Monday, October 18, 2010

Belt Drive Betty Visits Quebec

I have just read a blog entry from Belt Dive Betty, where she writes about getting a rude reception upon entering Quebec. Hopefully, Betty is exaggerating a bit, but I can imagine how it could happen.

I live in Ontario, a mostly English speaking province. But I grew up in Quebec, where the language is mostly French. I am aware that there is a certain tension caused by the language differences, and in the past I have tried to explain that traveling in Quebec is not all that bad, for English speaking people.

To give an idea of some of the prejudices I sometimes see, here is a blog entry by a Canadian explaining his feelings, called "French are Classified world's rudest tourists", and of course drawing a conclusion that the French in Quebec or France are all alike.

I feel that I have to give two explanations before returning to Betty's problem. French Canadians are included as Canadians for purposes of this survey, where Canadian tourists rank third. That means an average of English Canadians and French Canadians, so you decide who is pulling up the average. Also, one of the key categories in the "rudeness" poll was generous tipping. In France, unlike most Western countries, tips are included in the bill. So there may be a reason that French people are called bad tippers. Maybe it's not as much rudeness as it is a cultural difference. The French (in France, not Quebec, there's actually a big difference in tipping) expect the waitresses to be paid a decent wage, not to have to depend on tips for her living.

Now back to Betty's encounter. While I am sorry that this happened, the reason why tourism is dropping off in Quebec, is not because of widespread rudeness, it is actually because of the increasing value of the Canadian dollar compared to the US. Not to say everything has always been nice. But in my experience, travelling in Quebec is far more friendly now than it used to be 40 years ago, and most people I have spoken to agree.

I see Betty's situation as a "worst case scenario". Betty was looking for the tourist information office, where she could have expected a better reception, but accidentally barged into the local office of the "Bloc Quebecois", which is a political party that wants to separate Quebec from the rest of Canada, and set up a French-only independent country. But I don't think this was the main issue that may have led to rudeness. The fact is that lately, separatist feelings have cooled quite bit, so in spite of the original mission of this political party, not all the supporters are actively in the separatist movement. However, just a week ago on a TV discussion (The Michael Coren Show), I heard calls for all Bloc Quebecois members to be hanged for treason, so rudeness goes both ways. Hopefully, nobody got as rude as Michael Coren in the Bloc office, though.

(Read an article "Traitors in our Midst" by Michael Coren to get an idea of what he thinks of Bloc Quebecois)

If Betty had gone into the Tourist Information place first, none of my comments below would matter. The Quebec Tourist Info people speak English, and are friendly and used to dealing with tourists, even dripping wet bikers. I have never deliberately tested the staff to see their breaking point, and I'm sure it is quite high. But even in the "Bloc Quebecois" office, the encounter could have gone much better.

Betty understood French, but I am not sure she tried speaking it. Sometimes French people get annoyed when an English speaking person who happens to understand French, will not speak French. English people feel the same. I have often said that an attempt to speak a language goes a long way. Learning how to say "hello", "thank you" in any language is a good start. But for people who actually understand the local language, refusal to speak the language is actually kind of insulting. I will give an innocent example. I understand French, and can speak it to some extent. When we were in a restaurant in a non-touristy area of Quebec, I let Mary Ann do the ordering even though she struggles in French. She just wanted to practice her French on the waitress, who did not understand English much. But when there were complications, and the waitress was not able to communicate, Mary Ann asked me for help, proudly announcing to the waitress that I knew French all along. Mary Ann did not get it that this was not the most diplomatic thing to do.

And I did notice that the first time Betty mentioned using her "broken French", the exchange went much better.

Adding to the impatience at the Bloc Quebecois office, it was raining outside, and she and her husband were dripping water all over the floor while the conversation took place. I am always kind of aware, when I am dripping wet in motorcycle gear, that I may not be greeted joyously everywhere I go. Especially if I am not a paying customer, or in a normal tourist hangout.

I wish I had the exact dialogue to comment on, but even without it, I can say that this type of thing can be avoided with a little care.

Picture: I grabbed a random picture off the internet of a Quebec Tourist Information place.


