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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

‘Why foreigners are just not funny in French – unless people are laughing at our mistakes’

Witty repartee, intellectual conversation and even basic empathy are among the things that British mum-of-three Natasha Alexander has been forced to jettison when speaking French to her Normandy neighbours.

'Why foreigners are just not funny in French - unless people are laughing at our mistakes'
Forget witty wordplay, if you're learning French Mr Bean is all you can aspire to be. Although he's actually pretty popular in France. Photo: AFP

Who are you when you speak French? That is the question.

I’ll be darned if I know who the hell I am. I know for a fact that I left any shred of dignity, self respect and pride somewhere in La Manche, approximately three years ago, on the boat over.

That fateful 10.30pm crossing saw my ability to communicate like a funny, intelligent adult drift out to sea – coming back some time never. And there’s no one, anytime soon, throwing me a buoyancy aid. You really do have to sink or swim.

So, without further ado, here's what all foreigners in France need to remember as they learn French.

READ ALSO How I used cold callers and lovelorn French farmers to learn the language

 

British comedian Eddie Izzard can do stand-up in French. You, on the other hand, almost certainly can't Photo: AFP

1. You’re not funny

Remember when you had razor sharp wit, could make people laugh at a drop of a hat, could come back with a timely retort and people got your obscure references? Yarp. Forget it.

I have no idea why, in the absolute knowledge that I can speak like a challenged six-year-old in French, that in some bizarre universe I actually believe I can joke with my usual humour in that same French.

Add in British self-depreciating humour, sarcasm and it not translating at all and you have more excruciating tumbleweed moments than you know what to do with. Also, don’t dig deeper by explaining something that could turn into some sort of sexual reference. Like when I said I prefer nectarines as peaches are hairy. (I wanted furry, thanks, Google translate). Furry and hairy are not the same and saying you have a hairy peach is…okay it is hilarious…but it’s also not.

Worse still, is a joke gone AWOL in a Facebook message and you get a simple “?” pinged back. Now you gotta explain yourself in written French what you meant by the joke that they didn’t get in the first place. 

If in doubt, don’t be funny. Just answer the questions like a survey and save yourself a shed load of embarrassment. Which brings me to my next point – if you are not funny…

READ ALSO Here are some of the best French jokes

2. You are boring

Yes. Boring as is what you are. You can end up asking the most banal questions just to say something.

I asked my neighbours, in the early days, what days the bins go out. I even ask people questions that I perfectly well know the answer to, just to get a conversation going. That’s how mind-numbingly tedious I can be in French. And you, my friends can be too.

Let us not forget the most exciting ice-breaker – the weather. Even that can have you looking like a prize twat. For a while, I used to say 'Oh it’s crying today'. Don’t ask. 

[il pleut = it's raining, il pleure = it/he is crying]

Us Brits love to talk about the weather but it’s just not the same in France. The French are not getting animated about the weather. It’s matter of fact. It’s factual. It’s nonchalant. Yes it’s going to rain, it might rain later on in the week or it might stop raining later. That’s it. There’s no “it’s sods law when you were planning on doing this that and the other”. Proceeded by life’s story, heartache and tales of woo.

READ ALSO 'In France we don't make small talk about the weather – we complain instead'

I have so much more to say than your normal ice-breakers of “how are you?” “how’s work?” “oh that was nice” etc etc. Yes, the accent (if they can understand you) is different and some say charming but the novelty can wear off with the drivel that is coming out of your mouth.

If the person has not fallen asleep whilst chatting to you then massive bravo and chapeau to you.

Is it about to rain or about to cry? Either way, don't make small talk about it. Photo: AFP

3. You’re the village idiot

Not everything translates directly into French. Don’t say “oh I’m too good” meaning I’m too hot in the sack or pourquoi, merci  – why thank you in the same vain as “takes a bow”. The French don’t say “why, thank you!”. They say why on earth are you saying “why? Thank you.”?

Not only that but smiling broadly and enthusing is just going to make you more of the village idiot than you already are.

