Welcome to Offshore Living Letter, Your #1 Resource for Offshore Diversification

Politesse For Investors Abroad

16 Aug
Politesse For Investors Abroad

Speak The Language Of Investors

Back in Paris after having been gone for several years, my French, limited when living here, is, well, more limited. But the good news is that this is Paris, and, despite what many Americans say, you can get by here, even full-time, with very limited, even hardly any French. Certainly, the more of the language you know, the easier it will be for you to get things done. My point, though, is that you don’t have to be fluent to make a big success of your time here.

Our collective agenda is an international life with flags planted in several countries, maybe each with its own language. In our case, it’s Panama, France, Croatia, and Colombia. That means Spanish, French, and Croatian. I speak passable Spanish, Kathie gets by in French, but neither of us makes any pretense trying to speak the local lingo in Croatia.

You’re not likely to become fluent in the language of every place you plant a flag either, and that’s ok.

Don’t intimidate yourself by thinking this is a problem. On the other hand, don’t give up on the language agenda altogether. You’ll suffer as a result. You should make the effort to learn at least some basics of any language spoken in any place where you’re spending time or money. Speaking loudly in English doesn’t endear you in most of the world. But it’s surprising how little real effort does.

I think of language “basics” as part of what the French would call politesse. It doesn’t translate well, but, for me, it’s “the niceties.” Walk into a store in France and say, cheerfully, “bonjour,” in your best French accent. Leave a store in France and say, sincerely, “merci” and “au revoir” to every worker you encounter on your way out, even if you didn’t buy anything. Not necessarily in a big department store like BHV in Paris, though even there it won’t hurt. But, definitely, in small shops, cafes, and restaurants, don’t leave anyone out as you take your leave. Forgetting someone for a “merci, au revoir” is considered sacrilegious among the French.

Be Polite, Be Professional

That’s where you start…especially in France but, really, anywhere in the world. Be polite to people coming and going. It’s that simple, yet many Americans don’t do it. I don’t have much right to comment at this point, as I’ve been living outside the States for more than 14 years, but, as I recall, the reason Americans don’t make a point of doing this when they travel is because they don’t do it at home either. We don’t grow up greeting people in passing, coming and going. In most of the rest of the world, this is manners 101.

In Spanish-speaking countries, you say “buenos dias,” or the truncated “buenas,” when you enter a store or an elevator and when you approach a store clerk or a doorman (“buenas tardes” if it’s afternoon). The same thing in France (except in French, of course) and in Croatia. “Hvala” means thanks. “Dobro dan” is “buenos dias.”

Learn a handful of politesse words and phrases, and you’ll get much further than you will otherwise…especially if the local person you’re speaking with speaks English.

Walk up to a French person and ask, “Do you speak English,” and the response likely will be guarded. Walk up to a Frenchman and ask, “Parlez-vous anglais,” and you’ll likely enjoy a friendlier, more helpful reply.

Wherever you’re planning to travel or do business, I recommend you start by learning the following phrases in the local language:

  • Please and thank you (should be obvious; unfortunately, often, it’s not)…
  • Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening (and understand, as well, when to switch from one to the other)…
  • You’re welcome…
  • Do you speak English?…

Once you have those phrases down, expand your language skills to include:

  • How are you? I’m fine, thank you…
  • Where is… (the bathroom, the restaurant, etc.)…
  • How much is this?…
  • Check, please (or you can use the international signal of signing in the air)…

Another thing I’ve found helpful when trying to communicate complicated ideas in a language I don’t speak is to remember to keep things simple. The words, the phrasing, the sentence structure.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, I don’t say a “policeman in an automobile” when a “cop in a car” will do. Although “cop” might be too colloquial in many cases…

Lief Simon