“Can You Repeat That?”…Cultural Misunderstandings in France

I knew I was bad at French when I moved to Toulouse. Nearly 10 years of French classes, failed grammar exercises, and vacations en France, yet I was fully aware of my linguistic shortcomings. But it turned out that my hurdles to fit in to French society extended far beyond finally mastering that 8th grade vocabulary list.

My first couple of weeks in France were a blissful honeymoon of cultural adjustment. I saw the city—and my life, by extension—through a rosy, romantic lens. The food was delectable, the people oh-so-kind and the European lifestyle charming and well-balanced. In retrospect, I was gliding through my new life in a convenient bubble, padded by my newfound American friends. At first, my interactions with French people were limited to ordering coffee and croissants and not a whole lot else. When I did make a few French friends, I often felt confused, struggling to keep up, as if they weren’t even speaking French. It turns out, they weren’t.

A new friend greeted me with, “wech, mec,” as a half-joke, which roughly translates to “whazzup, dawg.” Apparently, all that time I’d spent learning French was a waste. Instead, I should have studied Argot (slang) and Verlan (inverted French and Argot): what French kids speak these days.

If I had gotten the memo earlier, I would have just moved to England.

"Can you repeat that?"...Cultural misunderstandings in France.
Confused baby memes best describe my feelings.

One night, while sipping vin rouge at a bar, I fell in with a mixed group of friendly locals and internationals. At the end of the night, an exuberant Frenchman from Outre-Mer invited us all to a dinner party the following weekend. It is a universally understood that an invite to a private dinner party equals acceptance. He even sent a follow-up text!

That weekend, I knocked tentatively on his apartment door with my bottle of pamplemousse wine—yes, it tastes as bad as you’d imagine, and no, I don’t remember why I did it—and panicked. In my feverish excitement, I had completely forgotten the host’s name.

Ushered into the crowded apartment, I was served a heaping portion of fish stew and wedged in between two fast-speaking locals. One neighbor spewed commentary at rapid-fire, like a cartoon on fast forward. My other neighbor would answer quicker than a game show contestant, spitting jokes that I laughed at but did not actually understand. Sure, I picked up a few words, but mostly spent the night in silence, my head whipping left and right like a dedicated fan at a ping pong tournament.

As my brain scrambled to translate and organize these words into semi-coherent thoughts, I realized that with French fluency, I would still be lost. The partygoers weren’t only sharing language, but cultural references. TV programs I hadn’t heard of, social and political jokes, and memes I’d never seen. I went home full of delicious homemade stew, but emptied of confidence.

Weeks later, I was chatting with another Française, who mentioned Plus Belle La Vie; the French equivalent to Days of Our Lives. She described a recent episode—a love affair gone wrong—and I realized I’d actually seen that show while flipping channels. Proudly, I added that the characters were obviously better off broken up. Who knew that my cultural aptitude could be improved just by watching C-list actors in unbelievable scenarios?

Soap operas: a gateway to cultural understanding.
Soap operas: a gateway to cultural understanding. Photo courtesy of TV5.

Luckily, I had a good group of American friends who knew the struggle was real. One of them started a list of Argot and Verlan; our go-to reference until we found this website. We redoubled our campaign to annoy our French companions, by halting the conversation every time an unknown slang word came up. I watched more Plus Belle La Vie, and expanded my must-watch-list to include other C-list soap operas. I still wasn’t quite “dans le bain“, but I was getting there.

Instead of working extra hard to translate every phrase, and begging my brain to reach higher for harder words, I learned to relax. I frequented more dinner parties. Soon, they became less of a spectator sport, and more of a real social experience. Without even realizing it, I began to feel at ease expressing myself, not constantly over-analyzing my French interactions. I also stopped purchasing pamplemousse wine. “You’ve improved a lot,” one of my acquiantances mentioned casually one night. I resisted the urge to e-mail blast 1,000 of my closest friends and family: FELICITATIONS TO ME!!! 

Trying to insert myself into another culture was difficult at times. It meant learning new jokes, different ways of thinking, and going off-textbook. It’s crazy, or rather, as I learned—C’est ouf! But definitely worth it.