Monthly Archives: November 2009

Why didn’t you get my joke?

Humor. That’s a serious word. Especially when we’re talking about how it translates (or doesn’t) across cultures.

It has to do with so many “culturally wired” conceptions. It’s in our body language when we make the joke, or something as tiny as an inflection of the voice, or a look on your face.

And the subjects we use in our jokes. What makes a joke a joke in a certain culture? I’m still not completely clear after five years of living in France, immersed in the culture.

My husband says that when you make a joke in France, that it’s about something that’s too absurd to be taken seriously. But when I do the same thing, he often doesn’t understand that I’m joking. What’s the deal? Or more precisely, what’s the secret to humor – in any culture?

Sometimes I think people don’t get my jokes simply because they know I’m not French. It seems that there is a kind of instantaneous intellectual analysis on their part, as in “She’s not French. Is she making a joke?” I may be totally off, but I think this sometimes happens and they hesitate because they aren’t sure I intended to make a joke.

Another thing…I recently got into a cultural tangle (mental, not physical!) due to a misinterpretation of a phrase. And it made me as mad as an old, wet hen as my grandmother would say. A Frenchwoman, fairly good acquaintance of ours, made a remark (a joke?) in response to a comment I had just made about entering the French culture by way of French cuisine. Meaning, by learning about the different regions and their different types of cuisine.

Now, in French, “cuisine” can mean either “food” or “kitchen”. She said, “You surely didn’t enter France by the kitchen.” Now, I interpreted that as meaning “You surely didn’t enter France by the back door.” And I was very vexed. To say the least.

Later, my husband told me I had completely misunderstood what she meant, because in France the saying would be “You entered France by the back door” (vous êtes entré par la porte arrière) and NOT “You entered France by the kitchen (door)”. Sigh.

Probably, she was making a play on words which I didn’t catch. A misunderstanding, or a “malentendu” as we say in French. I’m trying to arrive at the place where I can give her the benefit of the doubt.

It’s those kinds of things that make me want to speak in English exclusively for at least 24 hours. But, luckily, tomorrow is another day in the world of my ongoing cultural adventure.

Until then, à bientôt – see you soon.

On the menu: Expression du jour…

French cartoon icons "Aterix and Obelix"

It started as a game to help me become bicultural. My husband and I invented the “expression du jour” during my first year in France.

Practically every morning after breakfast, we would write on the “menu” (a piece of paper attached with magnets to the side of the refrigerator), a typical French saying, with its English translation opposite. During the day, I would try to use it several times in conversation, sometimes winding up with strange variations.

Have you realized that there are hundreds of expressions in our own language that we use without thinking. They reside in our cultural memory bank and slide effortlessly out to the tip of our tongue (au bout de la langue!) with no conscious thought on our part.

But when speaking a language other than your native tongue, I’ve realized the importance of these “cultural word tools” – and that you can’t be without them. Because you need them to understand the sense of what someone is telling you, to catch the point of a joke, or to make a play on words.

Here are a few of my favorites just for fun. In English “When pigs fly”, translates into the French expression “When hens have teeth” (quand les poules auront des dents). I licked my fingers” translates to “I licked all five fingers and my thumb” (j’ai leche les cinq doigts et le pouce), and “That gets on my nerves” becomes “That breaks my feet” (cela me casse les pieds).

Well, I’ve made a gigantic cultural leap in speaking French! Oh yes, most of it is mastering the grammar and syntax. But understanding hundred of cultural references – from cartoon characters [recognize Asterix and Obelix above – iconic French cartoon figures] to political incidents to literature – and everyday expressions -is essential. Why?

It’s helped me to establish relationships with people. It lets me go beyond surface interactions and find some deeper ways to communicate, because I find that people are more likely to open up when they see that you know their culture, which includes their traditions and sayings.

It’s another major key to the cultural code…

Thanks to http://www.myfreewallpapers.net/cartoons/pages/asterix-and-obelix.shtml for the photo for the photo of Asterix and Obelix