The beauty of there being about 7000 languages in the world is that, sometimes, there simply is no equivalent for a word in another language. An example is the difficulty of translating “awkward” into French.
English-French dictionaries suggest maladroit, gauche, embarassant, or inconfortable as French equivalents, but – while “awkward” certainly encompasses the notions of “clumsy,” “tactless,” “embarrassing,” and “uncomfortable” – it’s simultaneously broader and more incisive. “Awkward” bypasses situational discomfort and cuts to the cricket-chirping, blush-inducing, self-berating heart of the matter.
In my view, there is no other word that better describes the American adolescent experience.
Okay, fine: there is no other word that better describes my American adolescent experience.
For years, I simply accepted my awkwardness as a given. I didn’t think that I would grow out of it, nor did I even try to fight it. On the checklist of awkwardness, I ticked off every box.
Athletically impaired? Check.
Overeager and socially inept in general? Sure, why not. (Even at my college’s Goldman Sachs networking events, my first words upon meeting somebody would be, “Aren’t you excited for these hors d’œuvres?!”)
Magically, moving to Paris – previously as a student and now as a teaching assistant – seemed to cure my awkwardness. Not because I was suddenly sartorially gifted (though I did make a half-hearted effort) or because I acquired social grace. It was simply because the word “awkward” doesn’t exist in French.
This is an epiphany I have again and again. Whenever I think I’m being “awkward,” I try to see myself from a French person’s point of view. That’s when I realize that I literally cannot be “awkward.” Instead, I have to be described through proximate terms.
For example, I can be “sloppy” or “look like a tourist” (as when I first arrived in Paris over two years ago and was sporting bell bottoms and Keds, while all the Parisian women were flaunting skinny jeans and high-heeled boots).
I can be “really, really stupid” (as when my host mom asked me to keep the artisan soft cheese “in the top part of the refrigerator,” and I stuck it in the freezer).
I can be “unrefined” (like that time my host mom bought a box of [artisan, again, dang it!] chocolates for me to give my family as a gift, and I ate it in one night [then had to admit it the next day when she asked about the box, of course]).
Or “blundering” (exemplified by my efforts to cut roast at a French dinner party where I spent minutes sawing the plate with a knife; finally, Z cut it for me after another guest nudged him and raised their eyebrows in my direction).
Of course, it’s also possible to make a “faux pas” (as I did at a recent birthday soiree for Z’s sister-in-law, when his niece tried to guess my age and suggested the sister-in-law’s age of 41 — at which point, I unthinkingly gasped and expressed horror in front of everyone).
BUT, but, but… at least I’m not awkward. All these terms that can replace “awkward” are situational. They can describe how I act under a set of circumstances but they can’t describe my overarching personality.
This is a major victory for me. When I first realized this, I thought: I could go back to high school with this victory. Even college. Without my awkwardness, I wouldn’t be uncool. I could even be cool. I could even be popular.
And the astounding thing is, at the school where I teach, I kinda am.
This is a source of constant surprise.
When a male student acknowledged that he once worked as a model at the Abercrombie and Fitch on Fifth Avenue in New York, I let slip an admiring “WOW!” The class burst into giggles and “WOW”s echoed across the room, but it was the attractive young man – not me – that blushed.
When an English lesson was going particularly well, and I was delighted at how everyone was actually participating, a joyful, seemingly random “Oh my God!” escaped my lips. Again, the room echoed with “Oh my God!”s but the laughter was friendly, not cruel.
My overenthusiastic “Amazing!”s and “Awesome!”s and “COOL!”s elicit similar responses.
So, alright, I’m as awkward as I’ve ever been. But being a foreigner in France means you can get away with some things. Even being French means you can get away with some things.
Because I’m convinced that the secret to the French je ne sais quoi – that air of indescribable charm people ascribe to the French – is simply this: France is a country where awkwardness doesn’t exist.
That’s what I call Amazing!