Sunday, April 11, 2010

Les Faux Pas

Communicating in a language that is not your native tongue can often lead to some pretty interesting miscommunications. If, for example, you say to a foreigner "What's up?" and they are not fluent in English, they will likely look up towards the sky, not realizing that you are asking them the all
inclusive, "Hi. How are you? What are you doing?" We take for granted all the idiomatic phrases we have in English and these phrases do not actually translate word for word from one language to another. All languages are like this—including French.

That being said, being the Francophile that I am, I at least make the attempt to speak to the Natives in their language, but much to my chagrin (and to my funny bone) it doesn't always work out the way I would like. I have made a few interesting faux pas' with my vernacular over the last year and half and I thought I would take you on a stroll down my memory lane in order to learn from my mistakes.

We start off with one evening, after only being in the country for a few weeks, when I thought I would attempt at making a witty remark in my new language.  The only problem was that my quip was supposed to be silly not what it ended up being.

This is what happened.  I was at a party when I was told that I had a lot of hair on the back of my shirt. Okay, fine.  I answered with, "Je suis une chienne." What I meant to say was, "I am a dog." What I really said was, "I am a bitch." Hmm, that was clearly not my intention.

So, after being told about my mistake I changed it to "D'accord, je suis une chatte." What I meant was, "Okay then, I am a cat." What I really said was,"Okay, I am a pussy," (and not the feline kind of pussy either)...double oops!  Now, I was in a room filled with people and yes, they all heard me and laughed uproariously, which is fine.  I mean I love to laugh just as much as the next guy—even at myself. However, I assure you, I never said either of those phrases again.

Down the road, my French began to improve, but only slowly. I tried explaining to someone that I was joking by saying, "J'├ęte blague." Even though blague means joke, I should have said "Je plaisantais." Don't ask me why, because I still have no idea. This is just how it is.  Ironically, I did get a few howls for weeks for my unintentional mistake.  So, I was able to be funny—just not in the way I had intended to be. 

Continuing on, in French they say, I "have" cold instead of I "am" cold. Unfortunately, I forgot that little fact once and in doing so I erroneously said that I was frigid. Oh la la, what's a girl to do? Furthermore, I also learned then that if I had said I "am" hot as opposed to I "have" heat then I would have been telling the person that I was hot to trot down the road of love (or at least lust). That would have been fine if I had meant it, but sadly, that was not the case in that moment.

Then there was Easter. Here in France instead of the Bunny, they have an Easter Bell. When I told two ten-year-olds that the Bell had hidden some candy for them, they matter-of-factly replied that they no longer believed in the Bell and refused to look for the candy. After informing them that I was the Bell (all in French remember—which by the way is "je suis le cloche") giggles cascaded throughout the room.  When I asked what my new error was, I was told that I had just expressed to the children that I am stupid. Ah well, c'est la vie. At least the kids started looking for the candy.

Thankfully, it's not just me making blunder after blunder. I have read as many books about expats living here as I can, and in the memoir, Almost French, by Sarah Turnbull, she shared how when she started learning French she asked her man if he wanted "a" pipe instead of "his" pipe. In doing so, she had asked if he wanted a blow job.  I failed to mention that her query came up at a dinner party they were hosting with his French friends. Hey, expat sister, I feel your pain!

At least I had one occasion when I came to a few other people's faux pas rescue.  It was a warm spring day and I felt compelled to dine outside at a cafe on the Ile de la Cite.  I chose a seat that overlooked the river. After sitting down, I pulled out the book from my bag with the intention of luxuriating myself in my latest author's prose.  It sounded like a good idea at the time, but I got distracted and had to put the book down.

For you see, the table next to me was filled with a group of middle-aged female tourists. These otherwise charming ladies fell prey to an unfortunate habit that many of us Americans have taken up. We have become accustomed to being the center of the Universe and often feel that everyone should speak to us in our language, even though we are in their country. 

Okay, there is little doubt that we are not going to learn a plethora of languages just for the sake of travel, but learning a few courtesy words are always helpful, such as 'please' and 'thank you.'  More to the point, many people abroad do indeed speak English, which certainly makes it easier for us, but we have to remember that not everyone does. Since we are their guests, it would behoove us to not have the strategy of raising our voices to continue requesting something in English if the person doesn't understand.

Yep, these ladies continued to speak with increasing volume with each entreaty.  That in itself is a pretty significant faux pas, but even that would have not been so bad, if it weren't for the fact that they kept inadvertently asking for something they didn't actually want.  

In English, they continued to ask the waiter for some preservatives, enunciating the word pre-ser-va-tives.  Every time that particular word was vocalized, I thought the poor waiter was going to have a heart attack.  With such an obvious expression of shock, I feared that bugs might fly into his mouth that was so widely agape.

Initially, I did what anyone might do under the circumstances.  I laughed.  Actually, I laughed a lot. However, as soon as I calmed down, I walked over to the server and explained in French that preservatives in English means confiture in French and that was actually what they wanted. He asked me what flavor. I translated to the unsuspecting women and I then turned to the server and told him (in French) that they wanted strawberry.  I could feel the relief in this guy's entire body language as he scurried off to get their jam.

I then turned to the tourists and said, "Ladies, you kept asking him for a condom!" There was little doubt that these women were embarrassed and after trying to teach them how to say the French word for jam I gave up and wrote it down for them so they would have it handy to show the server the next time. At least we all had a few giggles.  I frankly think the waiter was glad he would not have to be of "service" to the ladies with the condom he thought they wanted.

So, here is the rule of thumb, just don't take yourself too seriously when you make a slight aberration in the French language department. At least you will learn not to repeat it again and in the meantime you can have a good laugh.

Thanks for reading and happy talking!