What it’s like to work in French every day (in Switzerland)

As of this writing, I am 3.5 years into my French learning journey, and almost 2 years into my current job in Geneva. My job requires me to write and speak in French on a daily basis, interacting with colleagues who are mostly from French-speaking Switzerland and neighboring France. So I thought I’d share some loose thoughts on what that’s been like, as an American who is not fluent in French.

First, a disclaimer: I, it goes without saying, speak for every person who lives in Switzerland. My experience is authoritative and universal. I am Switzerland. (Did I do that right? Regardless, let’s get started.)

My French level

When I started working here, I was at a low B1, capable of holding basic but limited conversations. Almost 2 years later, I’m at a low B2, which means I can more or less understand everything that is being said and can engage in fluid dialogue without thinking too much about it.

During this time, I took group French classes online for a semester, which was 3 hours per week. I’ve also been meeting with a private French teacher once a week for over a year now. Last year, I went to Antibes in France and took a week of intensive French courses there. I also watch French TV series like Dix pour cent with French subtitles to brush up on pronunciation and slang.

For the moment, I’ve pretty much plateaued at B2. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to reach C1, which is full fluency.

What a bilingual workplace looks like

My office is officially bilingual in English and French. Most of the other international organizations and agencies in Geneva are functionally exclusively anglophone, due to the large number of foreigners on staff, but ours is more balanced between the two working languages because a large percentage of the staff is local.

In practice, this is how things work in our bilingual office. Official communications, such as internal newsletters and announcements from senior management, are sent out in both languages. Meetings and one-on-one conversations are a bit more ad hoc. Some examples:

  • Meeting with 3 anglophones and a francophone, AND the francophone speaks English – the meeting is in English
  • Meeting with 3 anglophones and a francophone, BUT the francophone is not comfortable in English – the meeting is in French
  • 1 anglophone and 1 francophone, where the anglophone can speak French – the meeting is usually in French
  • 1 anglophone and 1 francophone, where both people can understand the other language but are not comfortable speaking it – the anglophone speaks in English, and the francophone replies in French

My section is especially francophone-heavy, and there’s a sort of sink or swim mentality. Our all-staff meetings are conducted in French only. A lot of emails are in French only. Our teambuilding retreat last year was delivered in both, with the moderator jumping back and forth between English and French, and the breakout sessions were conducted in French.

The cultural nuances of working in French

Although I can speak okay, the cultural and interpersonal elements of interacting with French and Swiss people are often lost on me. I can’t attribute this solely to coming from an American background; part of it is also that I am by nature a very straightforward person who sometimes forgets to filter what goes from my brain to my mouth. Here are some examples of things that I’ve done that would be considered a faux pas in a traditional French/Swiss office.

Example #1

One day not long after I first started at this job, a French colleague who was in her late 50s walked by my office and paused. “Hey,” she said. “How are you?”

She used the word vous, the formal form of the word “you”. I was supposed to say the same thing back. But my brain short-circuited.

“I’m good,” I said, “how are you?”

I had used tu, the informal form of “you”. Keep in mind that I barely knew this woman, and she was much older than I and a seasoned manager. I should have used the polite vous and stuck to it until we knew each other better to shift to the more casual form. But I had accidentally tutoyer‘d her, right there and then.

Fortunately, things didn’t go off the rails after that. We began using tu with each other; I tell her about my health problems, and she sends me information about herbal supplements and her acupuncturist’s number. But I definitely made a mental note to not make the same mistake in the future with others.

Example #2

One of the things that surprises me the most about Switzerland is how young many of the people here look. I’ve frequently run into male colleagues at work that I thought were maybe in their late 20s, who turned out to be in their 40s. (Maybe it’s the fresh air? The skiing? The cheese?)

One time, when my boss’s boss was giving me a tour of a workshop, he introduced me to a man who’d been working there for 30 years. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The guy looked to be in his late 30s at most.

I couldn’t stop myself. I blurted out, “But how old are you?”

(I did remember to use vous this time–progress!)

The guy was taken aback. “I’m 54,” he said.

“Incredible!” I said. “But you look so young!”

The guy chuckled, but he looked embarrassed. And then I was embarrassed, too. Why had I just asked a stranger for his age? It’s weird to do that in the States. And it’s weird here, too.

Example #3

I’ve noticed that the French and Swiss people that I work with are super uncomfortable being praised. In the US, we give out effusive praise like free candy. This report you’ve written is incredible. The quality of the design is amazing. You are so talented.

One day, when talking to a Swiss coworker (again, one of those cases where I thought the guy was 30, and he turned out to be 45), I said, “Oh, you’re so good at what you do.”

“Oh,” he said. “No, no, no. No, I’m not.”

“But you are. You’re the maestro.”

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I could literally see the guy shrink into himself with discomfort. “No,” he whispered.

In the States, when you say to someone, Thanks so much for your help. This was incredible. A normal response might be: Of course, happy to help out. But here, people will do anything to deflect compliments. Oh, but it was nothing. It was my job. Or simply a shrug and a duck of the head.

Formality in the workplace: when to downgrade to tu?

