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Bonjour/Hello!

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on September 2, 2010 4 Comments

My husband and I traveled to Montréal in July, an island city in the majority-francophone Province of Québec, Canada. The linguistic experience of the trip, as my husband quickly pointed out, could be summed up in the two words of this post’s title: “Bonjour/Hello,” the ubiquitous greeting we heard everywhere. The beauty of the greeting is that it accomplished two things: the first is the actual “greeting” itself, and the second, that it forefronts the bilingual proficiency of service workers at the start of a communicative exchange. I must explain here that because our trip was shortish, our conversational exchanges were confined to servers at cafes and restaurants, salespeople, and shop owners. And I cannot recall a single instance now-regardless of what kind of restaurant we went in to-Indian, Italian, Quebecois, or Lebanese, for example-where we went in without being greeted with “Bonjour/Hello!”

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The really interesting thing was that there was no clear assumption, generally, that we were English speakers, even though I thought we looked clearly like tourists. While I pointedly responded in English, my husband would take up the opportunity to speak in French. However, even once we established our linguistic preferences, I was frequently spoken to in French, whereas he was often spoken to in English. I vividly remember an exchange in which he kept speaking in French, whereas the server kept responding in English. I think at least part of that had to be with the fact that my husband appeared to be a tourist, and even though he demonstrated proficiency in French, it was not Quebecois French, and, with his “touristness” laid bare, the switch to English just had to happen, more often than not.

This makes me think of the perception of “foreignness” in another context, that of eating out with my husband in Indian restaurants in the Bay Area. When we order dishes, I am the one asking for the “mild” version of dishes, and my husband, who is “very obviously non-Indian looking” (if there is such a thing), pronouncing “desi” dishes with an American accent, orders the hottest, spiciest dishes. Indian waiters almost always seem disbelieving-I am the Indian, I should be eating the spicy dishes. And this is what inevitable happens next: I am given the spiced up version of what I asked for, and his dishes are supremely mild.

I think the dilemma of “otherness” is negotiated in interesting ways in the service industry: service workers are many times conditioned to want to make customers feel “at home,” as if the restaurant experience is a continuation of what’s familiar, even if the cuisine is “exotic.” And customers wishing to experience an “authentic” dining experience (linguistically and otherwise)-indexing linguistic proficiency by responding with a “Bonjour,” or ordering the spiciest dishes at an Indian restaurant, for example-are confronted by walls erected by assumptions of otherness. What’s the solution for us as diners? Well, a professor recently suggested I order his dishes, and he order mine, and that we trade when the food arrives. I’ll let you know how it goes…

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4 Responses to “Bonjour/Hello!”

  1. Mark on: 2 September 2010 at 9:18 pm

    Just a thought: the “bonjour / hello” greeting is usually given to someone who appears to be an English-speaker (Trust me, and I’m a québécois, we can usually tell), or by English-speaking montrealers who work in the service industry.

    It is up to the customer to show his linguistic preference – the conversation will usually continue in whichever language he choses to speak.

    Anyone who looks like a French speaker will usually be greeted with the French “bonjour”.

  2. Trip Kirkpatrick on: 3 September 2010 at 10:21 am

    Agreed that this is one of the remarkable things about Montréal (and also Montreal). Even though you may have looked like tourists, they have no way of knowing that you aren’t French/DOM-TOM/etc. tourists! (Locals reading this may correct my assumptions, however.)

    Once upon a time when my French (France) pronunciation was better than it is now but was definitely degrading, I was asked at a swanky French restaurant whether I was Québecois. I wasn’t sure then or now whether to take it, linguistically, as a compliment or a slam.

    The intersection of (or parallels between) language+culture and food+culture is one I think highly worthy of future investigation.

    Usree Bhattacharya Reply:

    Thanks-I imagine the fact that we were obviously honeymooners may have given the game away quickly as well. 🙂

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Iqbal "The Khayber" Khan on: 22 April 2011 at 3:41 pm

    We visited Montreal on holidays a few years back and we were told that the ‘locals’ didn’t like the use of English language. We had very little French but tried to converse in French. When we spoke in English they still didn’t mind – think this was due to our Irish accents. Therefore I think it is just the English they don’t like and not the language. lol

    Iqbal

    p.s. loved the place and would love to go back again for longer.

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