Miss Manners

Receiving a wrong-number phone call in Switzerland is very funny. At home in the U.S., it’s just a bit awkward…confusing if you’re the person being mistakenly called, and embarrassing if you’re the person making the mistaken call. Either way, the issue is cleared up in a matter of seconds.

I’ve gotten three wrong numbers here so far, and two telemarketers. Two of the wrong-number callers spoke German, and all the others spoke French. As soon as the German began, I knew it was a wrong number since I don’t yet know anyone personally who speaks German or Swiss-German as a first language. For some reason, my automatic response both times was to attempt to set them straight in French…I would probably have had just as good a chance of getting through to them in English, but for some reason I felt like French was the next best thing.

The telemarketers spoke too fast for me to understand exactly what they were selling, but tone and pace of their delivery was unmistakable. At least “Non, merci” and a swift hang-up is a straightforward enough response, wherever you’re from!

Surprisingly, email communications here are also different…I say surprising because affairs of the internet generally seem to be standardized and global, without many obvious cultural differences. In French, though, the email sign-off is strikingly different.

Even for U.S. English speakers, the email sign-off can be controversial, or at least a strong personal preference. Some rigidly stick to a specific, formal closing line…best regards, kind regards, most sincerely, with best wishes…etc. Some adapt their closing line depending on the context and tend to be more informal…best, thanks, ciao, cheers, love, xoxo. Some throw up their hands and do not include a sign-off at all, but skip straight to typing their names after the last line of the email…or worse, just let their email signature do the talking. I can’t explain why, but these emails always leave me feeling just a tiny bit deflated.

At any rate, in French emails it’s very different. The closing is always something lengthy and grand, prompting you think–“how very thoughtful…they really shouldn’t have!” I remain at your disposal and thank you for the confidence you have placed in my services. I address my very cordial greetings to you. I beg you to please accept my best regards. In accordance with the old adage to do as the Romans do, I have tried to incorporate some of these expressions to my own French emails, but I just can’t get away from the idea that I sound utterly ridiculous. Plus, I wouldn’t want my correspondent to think I was copying them would I? So, thus far I’ve stuck with my trademark thanks very much! or as it comes out in French, merci beaucoup! I’ve been told this is embarrassingly American of me, but I am standing by my choice. Despite its irregularity and lack of subtlety compared to French, there are somethings that the English language does pretty well…and friendly, unfussy informality is one of them.

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