It can be hard for Americans to fully grasp the distinction between tu and vous, as well as understand the appropriate level of formality to use with native French speakers. Even though we have a similar construct in Chinese — ni is informal you, and nin is formal you — I’ve found that the rules for formality in Chinese cannot really be translated over to French.

For instance, in China, if you go to the store or the bank and talk to someone who works there, it’s nice to use the formal you, but it’s also not a big deal if you don’t. You don’t have to use the formal you with colleagues or with most strangers. There are only a couple of situations where the formal you is socially and universally expected: 1) when speaking to an elderly person that you don’t know well; 2) when speaking to a senior executive who’s many levels above you; 3) when welcoming an esteemed guest or an important client; and 4) when speaking to a highly respected professor or expert.

In France and Switzerland, the formal you is expected in all of these situations and more. You must absolutely use the formal you when speaking with all strangers — restaurant servers, cashiers, plumbers, doctors, receptionists, custodians, police officers, anyone and everyone. The only exceptions I can think of are 1) if both of you are very young, say early twenties or younger, and 2) if you as an adult are speaking to a child or teenager.

But what about the workplace, between colleagues? It depends. If you don’t know someone well and don’t work with them every day, then vous is definitely the way to go. However, many managers will use vous when speaking to their employees (and vice versa) as a marker of a professional relationship. Vous can also be used in a passive-aggressive manner between two colleagues who don’t get along, as a sign of coldness and distrust.

I usually let the francophone take the lead on what level of formality they want to use with me. I’ve noticed that usually it’ll be vous the first and second time we speak, and then they’ll naturally shift to tu after that. People who are, say, mid-forties or younger are often comfortable jumping to tu right away. (On the other hand, it took my French hairdresser three years to start addressing me as tu. When it happened, it felt like I had reached the final level in a video game.)

It’s interesting: once a francophone decides to tutoyer you, not only is there a shift in the register, there is also a shift in how they treat you. It’s like their way of saying, cool, we can be work friends now. They will start complaining about their health problems, their house renovations, their kids acting out. I don’t know who said that French people don’t do small talk, but it’s absolutely false. They love chitchatting and oversharing as much as Americans do. The politeness barrier just has to come down first.

(Another thing: once you reach that level of familiarity, francophones will start to feel comfortable with correcting your French mistakes. Usually they don’t, because 1) it’s rude to do that to a stranger, and 2) it can be time-consuming and off-topic when you’re just trying to have a simple conversation. But once they consider you a work friend — get ready to learn about all the nouns that you’re misgendering.)

Communicating via email

I enjoy writing emails and letters in French because the language is so precise. You can use very short sentences and say things very directly without worrying about it coming off as too brusque. I’ve noticed that Americans can be very waffly and verbose when it comes to saying simple things. Here’s an example (exaggerated for effect):

American: We are wanting to print a certain number of copies of the report.

French: We want to print some copies of the report.

So how do you ensure that your short emails are still polite in French? A few tips:

  • Start with bonjour.
  • If it’s to someone you don’t know well, use vous.
  • It’s OK to skip the “I hope this email finds you well”. You can get right into the subject. I am writing you to…
  • Explain what is it that you wish would happen. I would like to meet with your team to discuss this matter.
  • Do not use the imperative form. Always ask if something is possible. Could you meet with me? Could you send me this document?
  • Unless you are the big boss — in which case, you can get away with Thank you to send me the report when it is completed. You need to give a preemptive thank-you for your demand.
  • Always close with a fancy compliment. In the meantime, I wish you, ladies, an excellent day.
  • Followed by a variation of best regards or cordially.

In conclusion

Even though I am now more familiar with French and Swiss work culture, I haven’t adopted all of their customs wholesale. For instance, the thing about humility. I think everyone needs to be praised, more often and with more enthusiasm.

Another thing about working with French people in particular is that they can come across as very negative. There is a tendency to complain about everything, big and small. For the most part, I don’t think they’re complaining because they’re actually deeply miserable. It’s just a way to make conversation and to bond over the small annoyances in life. As someone who grew up in the States, I have been conditioned all my life to not be that way. If you “moan”, you are not a team player. You’re toxic. You make others uncomfortable. So I often find myself biting my tongue, weighing the amount of positivity vs. negativity in what I’ve said, making sure that I haven’t veered off too much into complaining. So this, the phenomenon of complaining and being very cynical, is probably the biggest cultural clash that I’ve experienced and still don’t fully feel at ease with.

For the most part, I think I have been able to retain my personality and keep it consistent across languages and cultures. I continue to be friendly, curious, (if a bit nosey and overshare-y at times), observant, empathetic, and helpful. And above all, I’m just grateful for this experience, to work alongside people from so many backgrounds and to be challenged in a foreign language every day.

Photo by Emmanuelle Magnenat on Unsplash

One comment

  1. What a great post. Thanks for sharing your experience here with working in a bilingual office. I’ve been learning French for the last couple of years and chat with French people overseas wanting to learn English but I wasn’t aware of office behaviours. 🤣

    Liked by 1 person

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