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This is from Gad Elmaleh's stand-up routine 'part en-live'. (I had to do a lot of work to be able to use Netflix available in France and also download the subtitles but it's possible. Why Netflix invests so much effort into prohibiting people from purchasing their product is a mystery to me). Pay attention to the last word 'gêné'

Mes amis américains m’ont emmené dans un steak house. Concept très basique : Une maison du steak. Vous voulez un steak ? Il y a une maison pour ça. Apparemment, ils font pas ça pour d’autres types de nourriture. Y’a pas d’appartement du poulet. Ou loft du poisson, peu importe. En revanche, pour la pizza, ils ont une hutte.

J’ai vu un truc très très américain là-bas : un mec, à genoux... à genoux comme ça, avec une petite boîte, devant une femme, apparemment sa fiancée, sa copine, j’espère. Il était en train de la demander en mariage. [public] Oh ! [Gad] Oh ! Non non, je suis désolé. Euh, tout le monde a réagi comme ça dans le restaurant, grosse émotion. Moi aussi, j’ai senti une grosse émotion, euh, qui s’appelle la gêne.

Personally, I think a marriage proposal in a Pizza Hut is in bad taste but o well. Anyway, 'gêné' got translated into 'embarassment' and that really threw me for a whirl since I always associate 'gêner' with 'disturbance/annoyance' not with 'embarassment'.

But according to gêne was translated 3000 times into discomfort and 900 times into embarrassment and as a past participle 'gêné' was translated 1700 times into 'embarassed' and although it was only translated 70 times into 'disturbed' this is because there are a lot of synonyms for 'disturbance' and not so many for 'embarassment'.

So 'bothered, uncomfortable, annoyed' all together make up about 900 instances - I'm not going to count the exact number. There's also a third meaning of 'hinder/impede' which we won't worry about for now.

Alright, let's get on with the question, so in English 99% of the time, in my opinion, 'x is embarrassed' is only used when 'x has done something wrong or performed badly and they have been caught red-handed or at least people are paying attention to them'. Less than 1% of the time it can be used to describe a woman who is publicly proposed to and she doesn't want such personal emotions to be on display, but, correct me if I'm wrong and you're a native speaker, I think it would be a mistake to call spectators of that event embarrassed.

Anyway, although the distinction between embarrassed/disturbed' in English is very clear-cut, the 'gêner/déranger' distinction seems less so. 'Annoyance/disturbance' in English is completely different since it has nothing to do with you being to blame for the annoyance you're feeling.

So let's get this distinction down in French, are 'gêner' and 'dérangement' pure synonyms or are there situations where you would use one and not the other? Also, in the text quoted above, was 'gêné' correctly translated into 'embarassment'? It's hard to know unless you ask Gad to go into more details, so we can just use hypotheticals. Suppose Gad was annoyed that the couple did something publicly that he felt should be kept private, would you use 'gêner' or some other word?

Suppose en revanche that the negative emotion he felt was due to the fact that another mec made a grand romantic gesture which made Gad think of the sorry state of his pathetic love-life, if that were true then I guess, yea, I might use the word 'embarrased' but would 'gêner' be the right word to express that? There is a still a third possibility, which is what I would feel, on the one hand, I'm glad that these two have found the love of their life, but on the other hand, I think it's tacky (collant, maybe?) to make a marriage proposal in such a slipshod place as pizza hut.

So I guess if I had to describe that emotion in one word it would be 'cringe-worthiness', but again, it's a very vague emotion which is very hard to state precisely. (All words related to 'cringe' appear too rarely in reverso.net so I don't how it's translated.) So once again in that third situation would 'gêné' be the right word?

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  • To add to other answers, gêne includes the concept of "second-hand embarrassment ", which in my opinion is what is at play here, i.e. "I feel embarrassment for them because they're doing something I would be so embarrassed to do" Feb 22, 2023 at 9:53

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''Gêner'' and ''déranger'' have somewhat close meanings. Depending on context, either can be the appropriate translation of ''disturb'', ''bother'' or ''embarass''. That being said, there are not interchangeable and usually there would be one good choice.

