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In any language, Montreal is a gem – so don’t fret about ‘Bonjour-hi’

Governments getting involved in the language employees use to greet customers is kinda weird, no?
Old Port area of Montreal
A view of the Old Port area in Montreal taken on Dec. 9, 2017. Photo by Kathy Liotta

By Todd Humber

Words matter. I’m an editor, so – probably not the most shocking statement to ever come from my keyboard.

But it’s true. I’m fresh back from a weekend jaunt to Montreal to see The National in concert. (If you’re like 90 per cent of the people I talk to, you probably don’t know that band – do yourself a favour and check them out.)

In almost every store and restaurant I set foot in, I was greeted with that eponymous and welcoming Montreal greeting – “Bonjour, hi.”

That greeting is under fire after Quebec’s government unanimously passed a resolution last month asking merchants to drop the English side of that friendly greeting and merely say “Bonjour.”

Warmly, of course.

That’s a mistake.

Actually, no. It’s plain crazy.

Not that we need to greet everyone in two languages, but we really don’t need to go down the path of mandating the language an employee can greet a customer with — if Mandarin works best for the business, by all means say “Ni hao.”

Banning a friendly, welcoming phrase is silly and invites mockery. It stirs up the pastagate debacle of 2013 when the Office Quebecois de la langue francaise (OQLF) told an Italian restaurant it couldn’t use the word pasta.

Say “Bonjour.” Say “Salut!” Say “Hello.” What does it matter as long as the greeting is friendly and the customer feels welcome. Montreal, after all, has a massive tourism industry — it welcomed 10.2 million overnight visitors in 2016, according to Tourisme/Montreal. Tourism supports more than 82,000 jobs in the city and a lot of the tourists are from English speaking countries including the United States and the United Kingdom, not to mention the flood of Ontario plates coming across the border.

I get that Quebec has concerns over preserving its culture and history. It is one of the things that makes the province so distinct, and one of the things Canadians and the entire world adore about it — along with its amazing architecture, great food and trendsetting fashion. But the statistics show the number of people who only speak English in the province is actually declining — falling from 7.7 per cent in 2011 to 7.5 per cent in 2016, according to Statistics Canada. Nearly eight in 10 residents of the province (79 per cent) speak French most often at home.

That’s a comfortable, non-eroding majority. Feel confident in your skin, La Belle Province. You are surrounded by a sea of English-speaking people and yet, for centuries, you have remained quintessentially Quebecois.

So let’s not fret over the language we ask employees to speak when greeting customers. Say it in French, say it in English, say it in both — the most important thing is that the person walking in to your business, to spend their money, feels welcome.

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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