The word “décalé”

All French people agree that Parisians are not normal people.

Provinciaux deem that Parisians are below normal.

Parisians on the other hand know full well that they navigate far beyond the norm.

Such a striking opposition lies in the very definition each have of “the norm”. While outside Paris, the norm has to do with a set of values and behaviors, in Paris, it has to do with the populace: Parisians don’t see the concept, they see the numbers.

No matter how sorry the lifestyle of the Paris people may be, most will develop advanced reality-dodging strategies to convince themselves that they are not a part of the populace (“C’est tout petit mais le séjour est super lumineux“, “Le quartier est génial. Bon, faut pas rentrer seule le soir bien sûr, mais sinon c’est top”…)

The ultimate destination of their dodging artifices is to be found in the realm of culture. Thankfully for Parisians, while there is no such thing as a pseudo lifestyle, there is no shortage of pseudo-culture for Parisians to hope to harness their above-the-normness to. So Parisians tap endlessly into this fantastic source of easy differentiation. Conveniently enough, the more petty, the more superficial the artifice, the more differentiating.

But a city of impoverished wannabes gets the cultural and intellectual life it deserves: that of followers. The city of avant-garde, cultural boldness and creative brilliance is now populated by a militia of unsuspecting but zealous agents of cultural destruction. While Parisians no longer have the talent or the guts to truly think, act and invent accordingly, they have gained much comfort, even pride, in the thought of continuing, of adapting, of imitating. They don’t rebel, revolt or revolutionize, they reinterpret. What makes the norm is never questioned, instead, the dominant way of acting and thinking is always accepted as irremediably evident and thus only marginally adapted, harmlessly amended.

The adjective that epitomizes this evolution the most is “décalé“. Coolness in Paris lies in being off-beat. Everything can be décalé: a decor, a meal, a personality, a look, an idea, etc. Visitors ought to be cautious not to be push it however: being off-beat is utterly cool in Paris but questioning the beat shall be judged as extremism (or, if you’re white, as racism, even if the topic tackled has nothing to do with races).

All the freedom, identity and intelligence Parisians need lie in that tiny space between the norm and the “décalé“.

Parisians whom, as most Western urbanites, view themselves as educated, are oblivious to their staggering adoption and strict observance of this new norm: they are free and having fun.

Provinciaux are right: having turned into such unsuspecting tools, most Parisians are indeed far below the street smart common sense levels of normal people. Parisians on the other hand are not, as they like to believe, above the norm. They are merely the first victims and yet the relentless advocates of that new insidious and gooey norm they furtively carry.

The population of this brave new city sets an example that should pervade – normalize if you will – the rest of France and soon enough turn into the brave new country it ought to be: fully in-line and fully décalé, that is.

Sound like a Parisian: “Non, le truc était hyper décalé, vraiment, excellent!”

Useful tip: Impress your French friend by translating “let’s go” by “on décale”. (Neat argot for you!!)

14 replies
  1. peter newman-legros
    peter newman-legros says:

    An unexpected treat of your usual standard, thank you! I love the idea of being between the norm and the décalé and yes they really ought to be effortlessly décalé but restrained by pretension and inflated by a certain superiority the result is merely an affected over attempt at cool. Bravo!

  2. noëlle {simmer down!}
    noëlle {simmer down!} says:

    Parisians strike me as utterly conformist. I once wore a 1960s vintage dress in Paris and got disbelieving stares everywhere I went. One person even asked me if I was wearing a costume. The Parisians are so known for being fashionable, but it only applies to something you might see in a chic shop window; heaven forbid you display any actual individuality.

  3. THarrrell
    THarrrell says:

    A lot of words wasted on saying almost nothing. This situation doesn’t exist in the real world of people (in this case, people in Paris.

  4. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Peter… Thank you for your continuous support. Glad you enjoyed this new article.
    Château de Canisy… You’re very welcome.
    Noëlle… Couldn’t agree more. Here, if you read France, you should find this study interesting:…/Etude_Les_Jeunesses_face_a_leur_avenir.pdf. In short, French youth is the most conformist in the world.
    Tharrell… Thanks for your input and expertise. That was one constructive and convincing remark. Please keep these brilliant analytical insights coming.

