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

Living the Pipe Dream

By Fiona

Well, hello there! I am not a newbie to the expat life but am certainly a newbie to living in France. And what a wonderful time we’re having here! Highly recommend it. But…you may want to brush up on your conversational skills after reading this little ditty.

Where do I start? Well, I suppose I could be described as a woman on a mission. My family arrived in France in 2016 and started off in a rental. Although the house was great, I was looking to buy a French dream house that could hold all of our stuff (which was sitting lonely and unloved in a storage unit in Southampton in the UK). After viewing 20 or so houses, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a beautiful and quirky French house that met all of our criteria, except for one thing: a pool. Fortunately, there was a perfect place for the pool—a piece of gravel driveway with incredible views looking over Les Alpes.

Not one to hang around—and to my poor husband’s horror—I was quickly on the case to start getting quotes to build a brand-new swimming pool. After plying my husband with the local fruits (wine), we signed on the dotted line in October to have our dream pool. It was hard to contain my excitement, as I was soon to be Captain Birds Eye in charge of my first swimming pool build! We opted for the pool, as it was a great price, but then after adding more and more tiles and a fully fitted and functional summer house with a kitchen, shower room, and loo—well, let’s just say a lot of wine was consumed to keep hubby sharing my vision!!!

So, the big day approaches. It’s a cold, icy, and quite frankly bloody freezing day in January when the digger splutters and chokes its way up the driveway. A weathered chap named Norm jumps out of the digger and comes to talk with me. It turns out he only speaks French and not a drop of English—hummm this is going to be fun! Needless to say, Norm becomes my BFF over the next four month period along with his co-worker Jean-Luc.

I really feel for these poor men as I must have looked like an over-excited puppy barking the odd French word here and there with wild gesturing of my arms and legs to explain the positioning of the pool and other technical swimming pool buzz words.

So, the pool build is quite basic, and Norm is adept at building pools as mine is one of 24 he has to build this year in the local area. I can honestly say I have never seen a person work so hard, on his own and doing it all himself. An incredible individual and so skilled!

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Once the pool was built, we then got onto discussions about the pool house. After having returned from the school run with a plume of fake ostrich feathers up my nose from my decadent winter cape, I’m greeted by Norm and his dutiful, talented plumber/electrician Daniel.

So, translated into English from the original French, he says something like this:

Norm: “Hello lovely, amazing lady from Wales. I need to discuss the layout of the pool house with you as we will need to dig up the garden and put in three facilities for the water, waste (poo), and electricity for you to be able to have the kitchen, loo, and shower functioning.”

Bear in mind this is all in French, a language I’m still learning. In my shaky French, I start describing my husband’s random drawing of what we need. As I start to explain that we will need three modes of outflow, I get stuck on the word “pipe.” I think to myself, “Well, I’ll just say ‘pipe’ in a French accent, which would sound like ‘peep.’ That’s bound to work!”

So, I start jabbering away about how many “peeps” I need, where I want them, the size of them, the flow, the diameter, the angle and the cost, etc. I’m met with silence, so ask, “Do you understand?” They reply “yes” and nothing more.

Feeling like I have accomplished the world, I stride on back into the house thinking, “God, my French is so good. I can now communicate with building contractors. I’m nearly fluent!”

A week passes by and I meet my beautiful and amazing French/English friend Cara for a coffee. She casually asks me, “How’s the pool building going?” I reply, “Really well, it’s a lot easier than I thought it would be!”

I started to explain about the “pipe” question and how I didn’t know the word and just improvised with “peep.” At this point my friend’s nose disappears into her café allongé, and she literally starts snorting the coffee through her nose.

“What’s wrong with you?” I ask.

“Oh my god,” she giggles. “Pipe (pronounced ‘peep’ in French) means a blow job!”

I was literally dumbfounded at the thought of how many blow jobs I had offered. I had even offered to use my seven-year-old daughter’s etch-a-sketch to draw the positioning of the “peeps” for them.

Feeling a little queasy, I asked my friend what is the effing word for a “pipe.” Apparently, it’s “tuyau,” which could not be more different from “peep” if you tried. And to top it off, it’s a really hard word to say.

Anyhoo, I leave the coffee shop and get into my car thinking, “Holy moly, how embarrassing!” But like the good, strong Welsh warrior I am, I will overcome this little fly in the ointment. I practise the word “tuyau” over and over again.

When I arrive at the house, Norm and Daniel are there beavering away. I think to myself, “It’s now or never.” I swagger over and start talking about the tuyau. At this point, their mouths start to twitch as they realise that I now understand my massive faux pas. Blow jobs are officially off the menu!

People often ask me, “How on earth did you get your pool built so quickly?”

“Well,” I reply, “throw in the odd ‘peep’ here and there and you’ll be amazed!!”

Lesson learnt: Never give up and never be embarrassed to speak your new language. Yes, you will make mistakes, but who cares—there is always wine!

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Header photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

 

I Miss You in French

Do I Miss You or Do You Miss Me in French?

Language and Philosophy are Tight

It’s a much-discussed field of study, the relationship between language and philosophy. Have you seen this research on language spoken and your perception of time? The same people, speaking a different language, perceive time in a different way. Fascinating stuff! Given long enough to pursue this interest, I fall into a wormhole of ticklish questions such as, “What is the nature of meaning? What does one mean by meaning? How do we know what we know or don’t know?” and other such rhetoricals.

It reminds me of that highly quotable scene in Kill Bill:

There are many studies comparing the meaning or sense of words coming from the speaker to the received and implied meaning in the listener. So often it happens there is a disconnect between speaker and listener. I find it fascinating that we are even able to communicate at all.

