A French waiter who was fired for being rude and disrespectful has recently made headlines for filing a complaint against his former employer, claiming that he wasn’t rude at all—just French! Guillaume Rey, who worked at a restaurant in Vancouver, told British Columbia’s Human Rights Tribunal that the decision to dismiss him based on his behaviour constituted discrimination against his culture, adding that French culture simply “tends to be more direct and expressive”. According to the waiter, he in fact demonstrated a “direct, honest and professional personality”, which he owes to his training in the French hospitality industry. Although the restaurant attempted to dismiss the complaint, it was ruled that a hearing will have to take place. Tribunal member Devyn Cousineau added that Mr Rey will be expected to explain what exactly it is about French culture that would result in this misunderstanding.
Writing for the guardian, Marine Le Conte expressed sympathy for the waiter. “Navigating the subtleties of the English language when you are foreign is a near full-time job”, she claims; “after almost a decade of doing it, I am yet to fully grasp all the complex vagaries”. Linguists and philosophers have long been discussing how culture and language interact. The linguistic relativity principle states that a particular language does not merely describe reality, but creates it; Edward Sapir, for example, argued in 1929 that “the real world is, to a large extent, unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group […] the worlds in which different societies live are distinct, not merely the same with a different label attached”.
Prospective applicants for Modern Languages or Linguistics might want to think about the nuances in tone and vocabulary that vary between languages and how language, behaviour, and culture are related. They should be prepared to talk in interviews about what gets “lost in translation” and how this affects communication across culture and language barriers. For those interested in learning more about linguistic relativism, two of the seminal texts on this topic are Edward Sapir, The Status of Linguistics as a Science and Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality.