The awkward moment when French doesn’t have a word for awkward: An ill-informed guide to when cultural differences show up in the dictionary

I have no excuse for yet another delay in posting, except that it’s now basically traditional. Also, I’ve been feeling bitter, xenophobic and uncreative due to a few setbacks last week, so I decided to wait until I had something to write other than a lengthy rant about the apparent impossibility of finding volunteer work. Apologies to everyone who got said rant down the phone instead… 

Anyway, this week’s offering contains some of the words I’ve most often found myself trying desperately and unsuccessfully to explain to French friends, due to the inadequacy of the nearest equivalents. Any French speakers with better ideas, please let me know! As a linguist I ought to preface this by saying that exact translations pretty much don’t exist anyway, especially not for nebulous cultural-type concepts. Nonetheless, I’m going to be wild and crazy and irresponsibly use minor linguistic differences as a basis for poorly-justified generalisations about two entire countries.

Awkward: adjective

1. The atmosphere when you have to introduce two people to each other without knowing either of their names.
2. A reeeally helpful word to drop into overly long silences. 

I can’t even begin to express how irritating the absence of this word is, given that my life as a foreigner is one of near-constant misunderstandings and toe-curlingly hideous faux pas (see what I did there?) To be fair, there are French words for certain aspects of ‘awkward’, such as gênant, délicat and maladroit, but none of them really seems to match the all-encompassing nature of the English version.

Quite apart from being deeply useful, the concept of awkwardness is a mainstay of most of the last century’s British sitcoms – from Mr Bean, Fawlty Towers and Yes Minister to Peep Show, The Inbetweeners and Miranda. You can extrapolate your own conclusions about British culture from this…

Greetings are a particular minefield for awkward situations, especially as I now move in fairly international circles (I’m such a social butterfly) with a near-infinite number of possibilities to rapidly decide between, taking into account the nationality of the greetee. Crucially, you then have to successfully execute your chosen greeting. Here are the main options, in order of potential for disaster:

Handshake: Pretty much safe and neutral. Deeply unfair that men get first dibs on this.

Generic ‘hi all’/wave: Low-risk and useful for large groups, but may get you forever labelled as standoffish.

Hug: My personal favourite, but doesn’t appear to be a thing in every country, and requires a certain amount of coordination… Useful save if you end up caught between kisses and a handshake.

Bises (air kisses): Oh France, why do you want me to suffer? Being a naturally jumpy person, it’s taken me months to stop recoiling when people walk towards me AND JUST KEEP ON WALKING. With air kisses, not only do you have the hurdle of making sure you don’t both go the same way (this comes across as a little too friendly), but you also have to pick the right number. Apparently two is more or less standard, but in Montpellier the norm is a somewhat time-consuming three. 

Cake: noun

1. The best thing since sliced bread. Actually, much better than sliced bread.

Another concept very close to my heart, this is SO not translated by gateau. Gateau, apparently, means gateau. Or maybe some sort of fruit flan if you’re lucky. It’s easy to buy all manner of viennoiseries, tartes, patisseries, fondants and moelleux, but I guarantee that none of them will have icing on, and they will probably contain pastry. I am ridiculously excited about my upcoming move to an apartment with the facilities to make a good old fashioned lemon drizzle cake/chocolate fudge cake/5-tiered multiflavour tower with handmade macarons and biscotti (yes, I may have been watching the Great British Bakeoff).

Mum and my uncle Richard’s joint 100th birthday cake, which weighed
several kilos and mostly consisted of chocolate. 

Procrastinate: verb

1. Any activity undertaken in order to avoid real work. 

2. Nothing to do with the fact I’m finally updating my blog (and have an essay due). 

The French equivalents of this word all seem to be variations on ‘put off until later,’ but I think we all know that procrastination is so much more than that; it can stretch out any piece of work or admin to terrifying proportions. I demonstrated this perfectly last week, when the uni reopened after strikes and I realised I had work to do. Naturally, my response to this was to panic and fill my previously empty diary with the following:

Last weekend: Fun but shockingly extravagant trip to Toulouse, where we went to approximately 7 cafés in 24 hours due to the blistering cold. 
La Ville Rose
Monday and Tuesday: Classes (shock horror!) and choir. Over 12 hours spent trying to stream The Hunger Games on both my abysmal internet and the university library’s wifi, only to find I’d accidentally loaded a version dubbed in Korean. 
Wednesday: Shopping, washing, errands, skype calls, conversation exchange and a premature viewing of Love Actually.
Thursday: Trip to café in order to start essay. Did not start essay (too busy drinking hot chocolate and being in denial about essay). Volunteering event to help school kids with their homework. Relatively unsuccessful due to lack of both kids and homework. Went on a surprisingly good night out, during which I became the proud owner of a free hat. 
Friday: Morning spent pretending not to be hung over and feeling guilty about essay. Afternoon in art gallery; evening at Christmas market, before watching Elf (which I found more creepy than uplifting). 
Les Hivernales

Saturday: Impromptu trip to a surprisingly impressive cave. Went to see the Hunger Games 2 in French; understood a satisfyingly large percentage of the dialogue.

La Grotte des Demoiselles
Sunday: All-day choir rehearsal, then laser tag from 8am-12pm. Brilliant fun, especially as too many free soft drinks meant I spent most of it in a caffeine-fuelled frenzy. Unfortunately I managed to inflict (hopefully not-too-serious) facial injuries on a fellow player with my gun, and proceeded to lose the next two games very badly. It turns out that laser tag is great exercise though. Speaking of which…

Ache: Noun

1: The considerable muscle pain experienced after spending several hours alternately sprinting and crouching whilst waving a heavy laser gun around.

There’s a translation for ‘ache’ in the sense of ‘yearn for’ (languir) but no specific word for the feeling in your arms after lugging the shopping home. How very French.

Fun: Noun, Adjective

1. Something it is very difficult to have whilst trying to look cool.

2. Increases exponentially upon application of face paint. 

Now, I’m not trying to say that the French, as a nation, take themselves too seriously… OK, maybe I am a little bit. I find it odd that I’m technically a fresher here, and yet haven’t once worn fancy dress or played any pranks. I often find myself eliciting a look that says ‘Why on earth did you just do that?!’ in response to something or other that I found hilarious.

By the way, French also doesn’t have a translation for sketch comedy; after failing dismally to explain it to my neighbour, I found out from Wikipedia that there is in fact only one sketch group in the whole of France. Amusingly, they are called les inconnus. I’ll come back to the topic of fun at some point – my pet theory is that our vastly differing senses of humour are the main reason the French and British traditionally hate each other. But for now, I’ll leave you with some pictures of my fancy dress creations from years gone by. Note the expertly applied peeling skin on the zombie facepaint.

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