THE BLOG
10/26/2012 07:01 am ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

Why Michael Jackson Should Have Lived In France

The words that one learns passively in a given language (that is to say, out on the street or simply through repeated and unsought auditory repetition) are often reflective of deeper cultural values and attitudes. In France, more often than not, this attitude is pessimism.

The first several times that "deçu" ("disappointed") came up in conversation, multiple people told me that it would be a "very important word to know." Similarly, the words for annoyance, boredom, depression and unemployment were impressed upon me with equal urgency on the part of the French, and with little to no inquiry on my part. Another vital one was "malheureusement" (translation "unfortunately"). It may sound like a big word, but I was quite familiar with it after only a few days of being in Paris.

Though at the time, I still may not have been able to properly order the type of coffee I wanted or explain to someone that I hadn't taken French classes since high school, I was more than capable of prefacing any forthcoming botched-sentence with the caveat that the following information was going to be of the "unfortunate" nature.

Perhaps it is in an effort to counter the plague of hyperbolism currently running rampant in the US that the French seem to be further entrenching themselves in their long-held position at the opposite end of the "wow meter." While Americans rapidly approach peak oil in their use of the word "amazing," the French are busying themselves with occasionally affirming to one another that certain things are "not terrible." This shift in glass half empty/half full perspective can be disconcerting for many foreigners and has definitely caused some bumps along my path as I attempt to drive forward on the road towards competent French communication (and for the record, they do have the same glass idiom in France, a phrase which I was surprised to discover does translate directly to the English one, rather than being some cynical "glass half empty vs. glass totally empty" French version.)

Maybe it's on-accounta my Southern roots or maybe it's just cause Momma-didn't-raise-no-fool, but in my experience, one of the first things I usually want to learn in another language is how to express positivity and gratitude. I view these as both sentiments that are generally hard to get "wrong" and which, in addition to copious gesturing and dumb smiles, can be vital tools on one's mission to "making the natives not hate you as much."

Well as it turns out, in France, you can get them wrong. Or at least, there is not always a direct translation for what you, as an American, will likely want to say. In general, as a French friend explained to me, the first thing you have to wrap your mind around is the difference in the French perspective: rather than forming things in the positive, the France have a tendency to construct an idea in the negative (i.e. instead of being "the best" at something, someone would likely be described as "not the worst.")

This can also be seen in the grading system in schools, where, unlike the optimistic American 100 point scale, grades are generally given on a 0-20 scale. 20's are reserved for "les enfants" in their first couple years of primary school, but after that, forget it. Doing all your homework and getting every answer right? Maybe you'll get lucky and earn a 14. Meanwhile back in (God Bless) America, you can completely fail the test and still get 69 points out of 100. According to Wikipedia, in France:

A grade between 10 and 12 is a simple pass (without grade); between 12 and 14 (more rarely 13-14) the grade is called "assez bien" (rather good); 14-16 is called "bien" (good); above 16 is "très bien" (very good).

In other words, the concept of "Excellent," or the long-sought-after classic American A+? "Ca n'existe pas."

Despite some frustrating beginnings, I remained optimistic in my quest for optimism, and continued searching for expressions of positivity to add to my vocabulary. I view these both as nice filler words to be used whenever you don't know what to say (approximately 75% of the time), but also as verbal tools which can only "do good," and can thus be lightly sprinkled throughout conversation like a cheap parmesan cheese (much akin to the way Americans relentlessly add parmesan to an imitation Italian dish that is just never going to end up tasting like the real thing).

For this reason I was very excited when I discovered the word "genial" (this directly translates to the adjective "genius," but my impression was that French people use it much like Americans use "cool" or "awesome"). Unfortunately I only made it about a week into my genial tear when my 26 year old "cool Parisian" friend Bertrand informed me that "no one under 50 really says genial." He then went on to tell me that he (cool young Parisian that he is) does not even say "J'aime bien" or "J'aime beaucoup" (meaning respectively "I like it," or "I like it a lot") -- two more phrases I had recently learned and attached myself to with equal gusto. I almost wanted to stop our conversation right there, before his Parisian-youth-kryptonite crippled my foreigner's grasp of the French language any further, but I pressed on.

"Ok," I said, swallowing my pride, "No 'Genial' ... accepted. But what word would you use if you wanted to say that you really like something?"

He paused. "Pas mal."

"Well I know 'pas mal,'" I replied, "It means 'not bad.' But what if you want to express that you really really like something?"

Like a well-trained parrot, the response came back: "Pas mal."

"Okayyy," I forged on, my body beginning to melt over the bar table in desperation, "But let's just sayyy that you saw something really amazing, and you wanted to tell someone about it! Like let's say you saw Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello, right in front of your FACE! What would you call that??"

He paused for a moment, considering my question.

"Mmm... Pas mal."