The French, in my experience, are lovely people – funny, charming, accommodating, welcoming and sociable. They are not, however, great ones for getting excited about much in the same way we go all jazz hands. 

So going about your way as you would in the UK – waving frantically at someone you know, who happens to be in the car doing 50 mph, whilst shouting out “oh hi!” like they have a cat in hell’s chance of hearing you – just won’t do. It’s hard, believe me, but rein it in!

READ ALSO The 9 French words you need to be very, very careful when pronouncing

4. You have no empathy

I know you do but bear with me here.

Sometimes, you are listening so hard and translating in your head that you may not react to something that you should. You’re thinking “did they just say what I thought they said?” and by the time you want to interject, they have moved on thinking, well they didn’t even respond to that nugget of information.

Take a very recent, cringe-worthy conversation.

I like to pick up hitch hikers here in Normandy. I hail from Croydon and as far as I am concerned it’s safe to do so. Plus there is very little public transport and how else are people meant to get around when their car is up the swanny?

So I pull over for a man in a high viz jacket (safe right? No potential killer is wearing a high viz) and tell him to hop in. He goes to get into my driver's side but it’s a right hand drive so gets in the back behind me. This is awkward in any event as I’m trying to drive and listen to a strong Normand accent.

He tells me about a car crash, having a job but he was injured and I was 98 percent confident he said his wife died. However, as quick as he said this i thought he said he spoke with her. So I assumed I got it wrong. I didn’t get it wrong as he didn’t say parlé (spoken) he said perdu (lost). So ignoring the fact that his wife was involved in a head-on collision six months ago, I proceed to ask how is she. He then tells me she is dead but don’t worry and he didn’t want to bother me.

Naturally, I massively French back peddled my way out of it but for that brief moment, I literally said “ah ok” to someone telling me their wife died in an accident. Zero empathy.

READ ALSO Sympathy and the odd freebie – why you really should speak bad French

5. Asking personal questions

Sometimes you might be so pleased with yourself that the conversation is flowing, that you ask questions that you might not possibly ask in your native language.

I’m not talking about asking how much people earn or private questions but due to cultural differences you might ask something that might be a tad direct.

For instance, just out of curiosity, you might say “oh what happened there then or why didn’t you go” and you might get an answer that you think 'oh dear, I’ve opened up a whole can of worms here'.

No one, least of all a Brit, wants to be impolite so try and gauge the feeling and atmosphere of the conversation, rather than totally focusing on the words you are trying to hear and say. It’s hard I know but your reputation could be on the line here!

Natasha Alexander does social media management for companies in Normandy and across France and also blogs about her move to France at Our Normandy Life. Find out more here.

Member comments

  1. Hi, I enjoyed your article but the underlying message made me feel that it reinforces the typically British hesitance to throw ourselves into a language.

    I recognise some of what you describe from early years in France, but would want to give people some hope and optimism too. At least for those who really want to learn the language and also to become truly integrated.

    You definitely get better and better every year. At some point you do become yourself again and can make people laugh spontaneously at your witticism, rather than just at you! It’s definitely true you will do some daft things and have to grow a thick skin. One of my personal bests was mixing the word verger meaning orchard with verge (a polite word for a male body part). It gave my elderly neighbour quite a surprise when I explained that my husband was off cutting our verge with his tractor.

    For the article I’d like to see the parting message as stick with it! Get better every week. Learn to listen at high speed. I know many English and Dutch people in France who have become fluent enough to leave the early cringe-worthy moments behind them. Well, mostly at least! 🙂

  2. I’m a Brit married to a Toulousaine. I understaood that my father-in-law liked puns when on our first trip to the family farm, he said, “Ooh la la, ca sent les anglais – oh, pardon, je voulais dire les engrais!” So at the subsequent lunch, when my mother-in-law couldn’t get anyone to eat her ‘blettes’ (greens), I rallied the men at the table with, “Allez, Messieurs. Nos blettes obligent!” I was accepted as one of the gang at that moment.

