29 March 2018
No Meeting of Manners
Are the French “rude, aggressive and disrespectful”?
By Richard Pooley
Just when I was beginning to doubt I had anything to write about this week, Monsieur Guillaume Rey came to my rescue. A French waiter working – or maybe, no longer working – in Vancouver, Mr Rey was sacked last summer by his employers, Milestones restaurant, for the “aggressive tone and nature” of his communication with colleagues. They acknowledge that he was “very friendly and professional” with their customers. But he had, for example, disagreed so strongly with another waiter that his colleague had been left “borderline in tears”. In fact this last example of his “combative” behaviour had led to Mr Rey being fired.
Mr Rey has taken the matter to the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal. He claims that he has been discriminated against by his ex-employers because he is French. In his country, he says, it is normal for people to be “direct and expressive” and he should not have been punished for insisting that his Canadian colleagues maintain the high standards that are the norm in the French restaurants where he used to work.
All this has, of course, confirmed the view that much of the world has of the French and, in particular, of French waiters and, most of all, of French waiters in Paris. But before I deal with this image let us ask a few questions about Mr Rey and his ex-co-workers. Was he speaking in English to his Canadian colleagues? If so, how good is his English? And how many of the Canadians speak enough French to know what difficulties Mr Rey might have in expressing himself in what they deem to be an appropriate manner? 20% of Canadians are native French speakers. Unfortunately for Mr Rey, most of these live in Quebec and New Brunswick, not some 4000 km away in British Columbia. Okay, a further 10% of Canadians say they can hold a conversation in French but the likelihood that Mr Rey’s ex-colleagues would be able to chat comfortably with him in his native tongue is tiny (leaving aside the matter of any Frenchman easily understanding someone speaking Québécois or Acadian French). So, let’s assume that Mr Rey was forced to use English to express his displeasure at the lax standards that he observed in Milestones restaurant.
Now, let me ask you: can you speak a foreign language well enough to be able to say exactly what you want to say in a way which you can be sure won’t puzzle or even upset the person you are talking to? I certainly can’t in French and I have been living in France for five years. I suspect that Mr Rey was as handicapped as I am. He was forced to be blunt and unsubtle in his criticism because he simply did not have the linguistic skills to be able to be anything else. And if you cannot say what you want to say, what do you become? Frustrated and angry with yourself and “aggressive” and “combative” to those listening.
Even if Mr Rey is fluent in English, I suspect his French intonation, his choice of words and his French culture make him sound cold and harsh to English-speaking Canadians. Whilst English is a non-tonal language in the sense that native speakers don’t change the meaning of a word by changing its pitch (as the Chinese and Vietnamese do), the meaning of an English sentence changes hugely depending on which words are stressed and whether the speaker’s tone rises or falls. I used to illustrate the latter when teaching English as a foreign language. I asked two students to invite me to dinner. To the first “Would you like to have dinner, Richard?” I would say “I would love to” with a rising tone. To the second my reply was exactly the same but with a falling tone. Only a few realised that I was saying No to the first student but Yes to the unfortunate second one. I tried it on my French son-in-law, a fluent English speaker who lives in Florida. He could not hear the difference or understand its significance.
French people speaking English can sound very formal and even arrogant to native English speakers. That is because they utilise a vocabulary which they comprehend rather than using words they don’t get. About 60% of English comes from Norman French or Latin, directly or indirectly, giving the French and speakers of other Latin languages the false impression that all they need to do to speak English is employ these familiar words. But so many of these Latinate words tend to be the heavy, formal ones you find in academic treatises, contracts and government legislation. Maybe to English Canadian ears Mr Rey sounds like a pompous bureaucrat.
And then there is culture. Julien Mainguy is a French immigrant to British Columbia who provides cross-cultural training for newly-arrived French people. In an interview on CBC News at the weekend he said “The culture in Canada, it’s a non-conflict culture, particularly in the professional area.” How different from France. Even though I have worked with French people for over thirty years, I can still be surprised at the depth of agressivité that exists in the workplace.
It is quite possible for French people to have a vigorous discussion about something that will be decided by others or has already been decided. They do it because they love arguing. As one British colleague recounted: “I remember one manager in a recent meeting, who proudly claimed victory in the debate and then said, ‘but of course we cannot do this, because we have a different strategy’”. I heard another colleague say to a group of Japanese staff at Nissan: “For the French, ‘non’ is the beginning of the conversation, not the end.” The Japanese looked appalled but at the same time nodded as they recalled the meetings they had experienced with their partners in Renault. Meetings between people at the same level in a French company are really debates, where opinions are expressed strongly and proposals attacked and defended with logic and vigour. Such meetings are not for the faint-hearted or the unconfident.
Three years ago I spent a day in Tallinn trying to help a group of Estonian managers whose company had been bought by a big French electronics firm. They were having major problems getting their new colleagues to listen to them and not treat them in a way that they found offensive. I had to spend much of the day teaching the Estonians how to give as good as they got from the French; not easy for people more comfortable with seeking consensus through gentle discussion than winning an argument through superior debating skills.
So, is the stereotype correct? Are the French rude? Yes, if you are a Brit or Canadian who believes that you should always say “please” and “thank you” and express disagreement or criticism indirectly with honeyed words even if you think your interlocutor is an idiot. But how do you define “rude”? What is the image of the British held by the French and by many other nationalities? That we are two-faced; never saying what we really think and not to be trusted as a result. How do I know? Because I have spent years asking business people around the world how they perceive people from other countries. Where does this stereotype of the British come from? From the way we communicate.
I shall never forget the meeting I had with a Norwegian corporate lawyer in Bergen in the early 1980s. We were two minutes in when I had to answer a tricky question. I started my reply with “To be honest” and paused, trying to find the right words. He jumped in: “Yes, Mr Pooley, please be honest.” Think about it. What message does that phrase, so often spoken by Brits wanting to soften the blow which is coming, convey to the non-Brit? That everything else you have said was a lie? The French find this kind of language and our lack of directness infuriating and condescending. And rude.
Here is a quote from one of the wisest French philosophers, Michel de Montaigne, taken from his Essais of 1580. Few French people who have taken the obligatory Philosophy exam in the Bac will not have studied him. In his “On the Art of Conversation” he has this to say (translated, of course): “It is not vigorous and free enough if it is not quarrelsome, if it is polite and artificial, if it is afraid of shocks, and is constrained in its ways: ‘for there can be no discussion without contradiction’.” At the end he is quoting the great Roman orator, Cicero.
Back to Canada. One of the BC Human Rights Tribunal’s members, Devyn Cousineau, wrote this when announcing that the tribunal would listen to Mr Rey’s complaint:
“Mr Rey will have to explain what it is about his French heritage that would result in behavior that people misinterpret as a violation of workplace standards of acceptable conduct.”
Ms Cousineau is a Canadian lawyer whose name would suggest that she will listen to Mr Rey’s explanation with great interest. I trust he will be ready for a tough debate with her.