French Telephone Etiquette

Autumn colours behind our house – no relevance to the post but a shot in rare sunshine this Nov

Even after more than 19 years in France, I lift the receiver with apprehension when the phone rings. This is partly because it’s invariably a cold caller. It’s also because dealing with people on the phone in French is damn difficult. I must admit that I have never been a great lover of the phone and use it only when absolutely necessary. But my phone phobia has reached new heights (or depths) in France.


I answer the phone with my name. In the UK, I gave the number, although that became difficult as phone numbers got longer and I kept forgetting mine. In France, it would take 10 words, so instead people say, “Allo, oui?” This is delivered like machine-gun fire – rapidly and menacingly. At least that’s how it sounds. But I’ve now come to realise that people don’t generally mean to sound hostile, it’s just one of those cultural things.

We Brits often complain that the French speak too fast (and they make the same complaint about us). This doesn’t bother me too much anymore, since my French is now reasonably good – and provided I can see the person and judge their body language, it’s fine.

On the phone, though, you don’t have those props. If I am receiving the call, it takes a while to tune into the French, so I miss who the person is, the name of their organisation and the reason for their call. By this time, I am starting to look like a dim foreigner and feeling at a distinct disadvantage.

Putting you through 

When a receptionist answers and you ask to be put through, they usually say, “Je vous le/la passe” (I’ll put you through to him/her). This is almost invariably followed by, “Ne quittez pas” (lit. don’t leave or hold on), perhaps not an essential instruction.

As in the UK, while you wait to be connected, you are often treated to a burst of repetitive electronic music. This manages to make even Mozart sound irritating. 

Recorded messages

This is where the fun begins. If you have a problem involving officialdom, it’s no longer possible to speak to a human being. Instead, you get a recorded message, asking you to press one, two, three etc. depending on your enquiry. I have to listen several times before I can interpret what the robotic voice is saying. This sometimes involves ringing off and calling again when the system refuses to replay the instructions.

It’s the same when someone leaves a message on your answering machine. As ever, it’s delivered at breakneck speed and you have to replay it several times to understand who it is and what they want.

Some French people have an aversion to using answering machines. Friends say, “We tried several times but you weren’t in.” Well, why not leave a message, then? Or someone will phone several times and listen to our recorded message, which is in French, before finally giving in and leaving one. We know this because we have taken to not answering the phone on particularly trying days when we’ve received multiple cold calls.

However, all this is simply another thread in the rich tapestry that is life in France. I’m eternally grateful for the valuable experience of living in another country and speaking a foreign language. And you get a warm, rewarding glow when you’ve concluded a successful phone call about a complicated technical issue.

You might also like:

Giving Cold Callers the Cold Shoulder
Where There’s Smoke…Beware of the Smoke Detector Scam
French social customs 6: greetings in French

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  1. Oh I feel so much better, I thought it was just me! I have pretty good French but without all the cues I’m at see. I usually start by explaining I@m English and please could they speak a tad slower. Generally then I get by. You can have lots of fun with cold callers tho’ playing I’m English card, generally I find they hang up on me never to be heard of again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is particularly difficult on the phone – and they find it hard to slow down even if you ask them to. I use the “I’m English” tack with cold callers sometimes. It usually works.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So glad i’m not the only person who has tp play a french message many times to get a phone number from it! My pet hate is the call purporting to be from windows about problems with my computer. I signed us up to blocktel but we still get cold callers. When they begin with madame peyercock i know they don’t know madame peacock! And those awful answer services that require you to speak to them. The machine can never recognise what i’m saying! Oh dear, i had better stop before i get really cross! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t tried Blocktel yet. We signed up with Pacitel a few years ago but that never got anywhere and I think it has now closed down. The Windows ones are annoying. They persist, even though I told them I knew perfectly well they had nothing to do with Microsoft.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Greetings,
    It is the same in the U.S.A…maybe worse. And it may get worse than what it is at January when the leader of tweets moves into his new residence.


    Liked by 1 person

  4. If on the odd occasion I actually get talked to by a cold caller, I always answer them in rapid Dutch. They just hang up on me, instead of the other way round. Shall I teach you some sentences, nothing rude, just effective?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh yes, please leave a few here and then we can all benefit. Or email me, if you’d rather. The problem with cold callers is that they often start by asking, “Is that Madame C?” and you’re afraid to cut them off there in case they are actually bona fide callers to whom you need to speak. However, my OH is Swedish, so I could answer them in my not-very-good Swedish and they probably wouldn’t know any better.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You give me hope Vanessa. I have hated using the phone since we arrived. I now can manage to have a decent conversation with most people as recently I have had to do it a lot but if you, after all these years, still find it hard, it doesn’t make me feel so bad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It does get easier, but I don’t think I will ever be completely at ease on the phone in French. Mind you, I’m not keen on using it full stop.


  6. I’m not sure if you give me hope or fear for the future …. I’m only 3 years in and this year has been spent mostly in the US although I have had cause to have several trips to France and several conversations in French from here …. hey ho – I dont think I will ever be fond of the phone whatever language I’m in!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Even French people have agreed with me that using the phone in France can be a minefield, especially when dealing with officialdom. But at least they can cope with the speed.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. For the same reasons as you, we don’t answer the phone if it’s not a number we recognise. And it’s so true about what you say regarding the difficulty caused by the lack of visual clues and the way that turns one into a bumbling foreigner on the phone! Super blog post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Despite the fact that we have subscribed to the service that shows the caller’s number, our phone refuses to display it, so we are still totally in the dark when we answer it. I wonder how effective cold calling really is. I know of only one person who was inveigled into buying a service in that way. Most people I know just find it an irritating intrusion.


  8. When it’s a cold caller I always know in advance because they address me as Madame Holmezz. That’s because our phone has been, since time immemorial, in our daughter’s name. I find the quickest and easiest way to stop them before they start is to ask them to speak in English. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • I have kept my maiden name and our non-business line is in my name, so we know it’s a cold caller when my husband answers and they ask “Is that Monsieur C?” We usually wait until the answering machine has kicked in and then pick up, since other people will have picked up the phone to cold callers before us (they do this annoying thing of phoning 100 numbers at once).


  9. I am French and it is the same for me, Vanessa. People tend not to listen to me when I introduce myself, which I aleays does when picking up the phone, and then they tend to ask me if I am who I am. Dead frustrating. Vocal servers, I hate as well. There should be a “talk to a human” key, always, 8 for example. I reckon I am not good on the phone. Have a lovely day !

    Liked by 1 person

    • I must admit that I have never been very comfortable using the phone, so the additional difficulties that come with doing it in a foreign language make me very disinclined to use it at all! Sometimes, though, it’s the only way to get things done. Bonne journée à vous aussi.

      Liked by 1 person

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