What dinner in France taught me about the power of words

If my trip to Ottawa whetted my appetite for travel, my class trip to France in high school made me ravenous for it.  

The European excursion was a big deal for a few reasons — the most important being I was going to be one of only two boys in the group with fourteen or so girls. As a teenager with raging hormones, that alone would have made the trip worthwhile.

But I was looking forward to other things as well. One, this would be an awesome opportunity to see another part of the world. Two, I was excited to practise my French skills. And three, I was jazzed about the food. 

I had heard so many great things about French cuisine, and I pictured spending my 10 days there stuffing my face with croissants and cheese fondue.

So on the first night at my host family’s house, I took a seat at the dining room table, hungry after a long day of travelling and excited about the meal ahead. 

Unfortunately, those feelings quickly evaporated when my host mother placed a plate in front of me that was heaped with mushy cauliflower. 

This was not only a far cry from the chocolate and banana crepe covered with powdered sugar I was expecting. It was cauliflower — quite possibly my least favourite food.

Staring at the mountain of mush, I faced a serious dilemma. On the one hand, I could hear Mom’s voice in my head, telling me that I’m a guest in someone’s home and I darn well better eat whatever they put in front of me.

On the other hand, there was the very real possibility that I might not be able to keep this stuff down.

In the end, fear of my mother’s wrath outweighed my fear of barfing chunks of cauliflower all over the dinner table. So I got to work shovelling that nastiness down my throat.

It took some intense concentration to keep my gag reflex in check, but I’m proud to say that I managed to eat everything on my plate without hurling. A wave of relief washed over me as I forced the final forkful into my mouth.

The relief was short-lived. Seeing my empty plate, my gracious host mother took it away, only to return moments later with another equally monstrous helping of cauliflower.

Horrified as I was, Mama didn’t raise no rude houseguest. So I got to work on round two. What seemed like a lifetime later, I once again cleared my plate. Although I was impressed that I had gotten this far vomit-free, I knew that a third helping was simply not possible, and I needed to tell them that enough was enough.

But because I was here to practise my language skills, I decided to politely decline more food in their native tongue. Racking my brains for the right words, I patted my stomach and waved my hand. “No thank you, I’m full,” I said in what I considered excellent French.

I got some confused looks from the family, but the flow of cauliflower ended, so I was satisfied the message had been received. Mercifully, we never had cauliflower again during my stay. But that same phrase came in handy, and I concluded most meals by patting my stomach and confidently saying in French, “No thank you, I’m full.”

Unfortunately, it turned out I wasn’t as fluent as I thought. On my last night there, my host brother informed me of what I had actually been saying this whole time: 

“No thank you. I’m pregnant.”

Suddenly the confused looks I had been getting made a lot of sense. I could see how a sixteen-year-old boy announcing his pregnancy might be considered an unusual way to wrap up a meal.

Looking back, I probably got one or two words mixed up — telling them I was full of baby rather than full of food. And although it was embarrassing, it was a good reminder about the importance of choosing our words carefully and how our words have a lot of power.

Bloggers carefully consider what headline will garner the most online clicks. Politicians hire speechwriters who deliberate for hours over whether their candidate should kick off the rally with “Hello” or “Howdy.” Corporations spend millions of dollars coming up with the perfect slogan.

That’s because words matter. They have the power to make somebody’s day or to put them in a sour mood. They have the power to communicate ideas clearly or to send mixed messages. A simple “I’m sorry” can end a years-long grudge, while a “wow, nice job” can make an employee feel twenty-feet tall.

And while shooting from the hip and being blunt can be a refreshing change of pace, it’s important to respect the power that words carry and to be mindful of their potential impact.

In Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path includes Right Speech: the virtue of abstaining from things like gossip, slander and lying and choosing your words carefully to avoid hurting other people.

That can sometimes be tricky. In the age of text messages and online comment sections, it’s quicker and easier than ever to share our opinions and feelings.

