Here’s a verb that could change your life, or at least change the way that you look at it. The word relativiser offers a glimpse into the linguistic equivalent of the Gallic shrug.
A headline in the French media read: “La hausse d’adoptions, il faut relativiser“. It caught my attention because at first glance it sounded as if the article was trying to minimize a significant situation. In the English dictionary the seldom visited “relativize” means to treat as dependent or according to the principles of the theory of relativity.
On closer inspection, however, reading the context of the French language article on the paper, I realised that the world relativiser was used in the headline to indicate that people should calm down and take the increase in the number of adoptions into context. In French relativiser is to consider something as not having just one character but a relative importance in relation to an analogue element. Used in this way, the verb can mean, in a wider sense, to avoid a knee-jerk reaction, jumping to conclusions, or getting too heated about a particular issue without first taking in to consideration the elements that bring it about. It’s about taking a long-term, wide-angle view to events.
Relativiser doesn’t just apply to macro issues, it is also used in your everyday life. Let’s say you’re having a nervous breakdown and your best friend is trying to help out. Perhaps your teenage daughter just presented you, fait accompli, with her first tattoo…your friend may tell you to relativiser, that it could be worse, instead of the tiny pink heart on her ankle it could have been the faces of her favorite boy band spanning the full width of her shoulder-blades . When you put it in that context, the tiny heart tattoo doesn’t sound so bad (but don’t tell your daughter, you don’t want to spark any ideas).
I suspect you’re thinking, hmmm, this sounds useful, I should keep this in mind… you’re using the subjunctive so to keep it interesting, we’ll slip some painless conjugations in here:
il faut que je relativise (I should get some perspective)
l faut que tu relativises (You should get some perspective)
l faut qu’il relativise (He should get some perspective)
l faut que nous relativisions (We should get some perspective)
l faut que vous relativisiez (You should get some perspective – plural)
l faut qu’ils relativisent (They should get some perspective)
When you learn to relativiser, you are actually bridging a cultural divide. It is very subtle when it happens. Next time life throws you a curve ball, you may find yourself taking a step back and reflecting: am I looking at this in the right perspective? Try this. Say to yourself; well, maybe yes – maybe not, it could be worse, maybe there’s something I don’t know, perhaps I should not be taking it to heart. Pay attention to your body language, for it is then that it will surface… a tilt of the head, a purse of the lips, raised eyebrows and an imperceptible twitch of the shoulders. Et voilà. You’ve connected with the Gallic shrug.