''Déranger'' always implies an active disturbance and a passive receiver, where the passive receiver cannot be held responsible for what is happening. ''Gêner'' puts more of a focus on the receiver, who may or may not necessarily share any responsibility for what happens.

As a general rule, I would say ''déranger'' can and should be used if ''choquer'' (shock) could be used in the same but stronger sense.

Compare:

J’ai été dérangé qu’on critique mon travail en public

= I was bothered/disturbed that my work was criticized in front of an audience. Whoever did the criticism acted poorly; regardless of the quality of my work, I did not deserve that treatment.

J’ai été choqué qu’on critique mon travail en public

= Same focus on someone else’s actions, but I am positively outraged rather than merely disturbed.

J’ai été gêné qu’on critique mon travail en public

= I felt embarassed, maybe ashamed, at the situation. The focus is on my internal feelings rather than who did the blaming. Maybe I deserve criticism, maybe I do not, but that’s not the important point.

J’ai eu honte qu’on critique mon travail en public

= I was ashamed. I definitely deserved the criticism.

In the example given, ''déranger'' could be used, but it would be quite strong and point a finger at the guy:

J’ai été gêné de voir quelqu’un demander sa copine en mariage en public.

= It was weird seeing someone propose to his girlfriend in public. That felt strange, unnatural. Maybe I feel a bit ashamed for him (emphasis on ''I feel'', not ''for him'').

J’ai été dérangé de voir quelqu’un demander sa copine en mariage en public.

= I was disturbed, almost upset. This was in poor taste. It should not be done.


As nouns, you almost always want ''gêne'' for a feeling of embarrassment. It might or might not include a bit of shame, but it would not be the main component (pure shame would be ''honte'').

When it comes to mental state, ''déranger/dérangement'' has a rare meaning of mild craziness (''Il est dérangé'' = he is disturbed), but the most common meaning would be ''bother'' when one’s plans get off the tracks due to some external circumstance:

Je dois décaler notre rendez-vous. Désolé du dérangement.

I must reschedule our appointment. Sorry for the bother.

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  • Thanks for the info, I really appreciate it.
    – bobsmith76
    Feb 17, 2023 at 11:18
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    Nice. By the by, another good translation of gêne — not really suggested by déranger — is awkwardness. Gênant, an awkward situation. Dérangeant, an annoying or unsettling one. In the joke awkwardness probably captures it best, though as the post says, the venue is also outright embarrassing :)
    – Luke Sawczak
    Feb 19, 2023 at 20:43
  • @LukeSawczak Effectivement awkwardness semble tout à fait correspondre à la situtation décrite.
    – XouDo
    Jul 7, 2023 at 9:01
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So let's get this distinction down in French, are 'gêner' and 'déranger' pure synonyms or are there situations where you would use one and not the other?

There are situations where only one of these two verbs apply.

context 1: A manager must have an important talk with some clients and he wants to make sure that nobody will be a cause of interruption during the meeting.

In this case this person (manager) will never use "gêner". Here is what he/she might say.

  • Il ne faut pas que nous soyons dérangés pendant cette entrevue ; s'il vous plait, veuillez faire patienter quiconque insiste pour me voir.

  • Je ne veux pas être dérangé pour l'instant ; vous devrez demander aux personnes qui veulent me voir de patienter jusqu'à cet après-midi.
    ("Gênés" would be a bizarre choice in both examples.)

context 2: A wife is complaining to her husband about one of his guests and asking him not to invite him to a diner because she doesn't like the conversation of this person, not that she should feel shame because of what the guest is saying, but simply because that is not what she wants to hear and not what she wishes to discuss with her other guests. Here again, this wife would use "déranger" and "gêner" as follows and in both cases the only correct form is that which has been used.

  • Je voudrais que tu n'invite pas Roger, il n'arrête pas de parler de guerre et tout le monde se met à parler de guerre ; ça me dérange, je voudrais que l'on parle d'autre chose, et je ne peux tout de même pas lui demander de se taire, quant à détourner la conversation habilement sur un autre sujet, je peux bien le faire une fois, mais ensuite je donne l'impression de m'acharner sur lui, et franchement ça me gêne.

context 3: A man is in need of a lawnmower urgently as the lawnmower in his shed is not working and as he wants the lawn to be cut before a party he is giving in the afternoon. He goes to his nextdoor neighbour, whom he knows very well, and asks him if he can borrow his lawnmower for a couple of hours. Here is how he might talk to his neighbour.