But take care to do so thoughtfully. Before you click “send,” take an extra moment to think about how your message will be received. Work on processing your thoughts before vomiting out a response.

While I was fighting cancer, carefully chosen words were very important. Effectively communicating my symptoms helped my doctors build an appropriate treatment plan. And on the flip side, my doctors provided clear, easy-to-understand instructions about my meds so I knew what to take and when. Meanwhile, taking my time to craft the emails I sent to friends and family ensured I kept them updated without worrying them too much. 

Bottom line? The words you choose matter. They can be the difference between politely declining another helping of cauliflower and announcing to the world that you’re a teenaged boy with a baby on the way.

Learning to laugh at yourself

France also taught me to not take myself too seriously. After my humiliating dinnertime gaffe, I could have stopped trying to speak French for fear of making another faux pas. But I knew it was important to keep practising, even after embarrassing setbacks like my pregnancy announcement.

A good sense of humour goes a long way, helping you get back on the horse. Just remind yourself that practice makes perfect — and that the road to mastery is paved with all kinds of failures and face palms.


Next: Chapter 26 — The shopping cart: What an unusual ride to the bar taught me about control

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Chapter 1 — The coin flip: What a cancer diagnosis taught me about life exploding into a bazillion pieces

Chapter 2 — The slip-up: What a puddle of puke taught me about asking for help

Chapter 3 — The Great Burning: What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Chapter 4 — The crayon candle: What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

Chapter 5 — The Christmas concert: What starring as a tree taught me about finding my voice

Chapter 6 — The “Super Something:” What blood and glue fumes taught me about vulnerability

Chapter 7 — The dare: What wearing a clay helmet taught me about bad habits

Chapter 8 — The cannonball: What Meghan in the mud taught me about letting go

Chapter 9 — The fireball: What a flaming tennis ball taught me about nurturing imagination

Chapter 10 — The frying pan: What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

Chapter 11 — The haybale: What a tough day in the barn taught me about having someone to watch your back

Chapter 12 — The babysitting gig: What banshee babies and buttered butts taught me about failing forward

Chapter 13 — The sledgehammer: What a construction job taught me about using the right tools

Chapter 14 — The cement truck: What a misguided act of heroism taught me about good intentions

Chapter 15 — The valet: What a parking disaster taught me about overconfidence

Chapter 16 — The growl: What a wolf in the woods taught me about knowledge and responsibility

Chapter 17 — The shortcut: What a hike through stinging nettles taught me about cutting corners

Chapter 18 — The backpack: What a giant duffel bag taught me about band-aid solutions

Chapter 19 — The big freeze: What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit

Chapter 20 — The snowy gauntlet: What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

Chapter 21 — The Christmas tree: What a holiday hunt taught me about overkill

Chapter 22 — The BB gun: What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes

Chapter 23 — The toboggan hill: What sledding battles taught me about approaching problems from different angles

Chapter 24 — The train: What a trip to the big city taught me about self-sabotage

Chapter 25 — The mushy cauliflower: What dinner in France taught me about the power of words

Chapter 26 — The shopping cart: What an unusual ride to the bar taught me about control

Chapter 27 — The butt clay: What a muddy gully battle taught me about karma

Chapter 28 — The president: What Bill Clinton getting in my way taught me about adaptability

Chapter 29 — The Taipei middle way: What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation

Chapter 30 — The refugee camp: What volunteering in Ghana taught me about digging deeper

Chapter 31 — The bus ride: What a long drive through the mountains taught me about patience

Chapter 32 — The barn: What a Christmas sleepover taught me about keeping your fires stoked

Chapter 33 — The list: What farts and sandwiches taught me about gratitude

Chapter 34 — The birthday: What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

Chapter 36 — The bloody transformation: What going from negative to positive taught me about change

Chapter 37 — The school of hard knocks: What life’s misadventures taught me about blunderful resilience