Last week Lady Gaga performed her Born This Way Ball concert in Nice at the Palais Nikaïa. At one point in her spectacular show she apparently tried to connect with her audience by saying a few words in French. After declaring that she liked eating “sandwichs au jambon” (ham sandwiches), she then pointed to her disheveled hair and said, “J’ai les cheveux mals!”
A French client who was at the concert told me what she had said and was confused about what she meant. During our discussion it became clear how much we all listen with what I call cultural ears. As a Canadian, I heard what she said as meaning, “I’m having a bad hair day.” That is a common expression in North America but it makes absolutely no sense to the French, because they do not have an equivalent phrase. Translated literally my client heard, “I have evil hair.” However, my client pointed out that the French do have an expression about hair that I wasn’t familiar with, “J’ai mal aux cheveux.” This means that you have a headache due to drinking too much. By putting the word mal in the wrong place in the sentence, the meaning got lost.
In France the disheveled hair look also has its own phrase, “saute du lit.” That means looking as if you just got out of bed and didn’t comb your hair before leaving the house. There are even French hair products and brushing techniques that can give you that casual look; in some circles and age groups, it is considered very fashionable.
It’s impossible to know what Lady Gaga intended to communicate but it’s an amusing example of the perils of intercultural communication. Meaning is often not in the words but in the cultural listening, which leads to confusion and misunderstanding. Sometimes there’s no equivalent word in other languages, something called a lexical gap.
For example, there’s a word in Japanese, age-tori, that means looking worse after a haircut (perhaps that’s the word Lady Gaga was reaching for). The illustration shown here is by Irish illustrator Fuchsia MacAree. On her site you’ll find illustrations for each letter of the alphabet, depicting lexical gaps in a variety of languages.
My advice? The next time you are disagreeing at work about what someone “really” meant, especially if they are from a different culture, remember Lady Gaga’s evil hair.