Ask Babs: How Do You Respond When You Overhear People Badmouthing You In Another Language?

This month: how to clap back in any language. Also, the difference between ‘preservative’ and ‘preservativo’ (and how to correctly ask about the nutritional content of your sausage).

“Ask Babs” is a new advice column for people who made embarrassing language mistakes (and are desperately trying to redeem themselves). If you’re cringing your way through a new language, Babs wants to hear about it. To appeal to her divine wisdom, email with your awkward language questions.

Dear Babs,

As a first-generation American, I don’t really give off the vibe that I’m fluent in two languages, so I’m going to assume that’s why the people in front of me in yesterday’s coffee line felt comfortable trash-talking me in Italian. Apparently, I dress like a slob, and I also “probably have a thing for Guy Fieri’s Chophouse.” First of all, I prefer Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, thank you very much. Second of all, I’d love to have a brutal comeback prepared next time this happens, because I couldn’t think of anything to say, and this felt like a major missed opportunity.

Show me your ways,
Stumped On Sass

Dear S.O.S.,

Who would we even be if we had never loved and lost, or never thought of the perfect comeback hours after it even mattered? To be human is not so much to clap back flawlessly, but to know the exquisite anguish of clapping forward into a vast echo chamber of nothingness.

You might not know this about me, but I’m also bilingual, and I, too, blend in well as an English-only American. To nobody’s surprise at all, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time thinking about what I would say to someone who dissed me in Spanish. The fact that it’s never actually happened is probably the fourth biggest disappointment of my life. I’m not telling you what the other three are.

But to your point, I don’t personally speak Italian, so I can’t tell you exactly what to say. If you’re simply in search of a very creative way to tell somebody off, you can start here.

What I can suggest is that you should start thinking like somebody who’s actually eager to participate in some bilingual drama — you know, like me — and begin the process of creating a delicious, self-fulfilling prophecy of rudeness.

S.O.S., you have to create these scenarios in your mind if you want to feel prepared. Have fake arguments with people that actually make you mad. Anticipate your opponent’s move before they go in for the left-hook. You have to float like a butterfly, and sting like a high-proficiency spelling bee. People are predictable. What are the odds that the next smack-talking Italian would reference your personal style, or your apparent love of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives?

Create a few probable scenarios in your mind, and then spend some time thinking about your ideal quip. If anything, it would be good to have a blanket response on standby; something along the lines of “Hey, tough guy! You think you’re so…tough?”

To believing in yourself and your inner savage,

Ask Babs

Dear Babs,

My friend and I are English teachers in Madrid, and she recently made a hilarious (and pretty predictable) gaffe in Spanish. She went into the embutidos section of the meat store and asked if the sausages contain “preservativos.” After she said that, everyone burst out laughing, and she was super embarrassed and confused until she went home and looked it up. You probably already know this, but preservativo means “condom,” not “preservative.”

Anyway, it definitely makes for a good story, but now I’m paranoid that I’m going to say something really cringey too, and I’m wondering if you can point me to any resources for learning about common Spanish mistakes, or maybe your best pointers for recovering gracefully in these situations.

Asking For A Friend

Dear A.F.A.F.,

First of all, lolz.

Second of all, what’s so terrible about giving a handful of meat clerks the biggest belly laugh they’d likely had in months? Think about it: you handle pork casings all day. You probably thought you’d heard every sausage joke in town, and five times over at that. Who knew that some unsuspecting foreigner could show you that there is, indeed, no limit to the abundance of humor that lies in making sausage/penis comparisons?

Mainly, my advice to you would be to forget about preserving yourself. Ditch the preservativo, so to speak, and just be willing to learn and laugh from your mistakes. It may not work that way when you get pregnant by accident, but it does work that way when you make a silly language gaffe, so go on with your bad self.

I do feel that it is my teacherly duty to direct you to a place where you can brush up on some of the most common (and hilarious) mistakes that English-speakers make in Spanish.

Beyond that, live your life. We all learn through failure, and especially when it comes to languages. If you can do that in a way that involves laughter (and not mistake children), then I would say you’ve got it all pretty much figured out.

Keep practicing unsafe language learning,

Embrace the process.
Learn A New Language