From the corner of my eye I see my Mother watching me with a wry expression on her face. I give her a look as if to say “quoi?!” and return to my conversation. I am discussing, in French, the various differences between French culture and American culture with MB’s family; nothing out of the ordinary is being said so I am perplexed by my Mother’s seeming amusement. Finally the conversation comes to an end and I stalk over to her in the corner.
“What was that, Mom?” I ask, while mimicking the face she was giving me during the conversation.
“Oh, nothing,” she replies, fully delighting in her enigmatic-ness (it’s my blog and I’ll make up words if I want to).
“PUH-leeeeeeeeeese,” I say, giving her my lamest look of all time. “Like I can’t tell when you have something to say.” I lean towards the table and pour us each a glass of wine, handing one to her. “So what gives?”
“It’s nothing, it’s just that your personality is really different in French.”
“Huh,” I ask (so provocative, clearly I’m not ever going to have a career in investigative journalism).
“I don’t know,” she continues. “Your voice changes, you speak more high pitch but more softly, you make different gestures…you just seem more serious or something.”
“AHHHHHHHHH,” I grasp my chest in mock horror. “Not serious! How horrible, how upsetting – what will we do? How will we fix this?!”
The wry look returns to my Mother’s face.
“Case in point,” she says and wanders towards MB and the other Frenchies to talk.
For some reason my personality does seem to morph when I speak in French. I don’t know if it has to do with thinking so hard about what I am saying or if it is something in the nature of the French language* or if it is just that it gives me the feeling of playing a character.
“I am not Americain, NON, I am FRANCAISE and must be-ave accordingly. Do not geeve me deez look, Maman, I am being serious…(*dramatice pause*)…I am being French.”
(Note to parents: this is what happens when you send your child to too many acting classes.)
Ironically, this French “character” of mine is much more toned down than the American version, she is quieter, more pensive (read: trying to pretend she understands what is being said), and more hesitant to speak (read: trying to come up with how to put a sentence together)…in effect, she is a bit more boring.
Recently, I had this conversation with another North American expat** living here in the Grenoble area. She (being a Canadian) grew up learning French in school and is almost 100% fluent but told me she encounters the same issues.
“I’m just not funny in French,” she lamented to me over a glass of wine (Oh my GAWD, again with the wine, I mean, how much wine does she drink?!?!? A lot). “I mean, every time I am with French friends I want to say, “I swear I’m funny in English. But it just isn’t the same – the jokes are different and sometimes I’m freaked out to make jokes in French, like what if I awkwardly get it wrong.”
This is yet another problem with trying to translate one’s personality to another language – humor. Jokes are tricky, even in your own language, the last thing you want to do is use a wrong word or accidentally utilize a super offensive turn of phrase when you are trying to be jocular. I mean, nothing falls flatter and more uncomfortably than that.
For example, you and a friend are talking and you accidentally say something in French that you think means one thing but in reality is anti-funny or worse yet, super offensive. Your friend, knowing your language difficulty understands but someone else overhears and picks a fight. You misunderstand what the fight-picker is saying and the fight gets worse! Next thing you know, Tybalt has killed your best friend and to avenge him you then kill Tybalt and it all ends like this:
That’s right…in a creepy candle-lit room with poison and LOTS of kisses involving snot and possibly a necrophilia fetish.
…Or something like that.
I guess the point is that personalities don’t always make the complete leap over the language barrier. A person might be hilarious in their own language and boring in a different language or vice-versa. I mean, someone could just as easily be more out-going and hilarious in a foreign language than they would ever be in their native tongue; it’s like language schizophrenia.
So, I guess that is it. There will be the American version on myself and the French version and I must learn to embrace my newly found personalities.
*For the record, there is also an Italian version of myself for the few times that I have made attempts at that language – in this version I am really loud and wave my arms a lot. Truth.
** Also, my Canadian friend writes some pretty fun articles for Dogster.com – check her out! http://www.dogster.com/lifestyle/kristen-stewart-dog-photos-more-expressive