June 2005 - Per Inquiry

The Language That Truly Speaks Volumes

By Rick Petry

As the industry descends on Monte Carlo for ERA’s European gathering, I’ll apologize in advance for my woeful language skills. At the same time, I’ll give a shout out to my multilingual brethren from the continent and beyond. The fact that you come from every corner of the globe, but can ask the price of a 48-ounce Slurpy at any 7-11 in the lower 48 is amazing. And it’s a Godsend, frankly. Because unless your Babushka is permanently camped out in the guest room or you attended Phillips Exeter prep school, the chances of an American mastering a second language are about as likely as a direct response campaign for a bilge pump working. I could give you the standard rationale about the proximity of our borders to foreign dialects, but you already know that the way Canadians pronounce “a-bout” doesn’t really offer a credible parallel to the universe you operate in. The reality is, we’re happy to let the rest of the world learn our Byzantine language. So allow me to say: “Thanks. We’re damned glad you have!”

When I was studying for my MBA (alas, not at Wharton, hence the chronic insomnia), I stood in awe surrounded by students from Asia. I tried to imagine myself grasping advanced statistics in, say, Mandarin. Had I gone down that path, I’d be selling Louis Vuitton knock-offs on the streets of Beijing about now. They say English is the international language of business and with each passing year, I find more people amid my globe trotting who are able to communicate in my native tongue. Is it the proliferation of American culture that has inspired the world to adopt English or is it a reaction to the fact that the average Yank’s ability to speak French isn’t likely to extend beyond, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?”

After last year’s extravaganza in Monaco, my spouse joined me for a week in Provence. We were in a magnificent hill town, hell bent on acquiring some cicada-patterned tablecloth with matching napkins-the sort of thing that becomes essential to your well-being after a day of sipping Châteauneuf du Pape. As we burst through the door of the linen shop, my wife, an otherwise brilliant woman with an inexplicable penchant for greeting the French with the salutation, “En-glish?” delivered at an octave, which infers hearing loss, was thankfully headed off by the shopkeeper’s greeting of, “Good afternoon, Madame. May I help you?” And I thought, “How did he know…?” It’s not like I was wearing a Governator t-shirt. And that’s when it hit me-French may be the language of love, but English-the international language of business? Forget it. That distinction belongs to another form of exchange: capitalism.

Rick Petry is president of agency services for Euro RSCG 4D DRTV, a full-service direct marketing agency based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].


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