Even after more than 19 years in France, I lift the receiver with apprehension when the phone rings. This is partly because it’s invariably a cold caller. It’s also because dealing with people on the phone in French is damn difficult. I must admit that I have never been a great lover of the phone and use it only when absolutely necessary. But my phone phobia has reached new heights (or depths) in France.
I answer the phone with my name. In the UK, I gave the number, although that became difficult as phone numbers got longer and I kept forgetting mine. In France, it would take 10 words, so instead people say, “Allo, oui?” This is delivered like machine-gun fire – rapidly and menacingly. At least that’s how it sounds. But I’ve now come to realise that people don’t generally mean to sound hostile, it’s just one of those cultural things.
We Brits often complain that the French speak too fast (and they make the same complaint about us). This doesn’t bother me too much anymore, since my French is now reasonably good – and provided I can see the person and judge their body language, it’s fine.
On the phone, though, you don’t have those props. If I am receiving the call, it takes a while to tune into the French, so I miss who the person is, the name of their organisation and the reason for their call. By this time, I am starting to look like a dim foreigner and feeling at a distinct disadvantage.
Putting you through
When a receptionist answers and you ask to be put through, they usually say, “Je vous le/la passe” (I’ll put you through to him/her). This is almost invariably followed by, “Ne quittez pas” (lit. don’t leave or hold on), perhaps not an essential instruction.
As in the UK, while you wait to be connected, you are often treated to a burst of repetitive electronic music. This manages to make even Mozart sound irritating.
This is where the fun begins. If you have a problem involving officialdom, it’s no longer possible to speak to a human being. Instead, you get a recorded message, asking you to press one, two, three etc. depending on your enquiry. I have to listen several times before I can interpret what the robotic voice is saying. This sometimes involves ringing off and calling again when the system refuses to replay the instructions.
It’s the same when someone leaves a message on your answering machine. As ever, it’s delivered at breakneck speed and you have to replay it several times to understand who it is and what they want.
Some French people have an aversion to using answering machines. Friends say, “We tried several times but you weren’t in.” Well, why not leave a message, then? Or someone will phone several times and listen to our recorded message, which is in French, before finally giving in and leaving one. We know this because we have taken to not answering the phone on particularly trying days when we’ve received multiple cold calls.
However, all this is simply another thread in the rich tapestry that is life in France. I’m eternally grateful for the valuable experience of living in another country and speaking a foreign language. And you get a warm, rewarding glow when you’ve concluded a successful phone call about a complicated technical issue.
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