These tips on French business etiquette are not intended to stereotype French people or insist that all French businesspeople and companies operate in exactly the same way. Rather, they are here to serve as a guide, providing you with greater cultural awareness and understanding of French cultural norms when it comes to doing business. Remember to always respect the culture, value and traditions of your prospective partners.
French business culture swings more to the formal end of the spectrum, so introductions and initial contact should be formal. Greet French businesspeople with a handshake, and refer to them by their last name unless/until told to use their given name. Titles are important, and so you should refer to people by their title (Monsieur/Madame, for example), followed by their surname. If you are speaking French, remember that there are two forms of address in France, one of which is formal and respectful, and the other is more casual and reserved for more intimate relationships. Always address your French counterparts with the formal “vous” unless told otherwise.
The French are quite proud of their language and national identity; if you do not speak French, making a point of apologising and this could help to break the ice. Even though many French businesspeople do speak English, they may find it rude if you take this fact for granted. Sourcing a professional interpreter and getting relevant documents translated into French will make the process a lot smoother and help you to build better working relationships.
Planning your business meeting:
It is important to be punctual to meetings, although it is customary to wait around ten to fifteen minutes (the quart d’heure marsaillais) for the meeting to begin to accommodate latecomers. This does not give you licence to be late, however! If you are going to be more than ten or fifteen minutes late, it is polite to ring ahead, apologise and advise them of when you will arrive.
Business meetings in France are often highly structured and follow protocol. Decision-making pace can be low, as French businesspeople will often want to discuss and analyse proposals in great detail. Also, please be aware that meetings are more about discussion of ideas and creativity than decision making. Because French businesses are top-down and hierarchical in their management structure, it is likely that the meeting and discussion of ideas will take place, and then any decisions will be made by a senior management figure outside of the meeting room environment.
The French are adverse to high pressure tactics or hard-sell. They prefer to be won over by well-presented and logical facts. Prepare yourself with a high-quality presentation and back your arguments up with logic. If a decision has been made about something that you don’t agree with, it can sometimes be hard to get people to change their minds. They will usually stick with their decisions until/unless these have been overturned by a very good, logical argument.
You should also not be surprised if a large part of French negotiation appears to be quite negative (pointing out risks, weaknesses and errors, for example). The French education system is often based on criticism and the French can therefore have quite a critical outlook.
Business meals and social occasions:
The French are famously passionate about food, and business meals are seen more as a social occasion rather than a place to discuss business – this is reserved for after the meal. Typically you will drink wine with your meal. It will be topped up when your glass is empty, so if you feel that you have had enough, leave a little in your glass. If there is a bread basket, it is common practice to take the bread with your hands and place it on the table beside your plate – it is unlikely that there will be a separate bread plate. You should also break bread with your hands, this is also not considered rude. For all other eating, continental table manners apply (knife in right hand, fork in left). Ensure also that you keep your hands visible, rather than in your lap.
If you are invited to dine at somebody’s house, do not bring wine unless it is of a very high quality. The French are known for wine and if you bring a bottle it may imply that you do not think that the host is capable of choosing a good wine. Good topics of dinner conversation and ice breakers include discussion and praise of French cuisine or art or showing a knowledge of French history and culture (as a nation they are very proud of their history and identity).
Likewise, the French can be quite private and compartmentalise their working and home life. Do not ask them too many questions about their personal life and family. Likewise, do not call your French business partners at home unless it is urgent.
French business dealings are often formal and you should dress accordingly. Both men and women should dress conservatively. Men should wear a well-cut business suit and women should wear a skirt or trouser suit. Ensure that you are well groomed – men should ensure that any facial hair is very neat or be clean shaven. Women should wear neat and appropriate makeup.
Don’t let it happen to you!
An office worker in France has an appraisal with her American boss and leaves feeling very happy and like things are going very well. The American watches her leave and regretfully decides that unless things improve drastically, he will have to let her go.
Due to a high level of adherence to protocol, there can often be quite a lot of bureaucracy and administration to wade through when dealing with French businesses. This is something that simply has to be dealt with, and it is not a good idea to show frustration or tell French people that something wouldn’t be necessary where you come from.
How did they both have such different impressions?
In France, as we have explained above, business people can be critical and focus on the negative, whereas in America, criticism tends to be written constructively and hidden beneath words of encouragement. This cross-cultural miscommunication could have been avoided had both parties been aware of the other culture’s business etiquette. Lingua Translations provides training in business etiquette to ensure that your international venture doesn’t fail before it has even got started. Contact us today to find out more