The Art of Badmouthing in a Second Language

I miss the simple guilty pleasure of gossiping, badmouthing, maligning and using foul language in public. In Latin America of course, in English.

On a day out with a fellow expat, you don’t have to censor yourself for polite company. The vast majority don’t understand. Having accomplices who speak a non-native language is like having a superpower. It comes in handy or it’s just plain fun.

Part of the expat experience is getting together with other expats and making fun of the locals. If you had to make fun in Spanish, you’d probably tone it down. Making fun of people behind their back, right in front of them, is more fun.

But it is not always nefarious. A common situation is a misunderstanding with the taxi driver. For whatever reason, he didn’t quote enough money for the trip. He didn’t know the route or whatever. Now he’s sweating in the front seat thinking about the time and gas he stands to lose. You can huddle with your fellow foreigner, without whispering, to set a plan. Then you announce to the driver in Spanish the solution. You can announce early if you want to rest his worry, or you can let him sweat it out if the situation warrants it.

You have to be careful of course, when badmouthing or speaking in bad taste. Somebody might understand. I like to think I developed a sixth sense in scanning people in earshot, whether on the bus, in the restaurant or wherever. Can you recognize people who understand English well enough to be repulsed? Fortunately, there is a profile. Those of a higher education or socioeconomic level. I say “or” because they aren’t always hand in hand anymore. Poor people can go to the best universities now. But you can see education on people. You can smell it.

And I think they would give away some kind of reaction. If I suspect someone, I’ll direct this question at them, “Are you eavesdropping?” That’s not an easy word even for functional English speakers. But their reaction answers your question.

Moving the family to the States, of course I brought this old expat habit with me. The wife and I speak behind people’s backs sometimes. Nothing harsh. I’m an old dork dad now. Still, you have to be more careful here. There are Hispanics everywhere. Even if you’re not talking about them, people understand you.

Depending on who you’re talking about, you may need code words. If you’re talking about gay people, for example, the Spanish word is the same, “gay.” So we use say “mariposa.” I got this idea from the restaurant industry, where a common nickname for black people was “Canadians.” I always thought that was funny. We have a codeword for black people too, and specific friends and family members. Anything for which the Spanish word might be recognized.

None of the codewords are very creative, but we don’t need them much. In most cases we’re not actually badmouthing anybody. We’re just saying something out loud that polite monolinguists would have to keep quiet about.

The problem is my wife does not have my acute sixth sense of when to use the foreign language. In fact, she has an anti-sixth sense. She uses the local language, which locals understand, at precisely the wrong times. It’s an uncanny ability to fuck up, given we speak Spanish most of the time. But she’ll switch to English when she’s saying something sensitive.

She really stepped in it last week, an error in the art of badmouthing in a foreign language so egregious it inspired this post. In front of the children.

Yes, we speak Spanish when we don’t want the children to understand. The vast majority of our speaking behind people’s backs is in fact done in front of our own children. I don’t feel bad about that. I feel bad that our children didn’t retain enough Spanish to know what we’re saying.

In this case, we were arguing in Spanish when they came in the room. She switched to English at that precise moment to say that she “sucks my wiener.” I flipped. I shouted. In Spanish of course (even in anger, my sixth sense is on point).

I had been chastising her for years about developing this sixth sense of how to use the covert language. She has remained incompetent throughout, and here she said something that could blow the children’s minds. Mild emotional trauma.

What’s worse, my wife would never use the word “wiener” with me. That’s a word I use with the children. Boys have wieners and girls have monkeys. She has only ever used the word, “penis.” So it’s like she sensed their presence in the room and wanted them to understand.

Fortunately I was able to play it off. I didn’t get any uncomfortable questions from them later.

But it’s an art. I’m a master. My wife is hopeless.


  1. Yup, and not a great idea in some circumstances:

    My lovely late uncle E and his daughter are local lawyers. In this case a foreigner (gringo) was suing a local person to get out of rented property.

    My uncle tells me that at one point the plaintiff, hearing something he didn’t like, said a naughty English word.

    Judge throws him out of the Court, “Caso Cerrado”, and don’t ever come back to my courtroom.

    Partly what you say, and partly gringo impatience/arrogance/etc.



      1. Harsh penalty be xxxxed!

        Whether or not one’s able to respect a national system of justice that “occasionally” throws up derelicts like Hinostroza or Chavarry, we are in Court to have someone decide on two sets of arguments cooked up by lawyers paid to either get one’s due or escape it. This means the guy that decides does not have a simple job (ever watch Richard Concepción Carhuanco or Víctor Zúñiga unpicking the advocates’ submissions in the Sra K K cases?)

        Needs concentration.

        Hence “silence in court”.

        Sooooo.. an idiot that cannot keep his temper in check (what is called “losing the papers” here) is probably thiiiiiis close to losing the game.

        And it is NOT sixth sense, CP, just simple politeness and self-awareness.

        Thanks for the request for clarification & I hope this helps!


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