Okay as we’ve established I am not fluent in French. I’m getting there. I try really hard. Like really hard. Everyday. This photo clip from Modern Family really sums it up when Gloria screams at Jay how it feels “to have people laugh in my face because I’m struggling to find the words.” Here it’s a more screwed up face and a physical recoiling of the body simultaneously. Oh gawd. That face. The French face of “I haven’t a fucking clue what you are saying to me and in no way am I going to disguise my facial features to this fact.”
Dear French person, when you do this it’s like you’ve launched a grenade into our language speaking confidence storage levels. At times, for many this can be at Defcon 1. Many before have retreated, thrown in the towel and simply given up. Scurrying away, taking the tiny ounce of confidence they still have left and placing it with their remaining dignity and sanity. Their language speaking enthusiasm died that day. That day when one more scrumpled up face was one face too many.
However, we the undeterred and battle hardened will carry on regardless. We shall talk to you in word order hell and you will bloody well listen to us! So please, Dearest French person try and disguise that face and just, just for once, pretend you’ve understood. Merci bien.
And now with much reluctant fanfare I have entered the next stage, the next level of negotiating life in France. I must now argue in French. If truth be told, I’ve been doing this since day one – Enedis with a permanent supply of electric, our vandalised truck, a fosse report not forthcoming, school meetings and on and on. It’s life. It’s normal. It’s just very uncomfortable when your speaking capabilities are that of a 6 year old.
As time goes on, you get better and I must be able to defend myself and my family at all costs. I must query the logic, the bill and the why can’t you? All those things you can easily do in your own language.
As ever this is somewhat light heartened. Except the lady I speak of. That is not! Most people here in Normandy are lovely and helpful but occasionally you will come across an awkward bugger like you would anywhere in the world.
Now for those that are fluent – I am somewhat teaching you to suck eggs so please feel free to add any advice and top tips. You can, undoubtedly, argue at a more superior level than my good self. However, even if you are a basic, intermediate or advanced speaker you will be pleased to know that you can still argue in French but you have to do it the French way.
So without further ado you must make this your French mantra whilst living here. I cannot stress this enough. I will say this in my “About Last Night” voice – do you remember that 80s film where Rob Lowe tells James Belushi that he’s told Demi Moore he loves her? He screams back at him “NEVER, EVER, EVER, EVER, tell a broad you love her!” So in that voice..
NEVER EVER, EVER, EVER ACCEPT NO!
Us Brits believe (certainly here in France) if someone is in a position of authority, or on a reception desk, or at the tax office that when we ask a question and that person says “no” we accept the first answer. Maybe a feeble, half baked attempt to have it out before walking away a shadow of our former self but generally speaking it is accepted.
It is imperative that you do not. Now I never did this in the UK so it probably comes natural to me to argue the toss over everything. But then again I lived in South London and it is the survival of the fittest and getting past the doctor’s receptionist. Which I can testify can be bitches the world over. I actually think its a prerequisite for any hospital, doctors receptionist job etc. It is in the job description. Make life as awkward and as difficult as possible for the person opposite you. France is no exception to this rule.
*Obviously if its positive. Run. Run Forrest.
Once you have not accepted the negative answer, under no circumstances can you leave the premises or hang up the phone. Nope. Whilst arguing with a French person can, at times, be a somewhat an unnerving experience – I think its the sound of the language, the sound similar to rapid gunfire and with no coming up for air – you must STAND YOUR GROUND.
STAND YOUR GROUND
You do not move from your position. You do not care for the queue forming behind you. The array of scrumpled up faces, not only in front of you but numerous behind you. You do not care to understand any “anglais” comments that may come out and you do not move. Do you hear me?! I do not even care if you are not ‘anglais’. Any person speaking English in France is English. I really do want to see every geography teacher currently practising but I don’t have time. I want to draw a map of the UK and tell them there are 4 countries and that just because someone is speaking English it doesn’t make them English although I am English but that’s not the point…I digress.
You may want to run out of there or hang up and retreat into the fetal position and rock back and forth and quickly go on rightmove to see where you can live in the UK next BUT you can’t. I’m sorry you just can’t.
If you’ve been charged for 30 x packet of potatoes (this happens frequently to Brits in Lidl in Normandy) then you ain’t moving from there until you’ve been refunded. And whilst you’re at it you tell them this is going all over their social media feed and you throw in the race card. You get down and dirty I tell you. Very un-British I know but you have to tap into your dark side. Feel the French force.
I know, I know this is not your thang. In the UK, the customer service person would be running around apologising and you’d still be friends at the end of it. Never. Gonna. Happen. Here.
And do you know what? We have more resilience in this regard. The stand off. They will get so fed up with the hassle of it all, they will seek to off load the problem onto someone else and in the end they will give in. If it’s on the phone (they don’t tend to hang up) they will get so tired of your poor French they will agree to anything to get rid of you. Job done.
