The French way of doing business is very closely connected to French culture, and international businessmen and women (especially those from America) sometimes make early mistakes that end up souring a deal before it's even begun.
Just as certain things are taken for granted as rude or unusual in the UK or the U.S., so too are certain cultural norms expected when in Paris or the surrounding cities. Cultural cues are especially important in France however, because of the rigid barriers most Frenchmen and women draw between their public and private lives, and the hierarchical system in which France's business world operates.
France puts a premium on individuality, which allows for both freedom of opinion and very separate social and personal lives. This same principle extends to a cultural mistrust of uncertainty and ambiguity in business, with strict attention to rules and regulations allowing everyone to know their place even as friendships within a set social circle prove intimate and incredibly long-lasting.
If this sounds too complicated, don't worry -- once you have a glimpse of French culture, the rest comes as easily as the rules and norms you grew up with at home, and any effort to accommodate French customs will be reciprocated by your hosts. Follow these eight tips, and you're sure to earn the respect and appreciation of your collègues françaises.
Tip One: Respect the Language.
In much of the European Union, English is the language used for international business dealings. In France however, the situation is rather different. The French are extremely proud of their language, and there may not be another culture that so regards the language it speaks as such a symbol of the country itself.
Almost everyone in the French business world speaks English fluently, but refusing even to make an attempt to learn the language will be an instant mark against you. If you don't have the time to begin learning the language, or if this is a one-time trip, at least make an effort to study some basic French phrases, and apologize for your lack of fluency early on. Your international business colleagues will appreciate the effort, and the conversation will then likely switch to English or a hybrid of the two languages.
Tip Two: Know the French Business Model.
When first doing business in France, the formality of the proceedings and almost obsessive adhesion to hierarchy and protocol can seem stuffy, cold or unnecessarily strict. It is important to recognize however, that business dealings are really operating on two levels.
French companies follow a very clear, vertical line of command, with upper management always having the final decision that is then delegated to subordinates in information-disseminating meetings. If you're planning on discussing long-term strategies and important business decisions, be sure you are dealing with the CEO (PDG, in France) before you begin. Be prepared to start in a position of weakness, since you're approaching as a petitioner. If you remain cool and polite, firmly advocating your position, you will impress your superiors and end in a position of power.
This, of course, is the top level of a French business. Beneath the surface of this simple, orderly system however, is a web-like network of personal relationships and alliances that actually shape day-to-day business within the French model. Although socializing across hierarchical lines is almost unheard of, within each level is an important emphasis on getting to know one's colleagues and where they stand.
While almost no open dissension is seen in formal meetings with the boss meanwhile, pre-meeting lobbying sessions and other smaller, level-specific gatherings often feature a great deal of open debate. If you can keep up with the conversation, be prepared to defend ideas and debate the weaknesses and merits of your colleagues' suggestions. This will not be seen as rude, but as a useful way to think through ideas.
Tip Three: Put an Emphasis on Being Formal and Professional.
French businessmen and women like to keep things formal to start, adhering to that strict distinction between the personal and private on the one hand and the public and professional on the other.
Begin by shaking hands, and note that the French typically shake quicker and less firmly than Americans. When speaking at the start of a meeting, stick to the vous form (the professional you) until invited to use the tu form of speech (the informal you). Avoid first names, instead using their surname with Monsieur or Madame before it. French people often introduce themselves surname first, so pay close attention when you're shaking hands.
Your business attire is an instant symbol of your professionalism and status. Always aim to dress conservatively and tastefully, with an emphasis on simple elegance. Women are advised to tone down makeup colors, and men should avoid showy watches or neck chains.
Don't interpret such strict professionalism however, to mean that the French don't appreciate expressing oneself. The French communication style, like its rules of attire, focus on classiness over flashiness, and this is a good rule to follow.
Avoid signs of impatience or giving away too many personal details. The French like to work through things in their own time, and often complain that businesspeople lecture rather than converse. Being too friendly on the one hand and too impatient on the other comes off as having bad taste.
One final note: when exchanging business cards, present yours first and then take that of your French colleagues. Don't put it immediately in your pocket -- treating a business card with respect shows your respect for the person represented on it, and is greatly appreciated.
Tip Four: Follow Logic.
