(asked by Chris from… Mmm… I don’t know where he’s from, but I will have to assume the US)
We have had several interns from France stay with us, and it seems a common theme is that they all believe that air conditioning makes people sick. I thought this must have been just a coincidence, but when visiting St Martin, I noticed a sign in the bedroom to not run the air conditioning at night due to health reasons.
Do French people believe that air conditioning makes them sick? If so, why?
Preliminary disclaimer: I’m writing this answer with a cold, that may or may not have been caused by the fact that it started getting really hot and all the fans and air conditioning available have been running full-time both at work and home.
Interesting and topical question, Chris.
I’m not sure I can fully answer it, but I will at least try.
I think that we need to start with the draft!
No, not the military draft, not even the professional sport draft, but the “air draft”, the one that happens in a house when widows and doors in different rooms are not closed and some air will enter and exit the house. The infamous “courant d’air” (draft doesn’t seem to convey the same exact meaning – maybe it does, but it’s not as a common term in English as “courant d’air” is in French for some reason)!
French people, especially older generations have some sort of phobia of drafts. They believe that drafts will make you sick, probably even kill you if you’re in poor health already.
I’m not exactly sure where that comes from, but I think that back in the days (I’m talking 19th Century, or even earlier) drafts were believed to cause pneumonia and such. Is there some truth to that? Not sure.
However, big sudden changes in temperature are said to cause colds and such. In French we call that “un chaud et froid” (“a hot and cold”) and in English, a cold is… well… called a cold. I’m not exactly sure of the scientific basis of that belief. I could do research, but then that would defy the purpose of this post, which is mostly about beliefs.
Fun fact: in Japanese, a cold is called “kaze” (pronounced: “kahzeh” not “kayz”) which also means “wind” and… “draft”. So it may not just be a Westerner thing.
Personally, I think that sudden changes of temperatures are indeed taxing to your body, and as a consequence to your immune system, and as a consequence can make you sick, if a germ happens to be around at the time. The same way, fatigue, stress and other similar factors are taxing to your body, can weaken your immune system and can make you sick.
Now, let’s talk about air conditioning, specifically.
Air conditioning, in France and in Europe, is not as common as it is in North America. Why is it? I’m not too sure. Recently, I read something somewhere saying that the reason was that the US was the hottest rich country (probably not true, I assume that’d be Australia), or rather the richest hot country (probably a more accurate description), and that led to a spreading of A/C unseen in other countries.
From my personal experience, growing up in the French South West – not the warmest place in France overall, but on average the warmest place in France in August – living in West Virginia, then in Florida, back in France and then to Japan, I’d say one important factor is not the heat (French South West can be as hot as Florida in Summer), but the humidity which makes the heat unbearable or not. When it’s 35°C (I’m gonna talk only in celsius, sorry Americans, I’ve been away from the country too long to bother trying to remember how to translate into Fahrenheit – even remember how to spell it is an ordeal) in the French South West (not uncommon in Summer), sure it’s hot, but it’s dry. Just drink lots of water, stay in the shade, dress as lightly as possible and you’ll be fine. When it’s 35°C in Florida (a common occurrence in Summer), the humidity makes it unbearable no matter what.
This long introduction to say that A/C is needed in most parts of the US in summer, and as a consequence people got used to them and dependent on them. On the opposite, while A/C is becoming more and more common in France in public buildings – offices, large stores, and so on – it remains a rarity in private homes, and as a consequence, French people are not too used to it.
Also, it is true that Americans love to put their thermostat very low, 20°C, sometimes less. When it’s more than 35°C outside that’s a huge gap in temperature. In France, we still want to feel warm, even if the air conditioning is on, if only because we’re wearing summer clothes. And if you wear summer clothes and that suddenly the temperature around you is 20°C or even less, you’re going to feel cold, your body won’t like that, you’ll be more vulnerable to germs…
So to answer your question, yes, it’s true, most French people are not too crazy about air conditioning and consider it a necessary evil. They think being cold in order to replace being hot is not worth it, and they believe that all those changes in temperatures will make you sick, and I do believe that there is a truth to that to a certain extent.
Maybe it’s a question of perception (colds are expected in winter, not in summer, so when they happen in summer, an extra culprit needs to be found on top of the germ itself). Maybe it’s a question of habit: Americans grow up with A/C, and their bodies are more used to it and probably more resistant to those changes in temperature than French people are. Maybe it’s some sort of cultural belief, A/C replacing the infamous draft. I don’t know.
However, while the reason is unclear, most French people do think that air conditioning will make them sick. Whether they’re right or not remains a mystery.
Picture source: wikipedia.
12 thoughts on “Do French people believe that air conditioning makes them sick?”
What you describe applies identically to Italy. My parents have a total phobia of air conditioning: so much so that they do get sick just by mentioning it. In fact I have been told so many times as a child about the evil of “corrente d’aria” that I do get sick myself when if I am in the middle of one. It must be mostly psychological though, because my wife (from a latin american country) does not appear to suffer from any of these illnesses even though we are in the same room, at the same temperature and exposed to the same draft. Maybe it is genetic (at the same time she does not seem to suffer from the certain death that my mother insisted I would meet if I bathe in the sea less than 4 hours after lunch… go figure).
I’m always amazed how France and Italy (or at least Southern France and Nothern Italy, you’re from Northern Italy, right?) are so similar despite not really being part of the same country in 1500 years or so (well, there’s this Napoleon guy, but do we really want to get into that now?).
But, yeah, my dad will start turning livid as soon as he realizes that some air is moving through the room because of an extra window open, even if it’s so hot that the air that’s moving is hot too.