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FOOD & DRINK

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

From home-made to made in France, organic to artisan, AOP to Red Label - French food and drink products have a bewildering array of different labels and quality marks - here's what they all mean.

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

In France, there are many different types of étiquette to be aware of when purchasing food, drink or other products. However, this étiquette does not have to do with behaviour – rather it is the French word for label or sticker that might designate certain properties about an item being purchased.

Here are some that you might run into while shopping in France:

Wines and other beverages

French wine often has several different designations and labels that you might come across. In France, wine is labelled based on region rather than grape.

Cru – the word “cru” – translated as ‘growth’ – on a wine label signifies that it was grown in high-quality vineyard or growing site, and provides further proof to where the wine was produced. 

Vin Bio – this designates a product, and in this case, wine as being organic. You will also find a bio (pronounced bee-yo) section of fruit and veg in most French supermarkets as well as plenty of other products with a bio label. Most towns and communes regularly host a marché bio –  a market where all the products on sale are organic.

Here is an example of what the label looks like:

Photo Credit: Economie.Gouv.Fr

To be certified as bio, producers must follow a set of EU specifications around how products are grown, which limit the use of chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers. The bio brand is a protected mark.

Vin natural – While bio refers to how the grapes are grown, ‘natural wines’ refers to the process of turning the grapes into wine.  

This is more vague than organic as there isn’t an agreed set of standards for what constitutes a ‘natural wine’. Producers label their bottles vin méthode nature (natural wine method) but you’ll also frequently see and hear vin naturel or vin nature to describe these products. In general, it means a wine that has no additives used during the wine-making process and no or few added sulphites, which can mean that natural wines taste different.

Not all organic wines are natural and not all natural wines are made with organic grapes, although the two tend to go together.

Vin biodynamique – Growers who embrace the biodynamic method go a step further and as well as cutting out chemicals they also plant and harvest their crop according to the lunar calendar.

Biodynamic isn’t a protected mark and a biodynamic wine isn’t necessarily organic or natural, but vine growers who go to the trouble of following the lunar calendar are generally pretty committed to producing their product in a more natural way. 

Champagne (capital C) – The sparkling wine known as Champagne can only be produced in the French Champagne region, otherwise it’s just sparkling wine. In fact, the Champagne industry has a skilled team of lawyers tasked with insuring that the name “Champagne” is not being used inappropriately or incorrectly. Champagne is a famous example of the French AOC (more on this below).

READ MORE: ‘The price of glory’ – Meet the Champagne industry lawyers charged with protecting the brand name

Geographic designations and traditional techniques

In France, there are three different labels that determine where a product comes from and whether it was made according to certain traditional standards.

L’Appellation Contrôlée (AOC) – This designation can either indicate that a product comes from a specific geographical area or that it was produced following a certain traditional technique. Under French law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled indications if it does not comply with the criteria of that AOC. In order to make them recognisable, all AOC products carry a seal, with a number as well as the name of the certifying body.

You can see an example of the label below:

Photo Credit: www.economie.gouv.fr

The colour of the seal indicates the product classification: green for field products and red for dairy products.

It is worth keeping in mind that simply being considered an AOC product does not necessarily mean that the quality will be better than a non-AOC product, as it is focused on either geographical location or technique used when cultivating the product. The AOC designation is typically applied to certain wines and cheeses, though it can be extended to other products too.

READ MORE: What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean – and are these products better?

AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) – the European Union operates a similar geographical protection system that recognises products that are the “result of a unique combination of human and environmental factors that are characteristic of a given territory”.

The two labels are pretty much the same, but the AOC is French and older, while the AOP is recognised on a European level. 

In most cases, in order to apply for AOP designation, the product must already have an AOC recognition at the national level and then it is later registered with the European Commission. 

For France, the AOP concerns certain dairy products – specifically, 45 cheeses, 3 butters, and 2 creams – other foods like “Grenoble walnuts” are also listed as AOPs.

