Wednesday, June 15, 2005

How french has taught me to love the phone.

[Thanks for the great feedback on my last post everyone. Really interesting and enriching comments. I'd love to find a good discussion group for new anglos to Montreal, that way we could carry on these discussions more dynamically.]

I have discovered a wonderful new bonus to learning and practicing French. Now two of the things that I used to hate the most, tech support and telemarketing, have become good things in my life. Let me explain how.

I'm a bit of a nerd and know enough about electronics and computers to be the kind of customer that I'm sure most tech support workers hate. I also have an attitude and a political opinion born out of a childhood in Berkeley and a father who is basically a technological anarchist. So when I'm phoning my ISP or the hydro company, I'm already in a fight before I even get them on the phone. Of course, they always do something to justify my anger.

In Quebec, when you call these services, the default tends to be in French. Speaking another language on the phone is much more difficult (no visual cues, can't watch the lips move, sound quality is bad) and you really have to prepare yourself mentally. The difficulty is especially pronounced if you are going to be using specific vocabulary, such as billing or computer terms. Generally, here, the people on the other end of the line are bilingual, but I always feel like such a jerk barging past their polite "bonjours" and "comment est-ce que je peux vous aider?" into my complaint (seeming all the more obnoxious in english). For a while, I would start out in French, exchange pleasantries and then ask if it was okay if we spoke in English as I had trouble with the technical terms. This tended to help me feel less guilty and improve the overall tone of the conversation.

Whether it's the language or the culture, French-Canadians are very polite. They take the time to state all the social pleasantries that we used to use in English but have mainly discarded. They say "bonjour" or "bon soir" when they see you and "bonne journée" and "bonne soirée" (have a nice day or evening) when you leave. They say "enchanté" or "c'est à moi le plaisir" (the pleasure is mine) when they first meet you. If you thank someone in a business transaction, they may well respond "C'est moi qui te remercie." (it is me who thanks you). I find it an interplay of language that makes for a warmer and more meaningful social existence. Anglos who want to get on in Quebec would benefit greatly by recognizing this. Even if you don't speak french, just taking the time to make a polite exchange tends to make the other person feel more inclined to be helpful, even if you continue in English.

I saw just how rude the anglophone can seem when I was out on my front porch sorting my recycling. A woman was knocking at the door next to mine. My upstairs neighbour, a woman from Saskatchewan, opened the door. The woman knocking told her in french that she was from the landlord and was here to collect some tax papers that had been dropped off in the mail. My neighbour said "We don't want any" and basically slammed the door in her face. It was jarring. The woman rang again and my neighbour came down. The woman started to explain who she was. I tried to tell my neighbour in english that she was from the landlord, but I could see from her face that she was quite stressed with her inability to understand. Finally, in a shrill tone, she yelled upstairs to her boyfriend that "Some lady is talking french." The boyfriend came down and they figured it out. I know my roommate was not trying to be rude. She was just anxious about not being able to speak the language and had her western canadian fear of talking to strangers defensiveness up. Obviously, the woman from the landlord could not see this at all and she looked very put out. When she turned to me, she went right into her need for these papers. I didn't respond to that and instead introduced myself and asked who she was. Then I remembered that I had talked to her on the phone and then we discussed the weather and the building and her husband the plumber who'd helped fix our kitchen sink. Her whole demeanour changed. She became relaxed, comfortable. I eventually got her her papers (and an appointment for her husband to come by and help me install the washer). Not only was the whole exchange so much more pleasant, but it really highlighted what's important in life: talking with people, not the stupid papers!

So I've been trying this strategy on the phone. Eventually, it got to the point where I just felt comfortable enough to stay in french. Sometimes, I'll ask them to be patient with me, but more and more we've been doing these transactions almost entirely in french. And the beauty of it is that, because of the gentle politeness at the beginning of the conversation and my sense of accomplishment at dealing with this onerous task in another language, I often end up not getting angry at all. Moreover, sometimes I find the person on the other end of the phone to be charming and engaging, to the point where I'm actually enjoying the conversation (despite the extortion-based policies of Hydro-Quebec and Bell, but that's another blog). Sometimes, they can't get me off the phone!

This has now extended to telemarketers. We all know them and we all hate them. Their demon spawn bosses should be packed in ice and shot out to Pluto. But suddenly, for the novice french-speaker, here is a free oral french lesson, on the challenging phone, no less! So when the telemarketer phones me in right in the middle of some project and asks if I have time to answer some questions, I say "avec plaisir!" Of course before they get to their questions, I head them off with some polite conversational openings. "Ça va? Oui, oui. Ça va très bien. En bonne forme, en fait, malgré l'humidité. C'est une catastrophe!..." Then I take the time to discuss each of their questions at length. It's great practice and eventually you can hear them start to get frustrated, which is deeply satisfying. Now they try to get off the phone with me! My most memorable discussion was the guy from customer service at Sympatico who called to follow up on a call I had made to see if I was happy with their response to my call (what middle manager fiend came up with that idea? "Let's see, our service sucks, so when they call to complain and we don't help them at all, we'll call them at home a week later and ask how they felt our service was!" "Great idea, JR!"). Anyways, I ended up arguing with him about the nature of their SMTP server (the poor fool knew a little bit about it, just enough for me to latch onto) and then launched into a discussion about data travelling around wires and in the ether and who should own it and what is private property anyhow. All in french. He hung up on me. I felt like I'd just got an unexpected tax refund.

And the upshot of it all is that my french on the phone is really getting quite competent. Now if only I could get my outgoing emails to be sent reliably...


Anonymous said...

I hate phone conversations with strangers in all languages I speak, but in French it tends to be a bit worse.
So I usually tell tele-marketeers that they have reached an unlisted number and that this is illegal in Québec.
The next time I'll try your method and maybe get something out of it myself.

PS You know you can get DSL for less in Montreal if you don't sign up with Sympatico? I use AEI and despite the unfortunate name (sounds completely different in English and French) I have had no problems with them so far.

WeSailFurther said...

We must be on the Do-Not-Call list because we haven't gotten a telemarketer call in a long time. BUT, now that I have you strategy in mind i look forward to them calling. Won't they be surprised when I want to carry the conversation "aw Fransay."

Ah, but seriously folks, I am going to answer each of their questions with a question. "Does this sound like a good service to me? Are you telling me I can have the scrubber and the wiper for only 29.99?"

And so on.

Anonymous said...

Mwahaha, excellent way to invert the situation with telemarketer ;)

In fact the more "latin/south" people are, the more they tend to add such polite expression in their language. In Africa, you may spend many minutes exchanging with people about the family, the weather, etc. before starting a real conversation.

Some that I know who come from Senegal was really upset when arriving at Montréal that someone could stop you in the street to ask for the time... without asking "introduction" question.

Quebec is not really in the south (hmmm), but it's a little more "latin" than the ROC.

Anonymous said...

Hysterical. I could not stop laughing as I read this. I'm at my desk at work and people must think I'm insane. Bravo for using the telemarketers to your advantage. Its great that you are so positive while you encounter such weirdness.