Thinking of Yo-Yo Ma (he's this half-decent cellist maybe some of you have heard of) reminded me of another French word mission I had been on: to find the expression for "talented," and I made a note to myself to ask someone (anyone but Bertrand) about it at the next opportunity. Now you may wonder why I don't simply look these things up in a dictionary or on Google translate, but "malheureusement," these methods often provide a translation that is not exactly correct, or at least is not something that anyone actually says. Much like in the "genial" example, the only way to really verify which words people use is to listen for them in conversation, or in the case of expressions of positivity, to simply ask French people directly (because as it turns out, they just don't come up that much).

"How do I say that someone is talented?" I asked an unsuspecting French native speaker a couple nights after my ego-deflation with Bertrand. He seemed a bit caught off guard and it took him a solid minute to think about (during which time he offered up "Charmant?" (charming) "No..." as well as "...Intelligent?" "Nope...").

After a minute of fumbling, he finally emerged from the other end of this French brain fart with, "Oh ahh, 'talentueux'?"

"Ooh yeah, that sounds right!" I responded eagerly.

"Well yes, I guess that would be the word you're looking for," he acquiesced, "But we don't really use that."

"Oh. Ok." I replied, disappointed, "Well... what do you say if someone is really good at something?"

He stared back at me blankly.

Silence.

Shoulder shrug.

A few weeks later I was watching Rear Window in a Parisian theater with French subtitles. (For the record, much more entertaining than the film itself was the period just before it started, during which an old man in the audience sneezed in consistent 3-4 second-spaced increments for a solid 5 minutes. Now to be fair, it was completely ridiculous, but only in France would the two old ladies sitting in the row behind him, both there by themselves, proceed to yell out angrily at this poor allergy-ridden stranger "Ca suffit?!" ("Is that enough??") and then "Il va parti, ou qoui?!" ("Is he leaving or what?!").

But back to the movie (assuming "ca suffit"), there is a scene in which Jimmy Stewart tells Grace Kelly that she is "beautiful, sophisticated, intelligent" and most importantly "talented." Watching this, I could hardly believe my ears and eagerly glanced down at the subtitles for my long-awaited holy grail, only to be unfortunately, dramatically, tragically, "deçu."

On the screen appeared all the translated words Jimmy Stewart had just uttered, "belle, raffinée, intelligente..." all that is, save for "talented," which was simply omitted from the French version of the dialogue, as if it (or for that matter, the condition of having talent) had never existed.

"Damn you Jimmy Stewart!" I wanted to jump up and scream (but being much too terrified of the potential reactions of the two old ladies, I remained motionless in my seat without a word).

In another movie I saw recently, this time an actual French one, Jean-Luc Godard's iconic 1960 film Breathless, there is a typical French exchange between Jean Seberg's character "Patricia" and the actor Jean-Paul Belmondo who is playing "Michel":

"You like my poster?" Jean Seberg's character asks Michel in French.

"Pas mal," he responds.

"He's a great painter, Renoir," she continues

"I SAID 'pas mal'!!" Michel exasperatedly yells back in French, as if to say, "Jesus I SAID 'not bad' -- I mean what higher praise could you possibly ask of me?!"

In addition to brushing up on whatever classics the theater near me is playing, one thing that being in France with limited media access has allowed me to do is catch up on certain TV shows I've missed. This includes the last season of Mad Men which features Don Draper's new French-Speaking Québécois wife Megan and occasionally, her French-speaking parents. Though the characters are supposed to be from Québec, they are portrayed like classic French people and Don and others repeatedly refer to them as "French." And they certainly could have fooled me -- the writing for the role of Megan's condescending intellectual father "Dr. Emile Calvet" is excellent, and the Belgian actor Ronald Guttman is perfect in the part.

Much like the animators for The Lion King, it seemed that the writers of Mad Men must have spent time observing the cynical French man in his natural habitat in preparation for writing the episode -- there was just no other way they could have so deftly hit that nail upon it's beret-laden head. However I couldn't help thinking that "malheureusement" for him, should Mr. Guttman ever decide to visit France, the country who's mother-tongue he is so proudly representing, the highest award he could probably expect to earn would be "pas mal" Actor of the Year.

Then finally, just when I thought it couldn't get any worse than "pas mal," it did.

For whatever reason, the French still seem to be obsessed with Michael Jackson and whenever one of his songs comes on at a party or a bar the crowd reacts as if it had just been released that week, storming the dance floor like people running from a tsunami. I don't know much about the intricacies of this clearly deep-rooted and complex relationship, but one commonality I have been able to pinpoint between the two (France and Michael Jackson, that is) is their embracing of the negative as positive.

More specifically, I am referring to Michael Jackson's #1 chart topping hit "Bad," a song which, when I was a younger, frequently led to kids being obligated to clarify whether they were using "bad" in the traditional sense or if they meant it "in the Michael Jackson way." Last night I went out again with my cool friend Bertrand and learned some new slang, including the phrase "C'est terrible" ("It's terrible") which according to him, young people in France sometimes use to describe something that is really awesome.

So as it turns out, all along there has in fact been a way for me to compliment something beyond just saying that it is "Not bad." I can simply, passionately declare that "it's terrible."

View Photos and Video from Elizabeth's Parisian travels at http://americanwerewolfinparis.tumblr.com