As for non French products, Gorgonzola cheese is an example of an Italian AOP.

La Spécialité Traditionnelle Garantie (STG) – In English this would be referred to as the “Traditional Speciality Guarantee”. This is another European-wide label. It attests that a food product has been manufactured according to a recipe considered traditional.

The first French STG was “Bouchot mussels” which are collected using a traditional aquaculture technique. 

Quality labels

Label rouge – This French label allows you to identify superior quality products. It has been in existence for over 60 years – according to the French ministry of economy, Landes chicken was the first food product to be awarded the label. Label rouge can be applied to food products as well as non-food agricultural products, such as Christmas trees or flowers.

For example, a Christmas tree might qualify for the Label rouge if it is: from the Nordmann or Spruce species, free from parasites (fungi and insects); fitting the proper aesthetic criteria for shape, colour, symmetry and density; and fresh – meaning cut down after November 21st.

Nutri-score – this five letter label designates food products based on their nutritional value. This is regulated by public health authorities. The logo is on packaging and ranges from A (dark green, most nutritious) to E (dark orange, least nutritious).

Artisanale – this is a protected “appellation” (title) that was created in 1998, and it regulates ‘craft’ products according to French law – the most common usages are for bakeries and breweries but it’s used for a wide range of products. 

People running the business must be able to prove a certain relevant education and qualification level and register with the trade organisation or guild for their craft.

For example, bakery owners must register the boulangerie with the Chambre des Métiers et de l’Artisanat and take a preparatory course.

Typically, artisan producers promise to use non-processed materials and they must also follow certain quality rules. For example, bread sold in these artisan boulangeries cannot have been frozen.

French bread and pastry designations

When buying your baguette at the boulangerie, there are some differences to be aware of.

Baguette Tradition – As suggested by the name, this designation means that the baguette was made using the traditional ingredients – only flour, yeast, salt and water. These were decided upon as part of the French government’s ‘bread decree’ of 1993. It also indicates that the baguette is free of any additives or preservatives. 

Baguette – A regular baguette could contain extra ingredients like grains, cereals or nuts – or any chemical additives or preservatives.

Boulanger de France – This label is relatively new in France – it was launched in 2020 in order to help differentiate artisinal bakeries from industrial ones. In order to obtain the label, then the bakery must respect certain quality regulations (eg. salt dosage used in bread, and specific recipes and manufacturing methods). Also, boulangers who apply for this label also commit themselves to favouring seasonal products.

Other French labels you might come across

Fait maison – this means ‘home made’ in French, and the logo for this type of dish looks like a little house.

You might see this label when at a restaurant or when buying food. In essence, it means that the dish was cooked on the spot. It also means that the dish was made with unprocessed ingredients, and that the only processed ingredients are those listed HERE.

Made in France (or Fabriqué en France) – It may be a bit misleading, but the label “Made in France” does not mean that 100 percent of the manufacturing steps for the product were carried out in France, but it signifies that a significant part were indeed done in France. This label is applied primarily to “consumer and capital goods”, but it can also be attributed to certain agricultural, food and cosmetic products, according to the French ministry of economy.

In order to qualify for this label, a part of the French customs body (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes or DGCCRF) must authorise the label. If a product simply contains colours associated with France or a French flag, that does not necessarily mean it was entirely produced in France.

The penalties for falsely using a “Made in France” label, which are laid out in the French consumer code (article L. 132-2) are up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to €300,000, which may be increased, depending on whether there were benefits derived from the offence.

Origine France Garantie – This label is awarded by the “Pro France association” to both  food and non-food products that can prove to have had the majority of manufacturing operations (at least 50 percent of its per unit cost) carried out in France and that the parts of the product that constitute its ‘essential characteristics’ were manufactured and produced in France.

Terre textile – This label attests that at least 75 percent of the textile product’s manufacturing was carried out in the French geographical area that it references – for example the label would indicate a part of France, like Alsace, and then below it would say “Terre textile”. 

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