There is a constant war waging in my brain about the precise meanings of words. I find it endlessly frustrating and fascinating and I also often need one language to help explain another.
Even though I have been speaking English fluently for almost 2 decades, it only recently occurred to me that savoir-faire, a canonical French notion does not mean the same thing in French as it does in English. In French, savoir-faire roughly translates as a knowing how to do. This means skills or artistry acquired by experience while doing work. Basically hands-on knowledge or expertise. Know-how feels like the closest equivalent. However, according to America’s most trusted online dictionary, in English, savoir-faire is “capacity for appropriate action” or “a polished sureness in social behavior.” Tact, poise, the knowledge of just what to do in any situation. A very different meaning altogether and a little closer to another foundational French notion, savoir-vivre.
Savoir-vivre translates as knowing how to live. More broadly, this means knowing and practicing the written and unwritten rules of politeness and knowing how to use them in social situations. It’s about behaving in the world. Good manners are deeply important to the French which is hilarious when you consider that the most enduring and universally agreed-upon stereotype of them is that they’re rude. Civility is just theater y’all and every culture does it differently.
Lastly to complete what my corniest middle school teacher called “The Three Musketeers of success,” you have savoir-être which translates directly as to know how to be. Essentially we’re talking about interpersonal skills or as my favorite aunt would say, the art of not showing off your savoir-faire too quickly. It’s a measure of how adept you are at interacting with others. Listening, speaking and questioning skills are the pillars of savoir-être.
I really appreciate that I grew up with an African twist on all this French indoctrination. Some of it is good and some of it is exhausting and some of it is bullshit. I am still trying to figure out how to live well and be a decent human being. I hear that’s a life long pursuit unfortunately.
I had a vague desire to offer some sort of advice column with this newsletter but have you met me? I am constantly in shambles and honestly, I hate giving advice. It’s true that sometimes there is a very right answer to a problem but most of the time who knows, man?
Advice can be annoying. It can seem so impolite and presumptive, two qualities I would rather die than be labelled. That said, I love asking questions and I like hearing other people’s questions. It’s the only way to get any kind of answer it turns out. I hate it. Questions are also good because we all have so many of the same ones but we don’t always feel like it’s OK to ask them.
So ask me your questions. Work stuff, life stuff, etiquette stuff, money stuff, sex stuff and we can work it out together. I’ll answer them every once in a while and offer some gentle suggestions because this is not an advice column.
Some good ass tweets
Here’s a roundup of what’s made me laugh the last 2 weeks. Thank you, black internet. You are the best internet.