Okay, so people talk about working retail as if they would rather go on an Odyssean quest. I’ve worked a lot of jobs in different cities and I can say with great confidence that working retail in Montreal has restored my faith in humanity; which had previously been crushed by all other customer service jobs I’ve ever worked.
I owe this renewed affinity with my fellow man to the bilingual culture of Montreal. When I was offered a job on the sales floor of a major retailer in Montreal, I was elated to have a part-time job to help pay off my student debts while I finished my last year of university. My excitement wore off as I tried to think practically about if my public school French classes could get me through a job where I would have to say more than “Bonjour, comment ca va? Est-ce-que je peux utiliser le salle de bain?”
What I began to learn was that as long as you are willing to try, Francophone shoppers appreciate even the wobbliest effort if you are visibly putting your back into it. In this city, you probably don’t need to speak French to get by; which is why if you are an Anglophone and trying to improve your French, you have much less to worry about than someone who isn’t.
I had thought people would literally laugh in my face at my Anglo accent. I had nightmares about trying to explain the washing instructions on a wool sweater in my second language, while groups of people shook their heads as I butchered their beautiful language.
What actually happened was that an overwhelming amount of customers have thanked me for speaking to them in French. More recently, I’ve even had some customers tell me that my French is “very good”. I take these compliments happily but with a grain of salt.
Every customer who speaks to me, French or English, can tell within the first fifteen seconds of interaction that I am a native-English speaker. I’m not trying to fly under the radar at this point. I don’t think I will ever be completely confident with my spoken French- unless it’s in a taxi, at 3 a.m. In retail, customers can be a pain in the butt for the pettiest reasons. Francophone customers would be within their right to be frustrated if an employee is entirely failing to meet the basic linguistic needs of their job in this bilingual city, and that’s what I initially feared. I have been sincerely surprised and touched by the acceptance of Francophone customers while I am at work. Ultimately, I had more to prove to myself than to Francophone Montrealers. Unlike working retail in any other city, I am constantly learning new words and turns of phrase. Not only has my French improved a good deal but my confidence in people has been restored.