How to Humiliate Yourself in Everyday Conversation: An Expert’s Guide

Learning a new language is hard. When you add in accidental mispronunciations and phrases that don’t quite translate between languages, you discover whole new ways to embarrass yourself in front of strangers and new acquaintances.

Once while I was on a business trip in Brazil, a colleague (whose command of the English language was excellent) jokingly asked me if I was going to spend all of my money on the bitches of Brazil.

“Uhhh, excuse me? What did you just ask me?”

I was assured that where I was going had incredible bitches. Beautiful bitches.

I’m embarrassed to say that it took me an excruciating amount of time before I realized he was talking about Brazil’s beaches.

But the Foreign Language Gods soon had their revenge on me. I have spent the past year in France stumbling through the French language, butchering its beautiful sound with a multitude of mistakes, mispronunciations, and tortured grammar.

Keep reading for four common situations rife with opportunities to humiliate yourself in casual French conversation and how to avoid them.

Do we kiss when we say ‘hello’?

In France, it’s customary to give little air kisses on both cheeks when greeting others. For newcomers, it can be awkward at first and it is not always clear who you should and should not kiss hello.

If you’re unsure, it’s okay to ask! However, it is really, really important that you ask if you should “faire la bise.” DO NOT ask if you should “baiser” your new acquaintance.

Un baiser” does mean “a kiss.” But when used as a verb, it means to f**k. Really not the best way to introduce yourself.

And yes, I learned this lesson the hard way.

I am so excited!

Americans, god love us, are an easily excitable crew. We are excited about everything! Especially in France! The food! The culture! The art! The people!

So, let’s say you’re in Paris and you’re planning a trip to Versailles. You can’t wait to see the Hall of Mirrors and tour the gardens where Marie Antoinette once roamed. “Je suis excitée!” you exclaim.

Alas, unless you’re the world’s least subtle flirter, this is probably not the message you’re trying to convey.

“Excité” does mean excited—but in a sexual way. Instead, you’re better off using the phrase “J’attends avec impatience,” which loosely translates to “I can’t wait” or “I’m looking forward.”

I’m hot.

Talking about the weather: Completely harmless, right? What can be easier than talking about the weather on a sweltering summer day.

Je suis chaude,” you say, smiling weakly at the person next to you on the métro as you fan yourself with your hand.

Nope, nope, nope.

You’ve just announced to this person that you are horny.

In French, you should say, “J’ai chaud(e),” which literally translates to “I have hot.” Confusing, I know. French is diabolical like that.

I’m full.

You’re lucky enough to get invited to a French person’s dinner party in rural Provence. The conversation sparkles, the wine flows freely, and the food is divine. You laugh, you eat, you drink, you eat some more. Finally, you’ve stuffed yourself with so much delicious food, you can barely move. Your host offers you a plate of cheese, but you politely decline.

Non, merci,” you say, contentedly patting your enlarged belly. “Je suis pleine.”

Weird looks. Uncomfortable silence.

You were trying to say that you are full. But, unfortunately, “plein” is how the French refer to pregnant farm animals.

Next time, just say, “J’ai bien mangé.”

Now go out and speak your new language! You will absolutely make embarrassing mistakes, but as a wise Welsh woman once said, there’s always wine!


Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

French Kissing 101: Give ‘Em the Bise

Mwah! Mwah! French Kissing

Everyone kisses everyone here in the south of France. Women kiss women, men kiss men, kids kiss adults, business associates kiss each other, none of it is the least bit strange. No, not kissing on the lips, we’re talking about la bise–two kisses, one on each cheek. You know, like The Real Housewives’ air kisses, only perhaps a little less dramatic.

La Bise is Simultaneously Cultured and Awkward

Oh my friends, so much can go wrong with all this kissing, particularly when you are not used to it. And it is quite expected of you. On Saturday morning, when I take my daughter to her soccer match (le match du foot), each and every parent and kid greets each other parent and kid with la bise. Let’s see, a team of eight kids, plus one or two parents each, plus one coach, for thirteen people that’s 78 combinations (didn’t get that quantitative analysis degree for nothin’!), meaning outside of 156 kisses. Long story short, it takes quite a while to drop off the kid at soccer. I usually try to send my husband.

No wonder everyone is getting sick these winter days! Anyone with germs passes them on like wildfire.

What If You Don’t Want to Kiss?

It’s all pretty weird, to a typically midwestern American. I’m not used to being that intimate with strangers. I mean, they can smell your breath and you have to be careful not to pick up–or give–an extra smudge of foundation or lipstick. There were those friends back home that I knew well enough to hug, and there are some days when I really miss hugging. I’m out of the practice of hugging now; even among other Americans we are more likely to bise.

So what happens if you don’t bise? It’s quite strange. When I offer a handshake, the faces are less bright and it’s obvious that I’m not from around here. It seems like I’ve imposed a distance between us–I’m acting like I’m different from everyone else, not part of the group. Not the best way to be accepted by the people in your social circle. So you gotta do it–kiss!

Since You Have to, Learn How to Correctly Do La Bise

Here is a nice instructional on how to do this most necessary of kissing in France:

Note that it’s best to start on the right–their right, not your right! See how easy it is to go wrong? In other words, offer your right cheek. If you start opposite, the other person may not know it and you may get actual lip contact. Ewww! That’s not what we’re going for here.

It’s also a bit difficult when two optically-challenged people bise. I’ve poked people with the corner of my glasses (this was pre-Lasik), even knocked other people’s glasses off. I’m really quite a klutz when it comes down to it. When you have glasses, tilt your chin at an angle a little more, so the end pieces are further from your victim friend.

Another fine point that can vary regionally and by relationship is how many kisses to give. Here’s a great instructional to understand this better:

It amazes me how different the peoples of France seem now that I live here. Before, they were all just “French”.

So, now you know. Get out there and get kissing! I can’t wait for my co-bloggers to share their “best of bise” stories–there are so many good ones. What is your favorite bise?