  1. I suppose, it's a human tendency, but it's always a mistake to generalize from one or two isolated experiences.

    Although it's quite some time since I lived and worked in Quebec, my residual impression is that the Quebecois were pretty much the same as people I've met all over the world: some great, some nasty, but mostly all right.

    However, I've also found that folks the world over resent what they perceive as arrogance. The classic example, of course, was the 'ugly American' tourist of the Sixties and Seventies who, when having failed to make themselves understood in English, would simply repeat themselves, louder and louder on each repetition.

    I recall being stopped in Rome in the early Seventies by an American (outfitted in not atypical Madras 'walking' shorts) and being asked, 'Do you speak American?'

    My traveling companion, who held a somewhat less sympathetic view than mine of our neighbours to the south, replied, 'Nyet!'

  2. 95 per cent of my visit in Quebec was wonderful. The gentleman in the Bloc Quebecois Office was sadly very rude.

    When I went in to the building I was sure it was a tourist or Government Building - I was looking for a map and very conscious of the fact that I was dripping - more like pouring water on the floor.

    My first question to the man was did he speak English - I understand enough French to be dangerous and to speak it requires a conscious thought process - hence I am slow at speaking. There are certain words or phrases however that you just learn really fat - and even if you haven't spoken them in years, they come back to your memory quick when you hear them. "cochon anglais" would be one of those that you remember really quickly.

    I have a lot of family in Quebec and New Brunswick and under normal circumstances I at least say " Je parle seulement fran├žais mais je peux comprendre si vous parlez lentement"

    The gentleman in the Bloc office was sadly just plain rude. We had one other similarly rude experience at a sandwich shop in the same region of the Bloc Office - beyond that the trip and the people were wonderful. Sadly the reason tourism is down may be in part due to the dollar but there is still - no matter how much the communication has improved and it has, Quebec still has a reputation, shall we say, with English speaking people - that they are not willing to speak English.

    The small pockets of that kind of behaviour hurts tourism. Many people who don't travel abroad do so out of fear of the language barriers. Learning another language takes a lot of effort - in busy lives where a person may only have need of that language for a two or three week vacation - it may or may not be a thing they are willing to do.

    Language barriers can create a lot of uncomfortable feelings. One side feels like they are being laughed at and the other side feels like they are being slighted.
    Belt Drive Betty

  3. Thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog. I do appreciate it.

    I like this quote from your website and it may be appropriate here: Belt Drive Betty

    There is often a big disparity between the way in which we perceive things and the way things really are.
    Dalai Lama
    Yesterday at 4:08am

    In your original blog, your words were "you would think that tourism money from English "Pigs" was equal to being in the presence of demons" At first, I was not sure that this was an insult made by someone in the office, or whether it was a comment made by you. Yes, it's sad that these types of comments get made by a few jerks. And if I was out trying to find jerks who might make that kind of comment, I might start my search in the offices of the Bloc Quebecois.

    But why connect that incident to the drop off in tourism in Quebec? As you said yourself, "beyond that, the trip and the people were wonderful." With hard work, there has been a steady improvement in friendliness to tourists for over the last 40 years. It is illogical to assume that this improvement can be even "partly" to blame for the recent drop off in tourism province-wide. Ontario has also been hit hard, ever since the dollar started rising sharply. Dropping tourism in a province does not prove anything about the rudeness of the people.

    No matter how you came across, there would be no excuse for this insult. But let me ask this question to gain a little more background on your views. Do you often find that you are treated rudely in other provinces and states? The reason I ask, is because about a year ago, on your website I remember there was a discussion on the subject of biker-unfriendly motel owners (all across the country, I presume). I left a comment on that thread, saying that maybe bikers would be more welcome if they always behaved well, for example not parking their bikes inside the motel room, and not using the bath towels to wipe the grease off them. I know it happens, and I do not think it's right to blame just the motel owners if there is any love lost. And how about those jerks with the loud pipes who like rapping them in quite neighbourhoods at inappropriate hours? There are jerks in all walks of life, including among bikers.

    If people try to be polite and considerate to other people, they will usually be polite back. There are exceptions of course, and I don't think it's right when anyone tries to generalize from a few jerks and apply it to an entire group of people.