Dépaysement: What the French Call That Feeling of . . . um . . . Un-country-ness
August 20, 2017 § Leave a comment
Dépaysement. It’s a French word that means something like “culture shock,” but it’s for those times when culture shock isn’t enough to capture what you’re feeling.
I could give you my definition, but it would just be a reworking of what I’ve found others saying. Instead, I’d rather let those others speak for themselves:
- (sentiment dérangeant)disorientation
- (sentiment agréable)change of scenery
(“English Translation of ‘Dépaysement,'” Collins)
It’s hard to put your finger on the feeling. You’re away from home, in a foreign land, surrounded by foreign faces. You’re apprehensive, but excited. You’re nervous, but alive.
Every synapse feels like it’s firing when you first set foot in a strange place, when you have to figure out the lay of the land, try to decide if you’re safe or in danger, if you should be elated or afraid. Every part of you is in overdrive.
What do you call that? “Culture shock” doesn’t cut it. “Excitement” doesn’t do it justice either, given that undercurrent of fear. We don’t have a single term that sums all those feelings up.
But the French do.
(Ben Groundwater, “Why ‘Depaysement’ Is the One Foreign Word Every Traveller Should Know,” Stuff, May 4, 2017)
In France, the feeling of being an outsider is known as dépaysement (literally: decountrification). Sometimes it is frustrating, leaving us feeling unsettled and out of place. And then, just sometimes, it swirls us up into a kind of giddiness, only ever felt when far away from home. When the unlikeliest of adventures seem possible. And the world becomes new again.
(Tiffany Watt Smith, Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty—154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel, Little Brown, 2016)
People do some out-of-character things in foreign countries. They strike up conversations with strangers in bars, even if they would never do the same back home. They wear unflattering hats. There’s something about being a stranger in a strange land that’s equal parts exhilarating and disorienting, and this messy mix of feelings is what the French word depaysement . . . means to capture.
(Melissa Dahl, “10 Extremely Precise Words for Emotions You Didn’t Even Know You Had,” Science of Us, New York, June 15, 2016)
The gray and quotidian machinations of metropolitan life must be “deciphered” in order to discover another reality lurking just beneath the surface, the “sous-reality” of the historical marvelous. In surrealist wanderings through old neighborhoods, parks, cafés and restaurants, the city itself is text—the hidden mysteries like the markings on the Rosetta Stone. This mode of archaeological “reading” is linked to a phenomenological position which Jean Pierre Cauvin has identified as “dépaysement”: “the sense of being out of one’s element, of being disoriented in the presence of the uncanny, or disconcerted by the unfamiliarity of a situation experienced for the first time”. Literally, we might interpret “dépaysement” as “out of country”, or “displaced from one’s homeland.” Within the surrealist context, it refers to a cool disassociation from the mores of twentieth-century Parisian culture so that everyday material objects are freed from their ideological trappings and all of Paris opens itself up as a strange civilization to be “read” for the first time.
(Sasha Colby, Stratified Modernism: The Poetics of Excavation from Gautier to Olson, Peter Lang, 2009)
More than a statement of “homesickness,” depaysement implies a sense that you cannot go home again, that you may be forever disconnected from your old world (Smith 2006). Depaysement is reminiscent of a kind of ritualistic “becoming,” but does not imply being caught in the middle, as in Turner’s (1964) “betwixt and between,” because depaysement is not qualitatively transitional. A rite of passage implies a new social role or place in a social structure. Depaysement implies a sense of being stripped of that social structure altogether. It implies a new permanence in one’s experience in the worlds.
And then there are these musicians from Japan who call themselves The Depaysement (no, not “The Basement” or “The Debasement”). Watch their video. I’m sure they’d appreciate your views.