An Englishman in France
What were your first (big) mistakes when moving to France?
My first big mistake when I came to work here was trying to impose absurd ideas of "Anglo-Saxon" efficiency on my French colleagues. What I didn't realize for some time was that they're not interested in earning brownie points from their boss for looking keen - they just want to do their work and get on with the rest of their life. They are very efficient, but on their own terms, and it took me some time to respect that (and that's one thing that Paul West doesn't quite get yet).
I know you’ve studied French before moving. But what were your common mistakes while speaking French?
Before I learnt correct pronunciation I fell into all the traps I listed in my book Talk to the Snail. My favourite was the old "coup/cul" problem. The first is a round "u" sound, with the lips pouting fully, the second is tight-lipped, almost an "ee" sound. Like all sloppy Brits, I tended to confuse the two, the problem being that "cul" means arse. So when you try to say "merci beaucoup", you can end up complimenting someone's backside. My other big problem, like all lazy Englishmen, was the slightly rolled "r" at the end of words. If you leave the "r" off the end of "coeur" (heart), you say "queue", a very rude word for penis. So informing a Parisian you're looking for the Sacré Coeur can get embarrassing. Excuse me, I'm searching for sacred...
Knowing what you know now, would you start over?
Of course I'd start over - living in France can be great fun, as long as you understand the ground rules of the game of life here (which is why I wrote Talk to the Snail. I know that companies often give copies to their expats so they can understand what they're in for, and see why it's worth the effort). And my advice to people coming here is very simple - just say "bonjour" and smile at everyone. If you do just that you'll win half of them over. I've literally seen the grumpiest, most bored shopworkers thinking "oh no, he's said bonjour, I'm going to have to be friendly now". It really works. Of course, once you've mastered "bonjour", you might need a few more words, because unless you master French, you're going to have a very tough time here. Which is only stating the blindingly obvious. I'd like to see someone try to settle in Liverpool, Aberdeen or Chicago without speaking English. The advantage being that in France, lifestyle is king (and queen), so once you settle in properly, you might end up having more fun than the French themselves. They are so used to their quality of life that they don't appreciate it to the full, hence their reputation for complaining all the time. They're only being idealistic. They think life should be perfect.
Your advice to understand the French way of thinking ?
That's a very complex question and it took me a whole book to answer it - Talk to the Snail. But if I have to give a short answer I'd say that even before understanding how French people think, you've got to respect it. They may not react the way a Brit would, for example, but they have their reasons. If you're trying to do a deal with a company and they fall completely silent for the whole of July and August, it's just because they think that no one does deals in summer so it's not worth replying till September. They're not being insulting at all.
How to adapt to the way French people work ?
As I said above, respect their methods. I used to go mad trying to get French people to work to the deadlines I set them rather than the real deadlines. They worked to the real deadlines, and after a short struggle I gave up, everything became harmonious, we met our (real) deadlines and I realized I'd been a twit to try and impose "Anglo-Saxon" ideas of false efficiency. And anyone who tells French co-workers "we do things much better where I come from" deserves to get the answer "well go back there and work, then." These days, some French bosses are trying to use these "Anglo-Saxon" methods and everyone hates their guts. The atmosphere in the offices must be awful.
Why are British people interested in France ?
Everyone has their own reasons, most of them linked to the lifestyle. I think we Brits secretly envy the French for getting their priorities right. Instead of bending over backwards working for a company that will make them redundant the second the economy dips, the French work in order to pay for the good things in life. They are more interested in their holidays, their food and general lifestyle than in being employee of the month, and even if you're only over here in France as a short-term visitor, you get the benefit of their priorities.
Read Stephen Clarke's interview by Jo Ann von Haff
Guide section: Generalities
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