Vive La Différence

For a year or two back in the 1980s I worked in England for a French company.

The job included periodic trips to Paris. When in England, which was where I was most of the time, I was working with English people, and so naturally we all spoke English. And when in France for a few days or weeks, and I was working with French people, naturally we all spoke… English.

For here was an odd thing. The French company, which had offices in France and England and Germany and quite probably elsewhere as well, had a company policy that only English was to be spoken in its various offices. All company business was transacted in English.  So I had the odd experience of working with French people speaking English in an office in a suburb of Paris.

Musing on this today, it struck me that this could have been seen as a ban on speaking French. And I wondered whether some of the French employees would have found this to be an intolerable requirement. Quelle horreur! What an imposition! To be forbidden from speaking one’s own language! And perhaps, when the new policy was announced, some of them handed in their notice, and instead went to work for French companies where they could continue to speak French. And, unless they were already fluent English speakers, they would have had every reason to object to the new company policy: for to be prevented from speaking one’s own language is to become disabled – as disabled as having an arm or a leg broken.

Are smoking bans any different from language bans? In one case you remove language diversity, and adopt the lowest common denominator: English. In the other, you remove smoking diversity, and adopt a different lowest common denominator: non-smoking. It is possible to imagine that refreshment diversity could also be similarly restricted, with only coffee being permitted, and no tea or chocolate allowed.

I can see the reason why a multinational company would want its business to be transacted in one language, in much the same way it would want its business to be transacted in one currency, and all its stationery to be printed with one company logo: in principle at least it should improve efficiency. But in practice, when you have disabled all your French employees by forbidding them from speaking French, and disabled all your smoking employees by forbidding them from smoking, you simply end up with a disabled workforce. You may as well hire one-armed or one-legged employees. Adopting the lowest common denominator must result in the lowest common capability, and a general dumbing-down.

Perhaps this is the real problem with a globalisation which seeks to abolish borders, abolish languages, abolish smoking. In principle, it looks as if everything will work much better. In practice, everything works much worse.

I was not present when this French company introduced its English-only policy. But I can imagine that a number of its French employees left the company shortly afterwards, and did so because they thought that they could rapidly find new employment in a French-speaking company. And those that remained, and who did not protest, probably did so because they wanted to remain employed, and were less confident of finding new employment elsewhere. So it was very likely the most skilled and employable who left, and the least skilled and employable who remained. And this also contributed to the dumbing-down process.

Smoking bans are an insult to smokers. And French bans are an insult to the French. And the European Union, in which borders and languages and identities are supposed to dissolve, insults each and every one of its member states. One-size-fits-all globalisation insults everybody. Is it very surprising if the insulted get angry, and re-assert their separate identities? And that is exactly what we are seeing all over Europe, and perhaps even all over the world: a re-affirmation of separate identity in the face of rampant sameness.

The French employees of the French company were only required to speak English inside the company’s offices. Outside it, they spoke French, of course (and very often they spoke French to each other inside it as well). And in the nearby bistros and restaurants only French was spoken. But what if it had become a requirement for English to be spoken in those places too? And in all shops and offices? What if the French President addressed the French people in English? What if you could only speak French in whispers, out on the street, at least 10 metres from the nearest listening window? What if some customers complained if they heard even the slightest snatch of French being spoken at an adjoining table? What if they went over and demanded that they stop speaking French, because it made them unwell to hear a language they could not understand? Wouldn’t the French people revolt against such a suppression of their language and identity?

I was asking not long ago why doctors and nurses in hospitals weren’t complaining about the smoking bans that drive many of their patients to smoke in all weathers outside the hospital gates, endangering their health. The answer is probably the same as the one I’ve offered for the French employees in the French company: they want to keep their jobs as doctors and nurses. If they complain, they might endanger their prospects of promotion. So they say nothing. It’s probably the way that concentration camp guards become brutalised: the good ones complain at the ill-treatment of prisoners, and are demoted or re-assigned elsewhere, and the uncomplaining bad ones remain, and so the camp gradually gets worse and worse, and more and more brutal.

About Frank Davis

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5 Responses to Vive La Différence

  1. slugbop007 says:

    Following up on the news from Smoking Lamp that the Halifax City Council wants to enact a citywide smoking ban I think what we need is an organized, worldwide tax revolt. We should  be telling those in power how our tax monies should be apportioned. We pay for their employment as well as help support their families. It’s time for a 21st Century style Boston Tea Party revolt!


  2. Furtive Ferret says:

    The language thing is interesting. I worked for a while on an EU project in another EU nation as an IT contractor. The lingua franca of the project was English. Despite that the UK was severely under represented in this particular department it was dominated by the French, Spanish, Belgians, Germans and Dutch many nations were not represented at all. I was one of two Brits on the project.

    What was interesting to note was that to work there as a permanent member of staff you had to be fluent in one of the other officially recognised languages of the EU but you were not afforded the opportunity to become fluent in one of those languages because even if you spoke to them in their native language they would reply in English. So as a Brit you had practically no chance of a permanent position.

    Having said that English would be avoided if they didn’t want you involved in the conversation and in more than one instance a Frenchman would speak to a Spaniard in French and the Spaniard would similarly reply in French. What I never let on was the fact that my French is reasonable enough to be able to follow the conversation. I just thought that was plain rude.

  3. Philip Neal says:

    For many years my mother kept her collection of school stories from her childhood – Malory Towers, The Chalet School and so on. I remember leafing through one of them and reading that only English might be spoken at the Chalet School. One young pupil was even expelled for giving lessons in French slang to a chum of hers during the holidays. I don’t recall if smoking was allowed at the Chalet School but I imagine that it was not. Welcome to the Chalet School.

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