  • — Jean, il m'arrive quelque chose d'embêtant ; j'ai invité du monde à une partie chez moi pour cet après-midi et ce soir et on pense se baigner, mais l'herbe autour de la piscine n'a pas été coupée depuis longtemps, et manque de chance, ma tondeuse est en panne ; ça te dérangerait de me prêter la tienne pendant la matinée ?
    — Non, ça ne me dérange pas du tout, mais je vais quand même te demander de la nettoyer après t'en être servi.
    ("Gêner" wouldn't do.)

context 4:

Also, in the text quoted above, was 'gêné' correctly translated into 'embarassment'? It's hard to know unless you ask Gad to go into more details, so we can just use hypotheticals. Suppose Gad was annoyed that the couple did something publicly that he felt should be kept private, would you use 'gêner' or some other word?

"Embarrassed" does render "gêne" properly, but in fact, I do not believe that "embarrassed" is the word that corresponds to ElMaleh's feeling, nor do I believe that he expressed correctly what he felt. In my opinion he was in pray to a feeling that the French express differently, and quite possibly, he refrained from expressing it in the usual way so as to make sure of causing no hard feelings. This feeling I refer to is a vicarious feeling: the shame that is felt by someone else, or, which results in the same effect, the shame that apparently should be experienced by someone, is taken up as one's own through the exposure of the circumstances that produce it (and these circumstances may even be construed in the person's mind, merely imagined). (In case of this being a new concept, note that vicarious feelings can be of all sorts.) In French this is rendered by the family of expressions "gêné pour elle/lui/eux/untel". Moreover, one does not confess lightly to such a feeling, the reason being that it is not always possible to prevent communicating to your listener the impression, real or not, of basking in a holier-than-thou attitude; so, this is more often felt and not talked about, and related more readily to trusted acquaintances.

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gêné pour lui

gêné pour elle

Why he was "gêné pour lui" seems almost évident, although a precise pinpointing of facts cannot be made ; in French culture the time is long gone when pretenders pledged their love on their knees, and there is no telling the ideas this behaviour might evoke today to the French, depending on their upbringing ; from the ridicule that abandonned ancient customs suggest, to the idea of subservience that this particular attitude reminds one of, not forgetting the portentousness of the chivalrous attitudes of the past which today appear laughable, it might even be possible to refer to a cocktail of such impressions that created the unease in Elmaleh's mind. Even in America, today, people will rarely witness such scenes; they are still to be seen in cinema that pictures highly individualistic characters of a more or less recent past, but there is such a breach of vision between the cinema and reality that reactions in real life can show less tolerance.

Suppose en revanche that the negative emotion he felt was due to the fact that another mec made a grand romantic gesture which made Gad think of the sorry state of his pathetic love-life, if that were true then I guess, yea, I might use the word 'embarrased' but would 'gêner' be the right word to express that? There is a still a third possibility, which is what I would feel, on the one hand, I'm glad that these two have found the love of their life, but on the other hand, I think it's tacky (collant, maybe?) to make a marriage proposal in such a slipshod place as pizza hut.

It seems likely that the scene appeared as well pathetic, but there is nothing to infer about the love-life as a whole as that is many faceted and you can't know from just one aspect. I don't think the idea expressed by "collant" is relevant ; this chivalrous attitude is the expression of a strong feeling, not that of a desire for being continuously in presence of the beloved; moreover, this adjective (very colloquial) applies generally to all people, friends, acquaintances, not just lovers, and means "insisting on remaining in the presence of certain people and interacting with them longer than is considered to be normal". I think that the cause of this ill feeling is rather the act itself, and perhaps to a certain extent the fact that it was carried out in public; the place seems to have nothing to do with it; after all, if is not the most solemn of places, it is not worse than a living room or the front seat of a car.

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  • Simply astonishing. I always appreciate your very detailed and in-depth answers, LPH.
    – bobsmith76
    Feb 20, 2023 at 8:36

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