“It makes you want laugh…. & cry”
Selling in a foreign language is never easy, never easy when you have to feel your way through to find the words. French is no different. Maybe, like me, you have had French hammered into you for years. You have an immense vocabulary hidden away somewhere. You can conjugate and decline endlessly. But the words you want just don’t spring to mind when you need them most. So you rely on different devices. You can say the same thing again, but louder, in the hope that a glimmer of understanding appears on your respondees French face. You can search your memory for synonyms of the word you are seeking, often synonyms with a faintly ancient feel or sound to them, and say these with a heavily French accent. Many English words ending –ation lend them to frenchific-ation; or you can go to the verb and remove the –r in the hope you find the noun. In this story, this is what I did.
I was running the sales operation for a UK based truck-mounted recovery equipment company. We had grown rapidly and were setting out to conquer Europe. We were at the Paris Motor Show. We had already just been to the Barcelona Motor Show. We were exhausted. It was the third week on the trot. Our inner tubes were burnt with orange juice and late eating. We had had enough. Perhaps we had become flippant. Humour doesn’t always translate well into different languages either.
Selling car recovery (depannage) equipment in French isn’t the easiest either. There is no international vocabulary available in this market. There are words like winch (treuil) and bodies which slide back (glisser) to know. And the French use different concepts to the English in the way they choose words (one French agent suggested it was better to translate the English into Chinese first before finding your way to the French) In English we have the word the word ‘light’ (lumiere). Then we have all the lights: we have traffic light, headlight, rear light, flashing light and so on. For the French, they have different concepts and words for each – feu rouge, phare yet feu arriere; & rampe. And so the amateur linguist’s vocabulary must extend with no obvious connects.
So here we are at the Paris Motor Show, Tony the owner and me. Exhausted. Slightly bored. We had to be there. We were not doing much business. Our customer group was the French vehicle recovery industry. They come in two sorts. Short, fat, bald-headed men, with fingers like sausages and the black, oily grime of years staining under and around their nails, still wearing their blue overalls and their steel toe caps shining from their boots. Or they are well groomed, with tailored hair, leather jackets and imitation crocodile shoes. I was in an interesting and interested conversation with one of the latter. He was accompanied by his overpowdered wife, spreading rather too far into her 40’s for the tight fitting black skirt and jacket she was wearing, dyed hair worn bouffant style to accentuate the height of her 6” stilettos. She was accompanied by a miniature Yorkie with the liitle bow on her forelock.
My visitor in due course left the stand to look around. The routine of demonstrating the equipment to the ‘tyre kickers’ returned; and so, about a hour later did my friend with the wife and the crocodile shoes. He looked like an interested buyer for the equipment on the stand. We were interested sellers. We certainly did not want to take it back to England. We regreeted one another. The stand was full of smiles. We talked for a while, the specification, the chassis constraints, and so on. Then he held his own counsel for a few moments before he asked (in French) ‘What will you give me if I buy one of these?’ This is what is called in selling is called a buying signal.
In the car recovery trade, as you can imagine, conversations can become very basic. All men together kind of stuff. So I launched myself on to a humorous, sale closing response. What I tried to say, when translated into English, was ‘I will give you a discount of 20% and maybe even a kiss’. But, sad to say, in my French it didn’t work out quite this way –
‘Je vous donnerez un remise (discount) de vingt (20) percent et meme peutetre un…’kiss. What is kiss in French? Baiser to kiss. Take off the –r. Baise. That’ll be it …et meme peutetre un baise.’
With these words, his femme (wife) swung round on her 6” stilettos and was gone. He lent forward, looked me hard in the eye and was gone too. Not a single word. Never to be seen again.
That evening I phoned my Belgian agent, Michel a Walloon. I explained what had happened. He laughed. ‘You didn’t say what you intended, Philippe’. ‘What did I say, Michel?’ ‘You said you would give him a 20% discount and, how do you say it, sex.’ ‘Does the word you’re hesitating to say begin with an -f, Michel. ‘Yes, Philippe. It does.’ ‘Oh dear’.
Well. Let’s face it. I didn’t take the order this time but I did learn a bit more French.