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

'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
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.

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


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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. 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.

  2. 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! 🙂

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