When in France, customers want to speak French

Foreign shop and restaurant customers who speak French but with an obvious accent can often be answered in English... but it is not a good policy.

29 May 2019
By Connexion journalist

The language switch can happen instinctively as staff try to help but it is more likely to backfire and lower customer satisfaction, a study by a French business school has found.

Bordeaux Kedge business school professor Jonas Holmqvist, who ran the study and is Finnish, said: “So often I feel frustrated because I speak French in Paris cafes but the waiter then replies in English when I thought my French wasn’t that bad.”

After five different experiments, mainly carried out in Paris and London, the study found that customers have a set idea of their language skills and a reply in their native tongue can shake this, leaving them feeling frustrated or even insulted.

If the worker replies with a very strong accent and badly, it is worse as it can suggest that this is better than the customer’s efforts at French, leaving them feeling undervalued.

Immigrants who consider themselves well integrated interpret it as a sign that they have not mastered the language and are not yet integrated.

Instead of being a positive welcoming move, it reminds them that they are different.

As a result, clients leave disappointed and less likely to return to or recommend the restaurant or shop. They react better when they are served in the language they choose to speak.

Mr Holmqvist said: “It is a natural reaction [to answer in the other person’s language], we want to be nice and polite but...”

He says that complimenting customers for their efforts can alleviate some of the damage.

Connexion readers we asked had mixed views on the topic – several said they appreciated the effort and each party benefited, but overall most found it annoying and frustrating.

Email your view to news@connexionfrance.com

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