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I've noticed that it's pretty common for both men and women to say "merci" in a peculiar high-pitched voice, especially if it's at the end of a conversation.

Is it considered more polite or perhaps more friendly to say thanks in such a way? Is it a reference to something in French culture that I'm clearly not aware of?

It sounds a bit bizarre to my foreign ears, so that's why I am asking. :)

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    It's just a common way to insist. You are really thanking the person. It's also common to change your pitch in order to end a conversation with sarcastic or ironic "merci". Just with the pitch or the tone, you can identify if it's a simple polite "merci", a true one or an ironic one. – TCHdvlp Mar 4 '15 at 16:57
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La prononciation et l'intonation des mots en français est très importante, elle permet de comprendre plus vite le sens d'une phrase, parfois même sans comprendre la totalité des mots.

Le souffle et la ponctuation "orale" sont également très importants !

Au plus l'intonation est aiguë, accompagnée de gestes franc (= pas mou) et rapide, au plus c'est sincère.

On pourrait noter des pages entières concernant ceci, mais mieux vaut le vivre en venant en France, plusieurs mois, afin de comprendre la subtilité.

Désolé mais je n'ai pas eu le courage de répondre en anglais, il me manque encore trop de vocabulaire. Désolé ! (prononcé avec la même tonalité qu'un merci, pour exprimer la sincérité)

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The high pitch is a way of emphasizing the word. So if your first intention is to thank a personne,sincerely or not, you will insist on the word Merci on a high pitch. If you want to express other thing that your thankfullness, you won't insist on the Merci: Here is an exemple : You have to thank someone, but mainly you want to tell him/her something more important, like for example, not to forget an appointement, or express your concern about I don't know what, you won't be emphasizing Merci... Merci (normal pitch) pour ton message de hier. A propos tu sais que demain nous avons un rendez-vous.... And I am thinking about a kid whose mother insist that he/she says thanks to her grand mother... the pitch will be very low !....

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