Speak Your Language

The French are famous for their fierce attachment to their language. I got a taste of this attachment long time ago when I was in France. I had been there for a couple of years, and my French skills were passable. I was working as a research engineer for CNRS, a coveted “fonctionnaire” position, and was assigned to this lab called CPPM next to the insanely beautiful callanques on the Mediterranean. Then this new colleague of ours joined CPPM, from Imperial College. He was Greek, and, being new to France, had very little French in him. I took this as a god-given opportunity to show off my French connection and decided to take him under my wing.

One of the first things he wanted to do was to buy a car. I suggested a used Peugeot 307, which I thought was a swanky car. But this guy, being a EU scholar, was a lot richer than I had imagined. He decided to buy a brand-new Renault Megane. So I took him to one of the dealers in Marseille (on Blvd Michelet, if memory serves). The salesman, a natty little French dude with ingratiating manners, welcomed us eagerly. The Greek friend of mine spoke to me in English, and I did my best to convey the gist to the French dude. The whole transaction probably took about 15 minutes or so, and the Greek friend decided buy the car. After the deal was all done, and as we were about to leave, the Frenchman says, “So, where are you guys from, and how come you speak in English?” in flawless English. Well, if not flawless, much more serviceable than my French was at that point. We chatted for a few minutes in English, and I asked him why he didn’t let it on that he spoke English. It could’ve save me a world of bother. He said it was best to do business in French. For him, certainly, I thought to myself.

Thinking about it a bit more, I realized that it is always best to do business in whatever language that you are most comfortable in, especially if the nature of the transaction is confrontational. Otherwise, you are yielding an undue advantage to your adversary. So, next time you are in Paris, and that cabbie wants 45 euros for a trip when the meter reads 25, switch to English and berrate him before settling the issue. It softens the target, at the very least.

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