Never arrive early. Paris is the capital of fashion – which means that meetings also start fashionably late. Once the traditional greeting is out of the way (you can manage “Bonjour, monsieur”, right?), simply let your client talk. How? With the same tactics you used to avoid being called on in school. Rummage around in your bag for a tissue or stuff your mouth with food to buy yourself time – you’re in a restaurant, after all. Now, your client will begin to talk. And you simply agree with everything they say.
Indicating your agreement
Interrupting a speaker is considered rude in a lot of languages. In French, however, it’s a courtesy – but ONLY if you’re showing your agreement. Try nodding and saying things like “ah ah”, “ben oui”, “c’est clair”, “hum hum” and “ok” every so often. It’s important that your conversation partner sees that you understand and want them to continue talking. If you get this right, they’ll keep on going, buying you valuable time. Make sure you always have something on hand to eat or drink in order to give them the floor again if they try to stop.
It’s true: French speakers like to complain. It makes them feel better. Especially when the others around the table agree with them. You’ll easily be able to tell when your conversation partner is upset: they’ll speak louder and gesticulate to show their annoyance. You may not understand a word, but they’ll want you to share their opinion – otherwise there wouldn’t be any point in complaining to you. Now it’s time for you to indicate your agreement with a few noises. But not any old noises! The most common are “rhoooo”, “pssss”, and “pfffff”. You can also try an “ohlala” or even a “rohlala” if you’re feeling brave. “Ohlalaaaa… pfff… n’importe quoi…” is my personal favorite. Feel free to be loud about it, and try clicking your tongue if there’s an awkward pause: “tttt”. It’s also important that you don’t just sit there. You have to experience what your client is telling you. Raise your eyes to heaven, shake your head or open your mouth as if shocked. Don’t worry about overdoing it. If a French speaker is complaining, then the situation is bad.
Showing your enthusiasm
After they’ve finished complaining, your conversation partner will calm down again. Now they’ll smile and show you photos of their new office or their company’s latest product. Whatever they’re saying, they want to impress you. But don’t show too much enthusiasm in response! Instead, trying whistling quietly. You can also throw in an “aha” or “oho”. It’s generally best to restrain your enthusiasm when speaking French. “Woohoo!” or “yeehaw!” is out of place here. Even if you like what you see, that’s no reason to get hysterical. Don’t exaggerate, either. The French aren’t so easily impressed.
By now, thanks to your strategically-timed eating and drinking, your client will have carried the whole conversation themselves. Don’t worry, they won’t mind – they’ve probably just decided that you’re one of those reserved British types. All that’s left for you to do is to head back across the Channel (or the Atlantic) and inform your family that you’re now bilingual.
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