It was 2013, mon chéri was talking to me and mon neveu. It was a conversation innocente about Minecraft – one of the games the two really enjoyed. I don’t remember how this word came into the conversation, (they were probably in the middle of a fight with the Creepers and his personnage was killed) but it did: damn. Mon neveu didn’t flinch or show any sign that he heard this word (thankfully), but it sparked a later conversation between mon chéri and I about what’s considered too vulgaire to say in front of kids and certain adultes (my famille is not one in which swearing is a thing).
Vulgarité has been a touchy sujet since the Puritans arrived in North America. In fact, Américains are taught from a very young age that certain things are just off limits in some situations. What things? Vulgarité. Which situations? All of them except when you’re with your friends who use profanity. This éducation has created an uncomfortable sensation any time we encounter someone who steps out of the norm and uses a vulgaire word when he/she should not. Even today, in my 30s, I get uncomfortable when my French friends throw English swear words around (my réaction is often: “Wow slow down there – save some for when you’ll really need them!”); however, I’ve no problème using the French équivalent. Why is that?
Well, in France, vulgaire words are not seen in the same light as in the US. For exemple, when someone uses a vulgaire word during a conversation among adultes or even older kids (high school age) with a 10 year old in earshot, Américains tend to cringe. This réaction causes the child to either say, “That’s a bad word! I’m telling mommy!” or to be a rebel and répète the word. In France, there is no “cringe” effect. In fact, no one really cares. I’ve also never heard a French child use profanity (and I’ve encountered quite a few kids being a teacher and all).
Let’s get something straight: In général, the French don’t use profanity when directly facing kids (and, bien-sûr, children are taught proper French in schools); but, they will use profanity while talking with other adultes when there are kids within earshot. Another différence culturelle: In France, swear words are generally not used to call people names. They are mostly used as gap fillers or part of an expression (positive ou négative)
For exemple, you’re explaining a story to your père about how someone in your appartement complexe stole one of the tires off of your car. His réaction: “Putain!” If you look up this word as an expression (a word as a word and a word as an expression are not always the same) in WordReference, you will find that it means “Shit!” or “Fuck!” However, they aren’t viewed as bad as those words in English.
However, this norm no longer applies when you’re driving. Driving really brings out the connards…
Of course, there are some people who use words like “pute” to describe someone (usually a female), but this is rare and mostly used by a spécifique personality type. For exemple, someone who’s trying pickup/harasse women…Spécialement if he has just been jaded/blocked.
The use of profanity can be a bit difficile for Américains expats and travelers to get used to. The way that profanity is used in France is a vast and voluptuous différence culturelle than that in the USA. If you’re not préparé(e) in avance, you will be in for quite the révélation. Just keep an open mind and understand that profanity is not put on a pedestal apart from everything else, which is one raison why no one really cares. Éventuellement, expats often find themselves using vulgaire words in French when they would not use them in the same sentence translated into English. Sometimes, expats even end up supplementing vulgaire words in French while speaking in English (yes, this has happened to me)! It’s funny to think about, but it’s réalité.
While profanity is still more accepted (and thus not really seen as “bad”) in France, the use of profanity is increasing in the US.
Perhaps this is due to shows like South Park or perhaps we are just swaying further away from our Puritan ancestors…Whatever be the case, vulgarité is on the rise, though US société is still far from being anywhere near France’s. ♦
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