Thursday, October 05, 2006

Prise de tête

Prise de tête literally means "taking one's head," in the same way one could take a city or a castle. That's the accurate-yet-colorful translation: in everyday English, it means something like boring, frustrating, a waste of time or a pain. And as one would expect of such a useful, all-purpose term, it has got to be one of the most common phrases in modern French.


"Je voulais aller au cinema, mais c'etait trop prise de tête." I wanted to go to the movies, but it was too much of a pain.

"Qu'est-ce qu'il me prend la tête celui la." What a bore he is, he's wasting my time.

Particularly applicable in many common office situations.

One prime example of "prise de tête" is the French Office Greeting Protocol. It is very important to properly say hello to everyone upon your arrival in the morning. A simple "hello everybody" from across the room or a nod and smile while crossing in the hallway simply won't do. You must go around from desk to desk, shake everyone's hand and say hello to them directly and personally.

You must know in advance if the person in question gets a "bonjour" or the more familiar "ça va." This is a question of hierarchy and familiarity; I can "ça va" my boss, but not his boss, and my office is particularly laid back. You must also be prepared to say hello to the person with their first name, as in "Bonjour, Philippe," but only if they do so first, and only if you're sure you've gotten the name right.
Half of the project managers in my office are named Philippe, so it's a safe fallback name when in doubt.

I tend to freeze and splutter something incomprehensible when someone addresses me out of the blue. I'll suddenly lose their first name, even though I've worked with them daily for over two years. Or I'll get so tripped up on the "bonjour or ça va" question that the name will come out after a long enough pause to make my colleague wonder if I'm suffering from early memory loss.

It is also critical to remember if you've already seen the person, because a second "bonjour" in the same day simply won't do. The person will invariably pause and ask in an either confused or hostile fashion, "Haven't we seen each other already?" They are either annoyed that you didn't remember greeting them, or worried that they themselves don't remember.

So much for the "hey, how's it going," we mumble to each other every time we cross paths at the copy machine back in the US.

All this protocol isn't something that probably matters much, but it's yet another example of an everyday script in my life here that I'm always feeling I get just a little bit wrong. On the other hand, I felt that way often enough even in the US, and I'm relieved to at last have the perfect excuse.

Don't mind me, I'm not from around here.

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