Two anglophone business types are sitting in a Montreal bar shooting the breeze after a hard day in the salt mines. Upon request, one reaches into his pocket and pulls out a business card, handing it to his acquaintance.
What's the problem? The poor unwitting English-speaker may just have broken the law.
The Office de la Langue Française says Quebec business people who hand unilingual English business cards to English-speaking clients are breaking the province's language law unless the customer specifically asks for a card printed in that language.
Though it is permissible to have a bilingual business card, or even a unilingual French and a unilingual English version of the same card, the French Language Charter says you have to watch which one you hand out.
"It's a fine point of the law," OLF spokesman Gérald Paquette said yesterday. "You can have an English card, but you can only use it when someone specifically asks for an English one."
Paquette said Article 52 of the charter, which states that "catalogues, brochures, fliers, commercial directories and all other publications of a similar nature must be written in French," also applies to business cards. He said the literature the Office distributes to Quebec businesses makes this fact clear, but business cards are rarely mentioned because the OLF almost never hears complaints about them.
Paquette said fines for an enterprise's or individual's failure to correct the infraction after a warning, can run from $75 to $1,400 for a first offence.
Dave Amsel, the owner of Microplay, a video game store in St. Laurent, says his personal business card recently landed him in hot water with the OLF.
When a language inspector visited his Décarie Blvd. shop in early March, Amsel said he never anticipated that there would be a problem.
His small family-run business has only three other employees, and Amsel said he has made a real effort to conform to the charter's provisions concerning customer service and signs since opening a little over a year ago.
"I try to show the predominance of French everywhere in my store. More than 75 per cent of my customers are francophone, and I always serve them in French," Amsel said.
But he was in for a nasty shock. Even though his store boasts 14 French signs and only six English ones, each carrying a message already posted in French, he was informed he was breaking the law. Because the type on the English and French versions of the signs was of the same size, he was told he must post an additional French translation of each of the six messages to ensure that language is "predominant."
However, the coup de grâce came when the inspector asked for Amsel's card.
"We were speaking English,'' Amsel said, "and the last thing he asked before he left was 'Can I have your business card?' I gave him my personal one. I never thought it would cause trouble."
In April, the OLF sent him a letter demanding not only that the offending signs be changed, but that he change his English-only business card as well.
Amsel sent the Office a copy of the French-language card he had printed up for his francophone store manager, but that didn't conform either. A small map on the back of the card, showing the shop's location, was faulted for showing Décarie Blvd. instead of Boul. Décarie.
Amsel said he is willing to comply with the charter, but is starting to feel a bit persecuted.
"It's very petty. The whole thing is very ridiculous," he said. "We have enough trouble doing business without this harassment."
Yesterday, the OLF's Paquette said Amsel is blowing his business-card problems out of proportion. He said the store owner could avoid all hassles if he simply had a card printed up that has exactly the same information in French and English.
He also said Amsel is the author of his own downfall.
"He should assume that someone from the OLF would want the French card," Paquette said. "He didn't think about it."