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April 10, 2011

Hee Hee Hee, Hon Hon Hon: Notes on Amusing the French

One of my early visits to France included a week-long home stay with a French family. During this first experience with total immersion I learned a number of things, chief among them: my humor did not translate.

Being an incredibly awkward human being, I was constantly knocking things over, spilling things, and being a general dunderhead. After each accident, my adopted family would assure me, "Ce n'est pas grave," (It's not a big deal) to which I replied with a very serious expression, "Si. C'est grave" (Yes. It is in fact a huge deal). Not understanding that I was trying to make a joke, they would repeat, "Mais non, ce n'est pas grave," (Seriously--don't worry about it) and then I would repeat, "Si c'est grave." (I'm totally worried about it). Their confusion and my deadpanning would continue until I backed slowly into my room, closed the door, and wept into my travel journal about how mizundastood I was.

So you don't have to go through the same shame cycle, I've listed some of my most and least successful jokes for you to consider before you encounter your next Frenchy.

Des Bonnes Blagues:

-When someone is cutting onions and nagging you about your love life, retort, "Occupes-toi de tes oignons!" (Literally: Occupy yourself with your onions! Colloquially: Mind your own business!) It's like hitting two birds with one stone; they chortle so much they forget to keep reminding you that he's just not that into you, and, bonus, they keep chopping the onions that will inevitably create a delicious dish.

-When you're in someone else's home for Sunday lunch, and they ask you if it's alright if they light up a cigar, reply, "Faites comme chez vous..." (Roughly: Do as you would if you were in your very own home) as magnanimously as possible, accompanied by a sweeping hand motion.

-For some reason, the phrases, "Pas mal" (not bad) and "Mais SI!" (that's not TRUE!) get laughs-a-minute when said with a deep voice and a slight sneer. Try to interject them whenever possible. When presented with a glass of water, hold it up to the light, swirl it a bit, take a deep whiff, sip and then pronounce, "Pas mal..." with the corners of your mouth turned down. When someone pronounces that Sarkozy isn't that great of a president, slap your knee, widen your eyes and yell menacingly, "Mais SI!" and then refuse to defend your answer. They'll love it.

-It takes a LOT of time and explanation, and you may not want to make the investment, but the pay-offs of teaching a French person about "that's what she said" can be huge. (That's what she said.)

Des Mauvaises Blagues...

-"Ta mère" (your mother) jokes are taken far, far, FAR more seriously on this side of the pond. When you say "ta mère," the person to whom you are speaking has a tendency to believe you are actually talking about their actual mother. So if someone says, "Beurk, cette clementine est dégeulasse," (Yuck, this clementine is disgusting) do NOT reply, "Oui, dégeulasse comme ta mère" (Yes, disgusting like your mother).  Trust me on that one. 

-For your own good, just avoid the subjects of cats (les chats) in all situations. It's far too easy to mistakenly make the masculine article feminine, and to pronounce the "t" at the end of the word. Before you know it, you're not talking about cats at all, but rather a vulgar name for female anatomy. For example: if your host is joking that the rabbit you're enjoying for lunch was actually the neighbor's pet, but she had made him so mad that he shot and cooked it, do NOT reply, "What are you going to eat next week, her cat?" Choose bird. Or fish. Or some other innocuous creature. Leave cats out of it.


  1. PAS MAL. I definitely rigoled a ton. :)

  2. *Snirk*

    There are awesome anecdotes, Nina. I too have had experiences where deadpan sarcasm is anti-understood (we quickly learn to avoid sarcasm in France, don't we!). And I LOVE the story about the neighbor's cat. I may have to try to teach a French person about "that's what she said" soon.

  3. HAHAHAHA i love the cat one.

    -justin tang

  4. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh mon dieu. I know you mentioned the chat/chatte problem before, but I did NOT know the context. Epic.

  5. I'm about six years too late, but this post made me laugh out loud.