Cultural Tells

There are certain mannerisms and gestures that I’ve grown used to seeing here in France. Such things are part of the language of a place, and like an accent they’re nearly impossible for an outsider to reproduce accurately.

For example, I could never do justice to the French lip pop. Apparently used to indicate that one is at a loss for words or stumped, it’s a quick little puff of air that shifts the whole face into neutral and is sometimes accompanied by hint of panic, as if the ceiling’s beginning to cave in. Then there’s the French shrug, a full-body event that can terminate a conversation and has surely, at some point in history, started a war. Variations on the full shrug include the half-shrug and the shrugging lip, but my efforts to demonstrate either would amount to weak echoes of the real thing. Even the way the mouth and head move with native articulation of the French language is distinctive.

These mannerisms are like little poker tells – they would shout, “BONJOUUUUUUUR!” if I saw them outside of France. If a French person lived for years as an expatriate, I can’t imagine that all of these tells would ever completely wear off. They might go through periods of dormancy, but old habits are easily taken up again in the environment of their origin, and these cultural tells could be reawakened by a trip to the home country, an encounter with a compatriot, or even a poor night’s sleep.

In the hilarity and confusion of discovering the cultural tells of my French students and colleagues, it’s easy to forget that I have plenty of tells of my own. Then, standing in front of the class, I’ll make a noise or gesture that elicits a cascade of delighted giggles and a barrage of terrible imitations from the students, and I remember that I have tells, too, and how obviously foreign I am.

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