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“Savoir faire” – Conducting workplace investigations in my second language

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I grew up speaking French. From the time that I was little and playing with my friends in the neighbourhood, we spoke French or English depending upon what words came to mind. We lived in a community with English families, French families or bilingual families so language was never a dividing line – we were just children playing together. I never thought much about speaking French, just as my French friends never thought much about speaking English. It was simply something we did whenever we were together.

Recently, however, I have had occasion to seriously contemplate my second language as I have been conducting workplace investigations in French. Initially, interviewing in French was more challenging for me. It felt stilted and unlike my usual easy, conversation style. I realized that while I have been interviewing people for almost every day of my legal career, I only had casual and non-work related conversations in French. It felt like I was learning to interview all over again. Asking the big, broad, open-ended questions was easy but the more probing and detailed information that I was seeking felt uneasy and forced. The discomfort was similar to the awkwardness that I felt examining people early in my career – was I understanding the nuance of how the interviewee was feeling, had I maybe missed a social cue by misreading the tone? It seemed new and, as with anything new, it took a while to become accustomed to the style I wanted to use when interviewing in French.  Now interviewing in French is much easier and I conduct these sessions in much the same way as I do my English interviewing which is more conversational with the aid of subtle prompts to encourage further disclosure of information.

What continues to capture my attention is the interspersing of English words into French conversation. Hearing the word “speedboat” inserted into the middle of a sentence where recent cottage activity was described made me pause for a moment to consider whether I really heard what I thought I did. Although I am no longer surprised when someone wishes me a “bon weekend” as opposed to “bon fin de semaine” at a Friday interview, I still find it unusual when I hear phrases like “no way”, “that’s it, I’m done” or “I’m outta here”. When I hear these English phrases or idioms I often wonder how they can be placed so correctly into a sentence by someone who infrequently speaks English until I remember that English people who do not speak French use phrases like “je ne sais quoi” to describe a certain flare or feature that stands out and they use those phrases quite comfortably.

There remains a formality in my French workplace investigations, which I am not conscious of when speaking in English. In English, I would ask, “What can you tell me about the incident?” whereas in French the “tu/vous” distinction always factors into my questioning. The word “tu”, being the informal version of “you” and “vous” used as the formal and more respectful version. I will usually begin by using “vous” until I am told that there is no need for that type of formality at which time I will switch to using “tu” in my questions. Admittedly, there are times when I begin simply by asking a “tu” question — usually when I am speaking with someone who is my age or younger. It is hard to break my old habits of using “vous” to address people who are older and deserve the respect that the formality immediately signals.

The formality of the French language also has the interesting use of titles which because of the workplace dynamic often figures into events that are described to me. Titles such as Mr. and Mrs. are routinely used in place of first names but people will also refer to individuals by their work titles such as manager, director or union representative, which would translate into English as, “My director, Mr. Jones”. It seems awkward to look at the English version of the statement yet it is easy and natural when said in French.

I would be remiss if I did not talk about French sayings and idioms, with which I have no familiarity, that often appear in interviews. As with many English sayings, the words that comprise the saying often bear little resemblance to the meaning associated with it. Consider for example the French phrase: Chercher la petite bête, which would literally mean look for the little beast.  In fact, though, it is understood to mean “splitting hairs”. When sayings like this are used I have to ask what each person understands the words to mean so that I can objectively assess how a respondent, complainant and witnesses all understand the intent of the phrase before I can assess the implications of the exchange.

I am enjoying the return to speaking French regularly for business and with every new investigation I explore the language in ways that I never had to in the past. It has given me a unique social perspective on people and communication styles and has improved my ability to look for greater insight into phrases, words and gestures while thinking on many interpretive levels at the same time.  It has improved my ability to listen carefully to people and as a result I value the patience that comes with allowing the time needed to effectively communicate their thoughts and feelings without interjecting. I never needed to analyze words and meanings when I was with my francophone friends. The responsibility that I now have for helping people to improve their workplace lives in both of our official languages makes me appreciate the important role that language and its nuances play in our day-to-day interactions.

Kenda Murphy


About the Author: Toronto Employment Lawyer Kenda Murphy is a lawyer with over 20 years of experience in civil and criminal litigation. Over the course of her career, she has been in private practice and worked in the public sector with the Public Prosecution Service, Department of Justice and Health Association Nova Scotia. Most recently Kenda was the Associate Director & Counsel of the Employee/ Labour Relations Unit at Queen’s University.