I believe that this fear, really is centuries old and dates from back when there was no heating in those humid winters and a draft could be deadly indeed. Why does that fear apply to summer too remains a big mystery to me though.
Wow, you die if you bathe in the sea less than 4 hours after lunch!?!? In France it’s only two!!! I guess we eat lighter lunches in Summer than in Italy (it’s all that pasta)
I remember as a kid, having a really suicidal behavior at times, running to the water less than one hour after lunch saying “fuck it (or the French kid equivalent of “fuck it”) if I die, I die, it will have been worth it!”
Yeah, Italians tend to eat heavy at lunch, even though I am sure that 4 hours was way exaggerated.
Well, the area of Italy where I am from was part of the kingdom of Savoy that straddled the two sides of the Alps. Even more so the valley where my parents live now speaks Occitan (about the same as Provençal) and most families have members on both sides of the border. In fact, when that coward of Mussolini ordered the Italian Alpine troops to invade France during WWII, an unusually high number of the Italian casualties where mid-level officers shot in the back: many of the Italian soldiers had no appetite to make war to their family members living in France, and would rather shot the fascist idiots that were forcing them to do so, when they could get away with it thanks to the “fog of war”.
I didn’t know you were from this close to the border.
Also, I didn’t know Occitan existed your side of the Alps (although it makes sense, Eastern Occitans – Provençal and such – are pretty close to Italian.
You obviously know this, but many Japanese believe this as well. I’d say it’s a huge source of marital friction because international couples in which the non-Japanese comes from an “air conditioning country” (United States, Singapore, etc.)
Actually, I wasn’t too sure. The only person I talk A/C with here is my wife, and indeed she’s not a big fan, neither am I, but we consider it as a necessary evil more than anything else.
Now, if you say that Japanese people AND European people think that, it can only mean one thing: it’s true!
Also, I mentioned it, but I always found interesting that かぜ both meant wind and cold (the sickness).
Wow! This must be common throughout Europe. My wife’s family in Romania is the same way! They are so superstitious about drafts, it drives me and my wife crazy. There is no such thing as a draft in the summer. Drafts are a winter phenomenon. In the summer, it’s a breeze and that’s a good thing! They don’t even own a fan and they complain when my wife asks them to turn on the A/C, even though it’s 38 degrees C! And they absolutely refuse to let it run while they sleep.
When they came to visit us in August and it was 33 C and above outside, they wouldn’t even roll down the windows in the car, even when we were sitting still!! They spent most of their time outside because our house has central A/C, but we don’t keep it turned down that low. We usually keep it around 25 C. That’s not cold. I sit around in my undershorts and t-shirt at that temp and am very comfortable (of course I put on shorts while my in-laws were visiting).
My wife is currently visiting them in Bucharest and she is about to die from the heat. It’s around 38 C during the day. Her grandmother doesn’t even have A/C, nor a fan! Plus, she lives in a small apartment such that you can’t get a breeze by opening the window. I told my wife to get a small fan to blow on herself while visiting there, but she said they are scared it would make her grandmother sick and maybe kill her (she’s 90 and not in good health).
Anyway, it’s nice to know that it isn’t just Romanians that have this superstition. It’s most of Europe! Moving air in the summer (a breeze) will not make someone sick! In fact, the opposite could be true. Stale, stagnant, indoor air could likely contain a higher concentration of germs and toxins that could make someone sick. So, throw open those windows and turn on a fan, for crying out loud!
Hi, I am French and I do agree about the fact that I don’t like air conditioning and drafts in general. All the French know that stale and stagnant air is not good also. They will normally open their windows just before going to work for a bit like this they don’t have to stay in the draft 😉 Also my anty have freezing cold toilets has she leave the windows there open all the time, all year to renew the air.
I’m French and I’m not obsessed by air conditioning… even though I always get a sore throat in the car when the air conditioning is on….
BUT TODAY Bill de Blasio (mayor of New York) has been facing an outbreak of Legionellosis (Legionnaire’s disease). 100n cases reported. 12 victims already. It’s been transmitted through air conditioning.
See the official site :
Great Q&A! Yes, it’s true, I know someone who lives in Antibes who insists that his asthmatic wife and children absolutely cannot have air conditioning, even though he also insists that it does indeed get hot there in the summer. Meanwhile, I am asthmatic in Pennsylvania, and though it is a little cooler here than Florida, in July and August, it can be unbearable with the humidity. I have coworkers who come up for meetings from just south of the Californian border where it can reach 46 degrees Celsius and they are overheated at 30 degrees Celsius in Pennsylvania because it’s not humid out west. Dehumidifiers and shade can do wonders even without extra cooling. It’s the dehumidifying action of the air conditioning that really helps here!
Thanks for stopping by.
You pinpointed an important point on why air conditioning is not that important in France or in Europe in general. Our summers are very dry. It’s the humidity that makes the heat (or the cold too for that matter) difficult to handle.
In France, except in some situations (heatwave, health problems, etc) air conditioning really is not indispensable. Staying in the shade, and some circulating air, be it breeze, an electric fan or – ironically – drafts will do the trick.
I know what you mean about Pennsylvania too, I spent three summers in West Virginia / Western Pennsylvania and I’m not even sure it was hotter than in the South of France, but the humidity was a killer. And of course… Florida…
The courants d’air…ha, ha! Interesting post and pretty amusing too. I do admit that Americans can go overboard with the AC (and the ice cubes). I live in a pretty dry area in the southwestern US, with very hot summers. I’d die without some form of cooling. But I have a serious autoimmune disease which is exacerbated by heat. Even so, I hate going into freezing buildings in the summer.