  5. Julie
    Julie says:

    Honestly, this is your first blog I really didn’t understand. Usually you make your point very clearly, this one used a lot of words but wasn’t clear.

  6. Silence
    Silence says:

    HA ! I had discovered SPL (first the french edition book, thanks to my godfather ‑ won’t risk to offend parisian susceptibilities pretending he’s Parisian, as we are both from Bretagne, but he has been living in that city for a decade now‑, then the blog) and devoured all your posts since Christmas, and I was worried that the writing of new articles might have stopped.
    Really, really glad the stopping stopped. 😉

    (Must say that Dessine-moi un Parisien has become my favorite toilet book since I discovered it, thanks to the possibility of (re)reading it sur le pouce without ruining the excellence of the style.)

    @Julie : As far as I understand, this post is about the parisian (mis)conception of being outside the box.
    In a nutshell, while being outside the box is usually a fact -you do something, which makes you happen to be outside the box‑, in Paris, it is a trend. Parisian first place themselves inside the norm, then step aside -one step, no more, certainly less‑ and then pretend they are outside the norm ‑and above it.
    By the way, you could recognize this conception semantically : while “outside the box” is more of a constatation of a state, “décalé” is a reminder of the process ; which makes the norm, root of that process, far more implied ino the latter than in the former.
    That is what I got from Olivier’s initial post. I kinda agree. (However, my point of view would emphasize that the matter is rather the cleavage between what is revendicated and what is done, than what is actually done. As a person making quite an unanimity about its outsidetheboxness (won’t say outsidetheboxnesslessness, although the temptation is great), I think that people actually, deeply different are rare enough to be quite unlegitimate about what mankind shall look like. Also, the problem resides more inside the numerous constraints associated to the norm ‑by which I mean, the ones about its importance and the necessity to follow it‑ than inside its very existence.)

  7. admin
    admin says:

    Julie… I’m sorry to read that. Guess I was rusty!! There is no real translation in English for the word “décalé”. Which makes it harder to understand for foreigners I feel. I’ll do my best to make the next post more crystal-clear!
    Silence… Thanks for all your kind words and encouragements. Toilet book works for me 😉 Thanks for trying to clarify my text for Julie. I guess at the end of the day, the subject of this article is Parisians’ blindness to their own staggering conformity. Or something like that!

  8. JL
    JL says:

    Thanks for the clarification. Both iTranslate (phone app) and translate “decale” as “offset.” That was a little challenging for this English speaker to work with in an essay styled for humor or irony. Still, it’s nice to see a post after such a long absence; keep up the good work.

  9. Katerina
    Katerina says:

    Thank you for your new post! I so missed your great work. I’m always intimidated to comment because my English is not that good and I know zero French but still your blog is an amazing read and I’m happy that you are back :)!

  10. Julie
    Julie says:

    Thanks all for the clarifications. I think I get it now! I’m missing your posts. Hope there will be another soon!

  11. azz
    azz says:

    funny fact:
    the french argot “on decale” has actually nothing do to with the verb ‘decaler’
    it comes from algerian arabic ‘netwakal’ (hit the road) which sounded pretty much like ‘decale” … I actually heard many people say “on tecale” before they adopt “on decale”

  12. Yruama
    Yruama says:

    I simply have one question:… why so much aggressiveness and need to categorize people and their behaviors? Isn’t such “categorizing” a way to actually put people in little boxes and deprive them of their individuality? Do you really believe all Parisians do things that way – or even simply think that way?
    I am writing here as a Parisian (no need to hide, I think you got that already :p) who just likes to live in the city he was born in without conceptualizing everything he does. I am proud of my city for sure, but just like anybody else with his/her city, don’t you think?

    Hope this doesn’t sound too aggressive, i am just trying to add some perspective.

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