“Excuse me, Anthony. Do you mind if we speak in French?”
It was a question I was used to hearing.
“No, of course not. Please go ahead.”
That was my typical response.
I was sitting in a conference room in Le Plessis-Robinson, a suburb just outside of Paris, and every other person in that room was French. At the time, 80% of my clients and colleagues were French and when meetings started to get particularly heated, the conversation often shifted from English to French.
Whenever this happened, I would find myself sitting in awkward silence, pretending to scribble notes on a pad of paper, maintaining strong eye contact with everyone else in the room as my mind drifted. My body would tense up to make sure I paid attention. There was always a chance that the discussion could break with someone asking me a question in English.
That kind of meeting had become a common ritual. I was unsure what to do in moments like this, but I would look very serious. I was grateful for the unique experience in French culture. Like Netflix’s recent show Emily in Paris, I had my own real-life version as Tony in Paris.
In the summer of 2014, I was sitting at my desk in the New York office of Facebook. We had to get in touch with some colleagues across the pond at Facebook Paris and since it was the summer holidays, most people in France were out of the office. I remember my American colleagues laughing and joking about how our ‘lazy French colleagues’ were probably smoking cigarettes and lying on a beach somewhere.
Fast forward one year and I’m working at Facebook London. I had just been assigned a new global client to manage--Renault, one of the largest French automotive companies. I was a woefully underqualified and underprepared 24-year-old, assigned to take on French executives decades older than me as clients.
For the next two years, I traveled to Paris on an almost weekly basis, acquainting myself with a very French client and their very French agencies. I became friends with the good people of Facebook Paris, who were generous and patient enough to humour me as I practiced my elementary French with them.
Even walking across the floor of the Facebook Paris office was intimidating. Everyone was speaking in French, had copious amounts of swagger, and a superb sense of fashion. Sitting in the Facebook Paris cafe felt like middle school, but instead of being a new student, I was the new non-French person in the office. I wasn’t sure how to sit at the cool kids table.
It was the hardest at the beginning. I lacked confidence when meeting new clients and new colleagues and automatically assumed that people were looking down on me for being too young or not being French enough.
I remember accompanying colleagues to meetings where I would be introduced to new clients. I got used to the look of surprise and the incredulous undertones when my clients would ask me, “So Anthony, tell me what else you have worked on in the past...” I just imagined that in their heads they were thinking, “I’m supposed to work with this kid?!”
The only previous experience I had was working with American companies. I would talk about my former clients American Express and Geico, and emphasise the deep learnings we could take from them. When my French clients would respond to this with indifference, I forced myself to put on an intense look to convey my seriousness.
Week after week, meeting after meeting, I did my best to integrate myself into French business culture. I spent more time in Paris, learned more French, and kept grinding at my job. I spent hours watching French TV shows, films, and even bought a useful book called Au Contraire! Figuring Out the French. I would walk around Paris in my free time attending events on my own and trying to make new friends.
Two days after the Bataclan terrorist attack in November 2015, I took the train from London to Paris for a major client meeting. We had planned this event several months in advance and after much deliberation, decided not to postpone. The terrorism threat level was still high and our company’s security team advised us to be careful.
Paris was a sombre place in the aftermath of the attack. The city looked grey. The streets were silent. Yet in spite of the tragedy, every Parisian I spoke to seemed even more proud of their French culture and heritage. All of my French colleagues told me not to worry and invoked a sense of patriotism in telling me how everything was going to be okay in Paris.
After our big meeting, we took a dozen clients out for lunch. We sat down at a long table, and as the conversation began I asked if anyone had been affected by the recent terrorist attack. I was sitting at the end of the table with three of my French clients and they all told me that they personally knew at least one victim from the attack.
As we started digging into our main course, I suddenly heard shouting coming from outside the restaurant.
I turned my head to the right and gazed at the entrance of the restaurant about 20 feet away from me. Through the glass doors, I could see a man standing on the hood of a car, holding a gun, and pointing it at the person who was driving the vehicle. The man with the gun was screaming at the driver in French, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying.
In that moment, I was frozen. I thought to myself, “Is this another terrorist attack? What’s going on? Do I need to start running? What do I do?” I quickly glanced at the people sitting next to me and realised that only the four of us sitting at the end of the table were witnessing this incident. The four of us were paralysed, with our jaws wide open and our blank stares fixated on the drama. The rest of our colleagues on the other side of the table were chatting away, oblivious to the situation unfolding outside.
After a few seconds, we realised that the man holding the gun was a plain clothes policeman arresting the driver of the vehicle. Several other police cars soon arrived on the scene, put the driver into handcuffs, and then drove away.
I turned back to the table and exchanged glances with the three people sitting next to me. In a few seconds, the four of us had shared a flash of sensation, a fleeting moment etched into our minds. The emotional undertones of that experience created some weird bond between us, like a shared sense of trauma.
The man sitting next to me began to clear his throat and said, “They want to attack us and disrupt our lives, because they know the French, of all people, truly enjoy life to the fullest.” After saying that, he raised his wine glass and suggested we all cheers.
The four of us smiled, took a drink, and then let out our own wistful sighs.
A month later, I was back in that same conference room in Le Plessis-Robinson with my Renault clients. My American colleague Jeff was visiting from Michigan and sitting next to me when that fateful question appeared once again.
As the conversation got more intense, all of the French people in the room turned and said, “Anthony, Jeff, do you mind if we speak in French?”
We said no and everyone started moving to a new level of animation as they spoke in their native tongue. Jeff leaned over to me and said, “Hey Anthony, what do we do now? Is this a bad sign?” And I said, “Don’t worry. It’s okay.”
My French skills had also improved. I was able to understand the key topics of conversation and could tell that things were going to be fine.
At the same time, Jeff’s question really made me blush. I felt the slightest bit smug. Jeff, my super senior American colleague, was ASKING ME for advice on how to deal with the French?! Had I become an authority on French business…? What an honour!
I felt confident enough to say, “Also, Jeff, you probably shouldn’t use that American baseball analogy next time we meet these clients. I don’t think that landed well.”
Later that day, Jeff and I were back in the Facebook Paris office to debrief on the client meeting.
A group of our French colleagues approached us and asked me if I would like to join them outside for a cigarette break. I declined and as the group started walking outside, Jeff turned to me saying, “Wow, they’re all going out to smoke cigarettes!? In Michigan, that would be pretty frowned upon.”
I chuckled. I wasn’t a huge smoker, but I didn’t shy away from smoking cigarettes once in a while. I had started taking myself less seriously whenever I visited Paris.
It was finally time for me to catch my train back to London and for Jeff to catch his flight back to Detroit. We started packing up our bags and saying goodbye to the rest of our team.
I told my colleague Laura that I finally watched that classic comedy film she recommended to improve my French. I told another colleague Guillaume that I had listened to his favourite French rapper and that we should go see some grime artists together in London.
We started walking out of the office and I made sure to say goodbye to the security guard at the front desk, telling him I would be back again in two weeks. I now felt comfortable enough to make small talk in French by saying “Pierre, comment va la famille? Je suis très fatigué mais tout va bien!”
Pierre replied, “Haha Anthony, good job. You are pretty much French now.” He was being far too generous, but I accepted the honour and kept blushing all the way out of the building.
Once Jeff and I stepped outside, he turned to me and said, “Seems like you really fit in here in Paris!”
Two years earlier, I would have considered that to be impossible.