Phone calls in France come with a special set of French phrases and etiquette. Learning French telephone courtesies can greatly work in your favour.
I have lived in France for more than 10 years now, and over that time I have learned a few things about phone calls and courtesies in French.
Using the right words
Often times, foreigners (being one myself, I speak from experience) have a harder time communicating over the phone, especially understanding the person on the other end of the line. Perfecting that comes with practice. Another thing that comes with practice is finding the right words to use over the phone. I feel I have come to a point where I can perfectly manage phone calls using all the French courtesies and phrases that I have so diligently added to my repertoire over the past decade.
Void of courtesy
So it was a slap in the face when I phoned an administration and was confronted with a French person who was void of any of the courtesy that is ingrained in the way the French communicate professionally in both conversation and writing.
I was searching for a service in order to obtain some administrative records, and had telephoned the service several times only to have thrice been cut off before I could even speak to someone, twice been transferred to irrelevant departments, and finally, when I had someone online again and said I wasn’t sure which department I was now speaking with nor if they could help me, the speaker replied with a brusque, “Vous êtes qui?” (‘who are you’).
My jaw dropped at the apparent rudeness. As if I had most likely interrupted the woman’s friendly chat with her colleague and she was forced to pay attention to someone else’s issue on the phone (aka: do her job). Now I have seen this before, but normally am greeted with cold yet absolute textbook politeness. This is the French weapon of conversation and making the other person feel dominated. But this woman clearly missed out on that training.
Funny side note, when you Google the words administration française you see many images like these :
Lately I have been less than tolerant of disrespectful people (ask chéri about the incident when I hollered at a taxi driver who opened his door without looking, and me – on a bike – just missed being knocked to pieces by mere centimetres). But then I have a habit of speaking my mind anyway, much to chéri‘s dismay.
I chalk it up to being American and being born into a large family. I learned that if you don’t speak up, no one will take into account what you want or how you feel. Also, I may need a good three long weeks away from the city of love (?) in order to catch my Paris-frazzled breath… I haven’t left for longer than a few days since last summer and the attitude might just be getting to me.
Back to the lady on the phone :
“Excuse me?!?” I replied (in French). “Is that how you speak to people over the phone? I am merely trying to determine if I am connected with the right service.”
“Yes.” She again said in her rude tone (in French of course). “But who are you? What do you want?” (‘Vous êtes qui? Vous voulez quoi?‘)
Again, my eyes flew open in disbelief at the stark rudeness of the way she was responding to me. A proper way of communicating with me would have been ‘Quel service cherchez-vous madame?’ or even better ‘À quel service puis-je vous transferer madame?’ …But no, I only got slap-in-the-face attitude. So I decided not to let myself be defeated and call her out on her improper execution of her job.
“Mais vous êtes allée où à l’école madame?” I asked with a direct attitude. (‘But where did you go to school ma’am?’). And then, “Is that how they taught you to speak to people over the phone?”
Silence on the other end of the line. I paused.
“Allô! Are you there?” She snapped back at me.
I didn’t back down: “Excuse me but I don’t appreciate being spoken to so impolitely. I am trying to find out some information, and you could be a little less rude in the way you address me please.”
I proceeded with my request in an impeccably polite voice and she now proceeded to reply with matching politeness.
A politeness battle
I had ‘won’ a politeness battle because conversation in France – be it professional or even sometimes with people you know – is often a contest of wits, and the more polite you are the more you have the upper hand’. I think it may be the first one I have ever won.
Not that I am thrilled about having to remind someone how to be cordial over the phone to a perfect stranger who is merely asking for a little help. But it did feel nice to have an upper hand for once when I felt I was being treated with scorn. Because even though I am fluent, I often loose half of my capabilities in French when I get flustered.
Now I am armed with a victory and the experience of polite retorts actually working in my favour. So to the next snooty person to put me down, warning! I may speak with stern politeness to you. (Not to scare you or anything.)