who’s an ally and who’s a threat, who’s trustworthy or not. A desire for safe landmarks.

- Withdrawal: it’s ironic and it may sound counter intuitive for a generation that is hyper connected, but they’re many to withdraw or to focus on a very nuclear sphere, fleeing the many breeches into their intimacy they are exposed to online

- The loss of meaning/ the search for meaning + the desire to come back to foundational values such as FAMILY and FAMILIARITY

- The quest for trust (trust in others)

- Last but not least: France is a huge melting pot with a strong rise in immigration. Domestic culture is increasingly influenced by reference sets from other cultures. The vast majority of French immigration is coming from North Africa/ Maghreb, as well as Western Africa where FAMILY tends to occupy a central place. Fertility rates are much higher. Families are bigger from a numerical standpoint, but also from a symbolic standpoint: your uncle’s friend may be considered as an uncle and an actual part of your family with similar attachment, respect, authority. These new populations are in constant interaction with traditional French Youth who come more and more from families that are more fragmented or that have embraced new forms (single parent, divorced parents, reconstituted families). This type of encounters between different cultures and mindsets leads to an increasing focus and interrogation on the notion of FAMILY, what it means, where it begins and ends, whether it should follow a purely genetic logic or a more symbolic and emotional one.

Also, the linguistic field around [FAMILY, ANCHORAGE, LANDMARKS] tells us as much what matters to this Youth as what they miss or long for.

If these notions and landmarks were that strong and obvious in their daily lives, they probably wouldn’t need to re-ascertain them so often in language.

The notion of FAMILY has become increasingly blurry as we it with certain buzzwords like “tribu” (tribe). A word massively used (notably by marketers and brands in France) over the past decade to replace the word FAMILY. It shows a transition of the notion of FAMILY from something that is monolithic and single-minded to something that is polymorphous and multi-faceted. It rings very true with the reality of our times and the new faces of French households. It also shows that there is no longer a standard cultural definition or list of criteria to agree to say that a given group of people constitutes a family (unit) or not.

The omnipresence of these words also stems from the fact that FAMILY, as construct/ value, has lost its legitimacy by several regards:

- Organically and genetically: it’s commonplace nowadays to say that parenthood is not so much a pure matter of procreation but of experience and practice. Being the organic parent is becoming a weaker marker of legitimacy to be a parental figure

- In the sense of authority: culturally, FAMILY is a very strong vector and source of authority that contributes to shaping, guiding and providing (ideally healthy) boundaries to individuals. We won’t pull this thread entirely as it’d be too big of a topic but it is obvious in all areas of French Society that Authority is extremely challenged, if not deconstructed/ rejected. The Government is no longer recognized as a legitimate source of authority worthy of respect. Same for schools and teachers. Schools regularly (have to) ask families to fulfill their educational role at home by transmitting core values such as respect and non-violence. But families now do what would have been totally unthinkable until then: they respond by turning to School itself, asking it to fulfill this educational role in question for them. Finally, the place and role of the Father are being heavily challenged culturally, if not simply trashed.

Gen Z’s over usage of words from the FAMILY field is a symptom. A symptom notably based on uncertainty. Indeed, this new generation needs to deal with new questioning:

- You can now decide to create or not to create a family: society has been making us at ease with the idea that it was now okay for us not to necessarily reproduce ourselves and have kids. We can now totally hear that it’s okay not to have kids, not to want kids (even though a certain stigma always remains, especially for women). It’s also totally okay to say you’re not very family-oriented. Which would have been an ABSOLUTE TABOO 60 years ago in your average French family. It would have been a declaration of war, the sign that you’re an ungrateful and selfish kid on the way to becoming a social outcast

- But you still come a family yourself . Whichever path we want to choose for ourselves once grownups, we all come from a family. We all come from a family, may we love it (“oh yeah! I love my family! And it’s a big one, I have 16 cousins, we see each other all the time!”), or may we reject it (“I hate my parents, I took my distance very early in life and barely speak to them”). We all come from somewhere and from someONE for we are not conceived in laboratories yet.

Clip: Marseille's singer Bengous and his hit "Tié la famille!" in which he refers to all neighbours, acquaintances, friends as being part of the same "family" -

In the family field, there is a generational and cultural tension between CERTAINTY-UNCERTAINTY, EMANCIPATION-BELONGING, and LOVE-HATRED.

With the words they use, the 2000s-2010s generations are strongly enlightening us on deep and hot social topics:

- Do I really have a family?

- Which form does it take? Does someone act as an authority figure and are they recognized as such? Or is it maybe a more agile configuration, a “tribe” with permutable roles?

- At a broader social and interpersonal level: who are Others? Can I make them part of family? Why couldn’t they be part of my family now that the notion has broadened up? Can Others (outsiders) hold a role that is emotionally superior to the one I attribute to my genetic family? And this is precisely where we see the importance that Gen Z is giving to the notion of FAMILY because they are using words from the family field (my blood, brother, cousin) to people who are not family members.

Alexandre RICHARD / Freelance Brand Strategist - Paris

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