France can be one of the most challenging Western countries in which to do business, from both a cultural and customs standpoint.
The longstanding stereotype held by Americans and other Westerners is that the French people are standoffish. But the characteristics that those from other countries might interpret as icy, or even rude, is normal conduct for those born and raised in France.
That’s why, in order to make a successful business venture into France, you must first overcome cultural roadblocks and break stereotypes. Here are some things to keep in mind when doing business in France.
- Speak the language. Many in the French business world have an extensive grasp of English — some even speak it fluently. But the French take great pride in their language, to the point of viewing it as a national symbol. Although you might be able to get away with speaking only English, if you don’t master at least some basic French, it will be taken as an insensitive act, as if you didn’t have the time or inclination to familiarize yourself with the language.
- It’s how you say it. French communication awards style points. Hand in hand with the expressive qualities of the French language comes an expectation of eloquence. Whether you speak French or not, the expectation in French business is that you will communicate in a logical, intellectual and direct way. Direct questioning and reasoning are held in high regard, while ambiguity and opaque phrasing are frowned upon.
- It’s more than just lunch. Perhaps the only thing that elicits more French pride than the French language is French food. Business lunches often last several hours, and talking shop might take a backseat to building relationships. Lunches often consist of multiple courses, with wine as the beverage of choice. When being served, remember that adding seasoning to the food at the table is considered in poor taste, as doing so implies the food is bland.
- Don’t get too familiar too soon. The reason that relationship-building is so important to doing business is France is the strictly enforced division between personal and public life. French people closely guard their personal lives and do not immediately open up to strangers about their lives away from work. If you try to probe someone you’ve just met with personal questions, it could be seen as intrusive. Keep it friendly but formal for starters.
- Watch your behavior and gestures. Avoid chewing gum and snapping your fingers, which are considered vulgar, especially in more formal settings such as business meetings. In addition, the American “OK” sign — the index finger and thumb forming a circle with the other three fingers extended upward – means “zero” in France. A thumbs-up is the accepted way to show approval.
- It’s about time. Dropping in unannounced is considered extremely rude, in both business and in life. However, once you’ve made the appointment, punctuality is valued on a selective basis. In a formal or first-impression setting, strive to arrive on time. When relationships are more established and casual, don’t take offense if your French colleague arrives late — sometimes quite late. Punctuality is considered a prerogative, not a mandate. The further south you travel in France, generally the more relaxed the attitude becomes toward time and punctuality.
- Title usage differs. When using French courtesy titles, do not place the last name after “monsieur,” “madame” or “mademoiselle,” as you would “Mr.,” “Mrs.” or “Ms.” in English. French courtesy titles are meant for use when addressing someone directly. Address all adult women as “madame,” except for waitresses, who are still commonly referred to as “mademoiselle.” The latter female title — which used to be reserved for younger, unmarried women in much the same way “Miss” is used in American English — is now largely considered condescending throughout France.
- Be sure of names. In some cases, French name usage places the surname before the given name, which can be confusing when someone has a last name that is also commonly used as a first name, such as “Jacques Pierre.” Verify first names and last names in advance if possible.