(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.