Communicating in French, Telephonically


In learning French, I realized that sooner or later I’d actually have to speak with people who weren’t patient new friends who’d supply words where I’d draw a blank. I’d have to have an actual transactional conversation. That’s when the feebleness of your expressive capabilities, and the weakness of your vocabulary, are most apparent.

Shortly after my arrival in Paris, I bought a cellphone. At that time more people texted in France than in the U.S., or at least that’s how I saw it. And I saw that in having a cellphone it would be easier for me to set up meetings or grownup play dates with new friends. And by texting, I wouldn’t have to speak, a great fear at the time. I didn’t want to reveal my linguistic shortcomings over a botched telephone call. But I needed a phone regardless.

I chose a local boutique for the big telecom Orange that I found on the Avenue du Général Leclerc, a few minutes from my apartment on the Rue Brézin. It was like any other phone store anywhere, with a French difference: the speed of service. Or the lack of speed.

I learned a sort of patience there. In France you wait. And wait. I had to curb my New Yorker traits, or expectations, that you’d be served quickly and then sent on your way. It wasn’t a matter of people taking time to engage with you. They were simply did things at their own pace. And so here you have no choice but bide your time. That day, the two clerks at the Orange boutique occupied themselves with the two customers ahead of me, step by little step, minute by long minute. It was hopeless to complain (not that I would have had the words at my command to do so), so I watched and waited as the workers worked their way through their day deliberately.

At one point, one of the clerks, a woman of a certain age with a voice rough with years of inhaling toxic air, needed to take “une pause cigarette,” to grab a smoke on the sidewalk before the store, before resuming five minutes later her deliberate sales work with Parisians who were certainly more accustomed than I was to waiting a 45 minutes before being given the opportunity to spend money.


I finally bought a simple phone that had a simple keyboard. I had my own U.S. iPhone with me, but it wouldn’t work in France (unless I wanted to bankrupt myself by incurring overseas charges and using it). I managed to explain who I was and what I needed (those introductory moments at Alliance Française, where we each had to give our names and our reasons for being in France had paid off), and I chose a model that would take what the French call a “mobicarte,” in which you pay for minutes of usage. Since I didn’t have a French bank account, I wouldn’t be able to get a phone contract. In France, you need a local bank account for such things – and the ability to respond to a text that would alert you to your monthly prélèvement, or automatic deduction, of charges for your service. At home in New York my phone usage was charged to a credit card. But the French are credit-card averse.

And so I ended up paying 25 euros or more every few weeks where, if I’d had a bank account, I could have had a calling plan that would have cost between 10 and 20 euros a month. It was one of those little “you are still a foreigner here” moments I’d come to accept, despite feeling at home in Paris.

On obtaining my phone an hour or so after entering the store, and following the usual French bureaucratic rigmarole in filling out form after form, which I’d become used to even after a few weeks there, I had mon téléphone portable. But then I needed to record my greeting.

The salesperson who assisted me kindly showed me how the phone worked, speaking rapidly and with a practiced spiel that, even were I fluent at that point, would have remained unintelligible to me. Once I had managed to get a few halting words out in French about the phone I was going to buy, the salesman had responded slowly but then resumed his normal supersonic talking speed, figuring I’d catch up at some point. I didn’t then, but it didn’t matter. Unfortunately, despite how quickly he dispatched with me after I had bought a phone, he didn’t have the time to help me record my greeting. His own pause cigarette or another rapidly aging client awaited him.

So a day or two later I asked my friend Kathleen to write an appropriate greeting for me. On top of my inability to come up with something to say off the top of my head, I didn’t know the proper manner in which to greet someone in French on a phone, and didn’t want to do the wrong thing, since the French are picky about such things, or at least it seemed they were to me, given the care with which the Alliance Française professors showed us the proper salutation or closing of a letter. Anyway, Kathleen wrote out a little 20-word script, which I then recited into the phone, after she had pressed the correct buttons and responded to the correct beeps in order for me to record it.

I still have that same voicemail message, years later.

It has remained somehow on Orange’s servers, even as I’ve upgraded to newer phones. I listened to my old message recently. It wasn’t as awful as I’d feared, but was nevertheless the halting voicemail greeting of a non-native French speaker.

Few of us like hearing the sound of our own voices played back to us, but it’s even weirder to hear yourself speak in another language, with an accent that, while not quite appalling, still sounds like a cliché of a nasal American yokel butchering a foreign tongue.

But at least I’d had a new phone with which to butcher it.

2 thoughts on “Communicating in French, Telephonically

  1. this is so spot on. our notions of rapid fire customer service pale in comparison. Yet, i grew to like how things happened in France. After all, what’s the big rush? I did however, see people get up and leave restaurants if they thought they’d been kept waiting too long for a server to approach to take an order


  2. I’ve gotten used to it myself, too, and brace myself for the long waits (at the checkout counters at supermarkets, for example). But it’s funny, too, that unlike here, in French restaurants, you’re given about a minute to look over the menu before the waiter comes back asking if you’ve decided what you want. No deliberating over choices there!


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