(Or am I the only one who feels this way because I’m married to a non-native English speaker?)

What Do You Mean by That?

Are you learning a second (or third, or fourth) language? Do you have a friend who didn’t grow up speaking the same language as you? If so, I bet that you have run across something that stuck in your head, something that was familiar, yet so different to the way you are used to thinking that you couldn’t let it go.

It’s one of the reasons I completely adore those lists of words that only exist in other languages. They are a reflection of what is important to the people of another culture. Important enough of a concept to create a working name for something which we as non-natives can understand as a human condition. But in our language, it does not have a name. For example, I absolutely adore the German word, “Kummerspeck,” which translates literally to “Grief Bacon” in English and refers to the weight you gain through emotional overeating.

In France, Do I Miss You?

So this is THE philosophical difference that really caught me in my French class. In addition, it’s an unusual sentence construction that is nearly always used in our language level tests at the end of the year. So let me help you cram for the test…

In English we say:

I miss you.

I am the one who is missing you. It’s my own darned fault. You may have left, but I am the one who needs to get over it. I am doing it, I am missing you.

In French, the reality of longing is viewed quite differently. Oppositely, even. The sentence for the same sentiment in French is:

Tu me manques.

Yes, it’s one of those reflexive verbs that we know and love so well. Literally translated, it looks like “You me miss.” But oh nononono! You would be sorely mistaken to think that. This is You making Me miss You. You are the active person, this is just something that is happening to me. You did it to me. It’s your fault that I feel this way. Even though the longing is within me, I am the passive participant.

So poetic, isn’t it? I am fascinated by this turn of the table.

It’s like my first big breakup in high school. I missed him and it was his darn fault for having dumped me. It was out of my control. It was his fault that I ate all the bacon.

Let’s sit down with a bottle of wine and really chew this one over together. Bordeaux goes with bacon nicely.

France Uncensored

It’s early December. Signs of Christmas are popping up all over Provence. Twinkling lights are strung up over medieval streets. Glimmering stars dangle from streetlights. Trees stand dressed in a colorful array of shiny baubles.

We’re driving back from school as the winter sun begins its late-afternoon descent and the streetlights begin to spark alight. The car radio plays softly in the background as my children tell me about their day at school.

“Mommy!” My youngest exclaims. “It’s a Christmas song. Turn up the volume!” It’s the first Christmas song to play over the radio, and my kids are ecstatic. I dutifully turn up the volume as my kids bob along to Sia’s “Santa’s Coming for Us.” Big smiles are plastered across their faces as the spirit of the season fills my car.

The song ends just as I enter a challenging curve on the narrow road with dwindling light and heavy oncoming traffic. My focus on the road, I’m slow to register what’s next on the radio.

B**ch better have my money.” Rihanna blares through the speakers. “Pay me what you owe me!”

NOT A CHRISTMAS SONG, FRANCE!!!

Past the tricky part of my commute home, I quickly switch off the radio.

Awkward silence.


I’m in the local homegoods store and I need a new lamp. As I’m deciding between two options, I’m suddenly cognizant of the music playing over the store’s sound system. “F**k you very, very much,” an upbeat Lily Allen sings.

I decide to go with the silver lamp and take my purchase to the register. The clerk is gently weaving to the beat of the music, humming along. She rings up the purchase. “C’est €42.95,” she tells me. “F**k you very, very much,” Lily croons.

I pay the clerk and collect my purchase. “Merci. Au revoir et bonne journée,” she says. “F**k you very, very much!” Lily calls out as I exit the store.


Later, over coffee with friends, I find out that the French retail sector appears to be especially fond of the Lily Allen song.

“Oh, yes!” says a friend. “I was at the supermarket picking out vegetables when that song came on. It’s really quite catchy, isn’t it?”

“I was at the toy store with my kids when it came on,” says another friend.

“I was getting a haircut when I noticed it playing,” says another.

Ahhh, French radio, where there is no “radio edit” and music comes in all its f**king uncensored glory.

I hop in my car to head back home. An aggressive driver cuts me off in a roundabout. “F**k you very, very much,” I sing softly to myself.

A Little Louder Please

The phone rings. I glance at the screen.

Unknown. Great.

I take a deep breath and put my mind into French mode.

“Oui? Allo.” So far so good.

I’ve been expecting this call.

The conversation follows a predictable script with the receptionist explaining why she is calling and asking if I still want to make an appointment.

Yes, please.

It’s going well.

“L’ordinance que vous avez incluse avec votre demande de rendez-vous en ligne concernait XYZ maladie?” she inquires. (The x-ray prescription you included with your online request was for such-and-such condition?)

Again, yes.

I’m beginning to congratulate myself on my excellent phone-conversation skills, when I’m distracted by an English conversation going on between two friends next to me.

I tune back in just in time to hear the voice inflection rise on the other end. She has just asked me a question. I pause, hoping for a flash of genius.

Nothing.

“Comment ?” I ask.

The receptionist, thinking she can overcome my French ineptitude with volume, shouts into the phone, “QUELLE EST SA DATE DE NAISSANCE ?” (What is her date of birth?)

Ok. Ok.

I give her the relevant information and the call continues smoothly until she asks me a question I actually don’t understand.

I hesitate for a few seconds, hoping again for enlightenment and dreading her reaction when it doesn’t come.

I’ve got nothing. So I respond timidly, “Pardon ?”

She audibly inhales. Here it comes.

“QUI EST LE MEDICINE PRESCRIPTEUR ?” she shrieks. (Who is the prescribing doctor?)

Instant clarity.

I smile to myself as I finish our conversation. Maybe louder does help.

The real expat life.

Photo by Jason Rosewell