TALKING OVER THE PERSON
This is normal here. I don’t know why as no one gets to hear what the other person is saying. It’s a cultural thing so it is. It is what it is. It ain’t gonna change. There is no real dialogue when you are arguing with a French person*. Which is the point really. As the person arguing doesn’t care for any logic or whether there is any foundation to your arguments. You are wrong. The end. Please see my post on a man reversing into my stationary car (the scars run deep). He reversed into my car but it was my fault as I didn’t drive the way in which he intended me to – into oncoming traffic down a one way system.
*This is not to be confused with a debate – a debate is good fun and everyone is friends at the end of it.
Even if they know you are right you are wrong as if you are right something has to be done and that just won’t do. Having said this, they can change in split second. It’s really weird it’s like this switch goes from rowing with you with great intensity to being very nice and accommodating. 0 – 60 springs to mind as is turning on a sixpence.
With this nugget of information it makes it easier for you to adopt the same attitude. You are right. They are wrong. And you can get angry as well but calm angry. This really works a treat. It has a real taken aback, shock tactics and can throw them right off course.
Do not be sacred of that rapid, angry French directed your way. I mean it is quite something. I have never experienced anything like this in my life. Bearing in mind I used to be an Adjudicator settling large sums of money between banks and complainants. I’m talking about someone praying you award them up to £200k for a bank error plus compensation. I have phoned people to say they’ve lost their case and never have I been spoken to like the woman from Normandy transport. Ever. I was seething for 2 days after and wanted to hunt her down and demand the meaning of her rudeness. Plus as you know, my inner Reggie Kray was dying to get out.
I have to tell you. I have been meaning to. Very simply my son didn’t know where to get on and off his school bus. It wasn’t clear and there was a bit of confusion. It is assumed everyone knows what they are doing but we don’t! I had emailed and had no reply. In short, I had to drive to pick up my son and just before I did, I wrote another email. However, the cut and paste in google translate was LARGE and I had omitted to put ‘bonjour’ or ‘cordialement’ at the end. Yarp crime of the century. I had already phoned and spoken to a rude man about where the stop was and was non the wiser.
Anyhow, enter the most angriest, rudest woman in Normandy. She phoned the landline and Mr Normandy answered. He couldn’t get a word in edge ways whilst this screaming banshee was yelling at him down the phone. Upon my return, I phoned the screaming banshee woman who, again, did not let me get a word in. The gist of it was that I had committed the most serious crime of not writing an email correctly.
She said this about 3 times and to get to the point, I said sorry the equivalent number of times, which threw her off guard a bit but not enough to derail her. She continued to scream (this is a fully fledged adult working in an office) that the bus driver did not tell my son to get off. I actually do okay when I am raging. I manage to throw words and vocabulary out (not necessarily in the right order). So I had to talk over her as there were literally no gaps in her tirade of abuse. I also said do you want to speak to my son – no she tells me! He speaks better than me. No she’s not doing that. She’s not helping me she just wants to berate me. I yell up to my son in English “do you want to speak to this rude woman?”
Cue hysteria. By all accounts she understands a bit of English she tells me in French. So I say (in English) “well you’re rude aren’t you? You won’t let me speak.” She couldn’t understand so mild satisfaction chalked up there. I did find it highly ironic that here was a woman lecturing me on good manners but made a screaming toddler look polite. Someone said to me after that perhaps it was a little show for her work colleagues. Big mistake. As my next point is this..
If you haven’t won the battle you still have the war. This lady even told me she was going to hang up on me! Who does that?! All I had wanted was some clarification. To ask where my son got the bus back home from and why did the bus driver tell him it was the end of the line when it wasn’t? His first day using the bus he had to walk 20 minutes in the pouring rain with his suitcase. She did not give a toss about this just about telling me off for not writing an email in the correct way.
My inner Kermit was raging. I was pounding on that keyboard afterwards. After I called her a ‘wanker’ – what can I say sometimes a little bit of English does you good!
I was on their twitter, facebook and email address. I wanted the name of the person in charge. Over a few days of actually being very helpful with photo reference points of the bus stop and answering all my questions except who was in charge – eventually I got the name, a response and a roundabout apology for being spoken to so rudely. So even when you think you’re done, you just can’t face it – you need to get writing.
Now I haven’t got around to having these to hand but I think they are absolutely essential to have in your memory bank. They could include, and please do feel free to add your own:-
“Sorry, is there a reason why you are being so rude?”
Is it because I’m English? Would you speak to a French speaker in the same way?
“Why are you talking over me?” “You need to let me speak” and so on. “Can I speak to someone else who is nicer?!” You get the memo.
So there you have it, my little tongue in cheek guide on how to argue French style. And if all else fails I find saying “wanker” in English to be immediately satisfying and cures all wrong doing.
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