The French conversation style, especially in business, puts an emphasis on being direct and questioning. The French are most receptive to rational presentations that are well organized and presented, and will respect a low-key manner (avoid yelling, hand-waving or hyperbole) used to clearly highlight benefits.
Arguing is a frequent aspect of business negotiation, but this is not about winning a point, or about intimidation: this is a way to analyze positions, again through a dependence on and great respect for logical thought, with a lack of logic viewed as at best sloppy and at worst lacking in intelligence or merit. Business discussions are intellectual exercises, and should be treated as such.
If a stalemate is reached in an argument, French businessmen and women sometimes start restating their positions. This is not a refusal to compromise, but rather an indication that it is now up to you to take apart their arguments and approach the issue from a different angle. Frenchmen and women are not looking for an easy consensus: disagreements are more useful, and often far more interesting.
Tip Five: It Doesn't Hurt To Be Eloquent.
Coupled with this stress on logic is, of course, an equal emphasis on charisma. How you argue a position in France is often as important as the argument itself, and serves as a clear indicator that you take the work seriously and are capable of nuanced thought.
Eloquence is seen as a cardinal virtue in France, and French managers have been known to rise to their positions, and run their businesses, in part through the force of their rhetoric. Long-term relationships are a stable of French business dealing, and getting to know a person is done n part through reading how they present themselves and their ideas.
Coupled with this respect for articulateness meanwhile, is proof of some intellectual adroitness, and a strong educational background. A good school and a ready intellectualism are valuable commodities in France, and a person's character is evaluated on their integrity and rpesentation more than by a lsit of accomplishments. If you're comfortable enough in the language, or lucky enough to work with those who speak English fluently, don't hold back about engaging in intellectually heady debates or cultural discussions, especially those involving cuisine, art, music or philosophy.
One are to tread with caution however, is humor. Though the French are known for their distinctive brand of humor, comedy almost never translates well, and wit and satire, the two French strongholds, suffer especially in transit from one language to another. Unless you're fluent in French, it's best avoided.
Tip Six: Appreciate the Food, Enjoy the Lunch Hours.
The only thing perhaps more lauded in France than its language is the country's cuisine, and the French take their food very seriously. Since this is also an incredibly enjoyable and indulgent part of French culture, it's best to dive into this area whole-heartedly, and with great appreciation for the delicacies in store.
Business lunches are often very long, running two hours or more, and may not even involve discussing business at all. Instead, they are often used as a way to build the close relationships that sustain business ties, or perhaps to discuss the finer points of an argument or contract detail.
Lunches are a big affair, so be sure to come hungry. Most consist of an appetizer, a main meal, a cheese course and dessert, with wine and coffee to drink.
If you're at a dinner party, don't start eating until the host says bon appetite. Pass dishes to the left, keep wrists above and elbows off the table, and eat with your fork in your left hand and your knife in your right, Continental-style. Good tabel manners are very important, so follow your colleagues' lead. Try not to add seasons to your food, since this implies the food is tasteless or poorly done.
If you are doing business outside Paris and want to impress your colleagues and host, do a bit of research on the cuisine in their region, as French food varies from area to area and is heavily influenced by what is grown locally. If you're eating at a restaurant, also be sure to remember that the person extending the invitation is almost always the one who pays.
Tip Seven: Adjust to Physical Cues.
As with every culture, the French respond to certain physical cues that indicate respect or competence. Maintaining direct eye contact while speaking for example, makes for a good first impression, and correct posture and keeping your hands out of your pockets are musts.
Avoid gum chewing, snapping your fingers, or slapping your palm with your fist, as these habits are considered vulgar. Also, never make an okay sign with your fingers, as in France this symbol means nothing or zero. To show approval, simply raise your thumb.
Despite the formality of most business exchanges, the French are quite physically affectionate with close colleagues. People tend to stand close when talking with one another, and touching an patting each other on the back or hand is not uncommon. Once you're gotten to know someone better meanwhile, a handshake is usually exchanged for kissing cheeks, though this move should be initiated by a female coworker first if you are male.
Tip Eight: Be Prepared For a Cultural Exchange.
French people, especially those in business, couple a deep pride in their own country with an abiding curiosity about other cultures, and respect someone who can speak about their country's culture, history and politics in an educated and eloquent way.
Personal ideology is also welcome in discussions, and the French appreciation for individualism carries through to a sincere admiration for freedom of opinion and knowledge of the intricacies of one's beliefs, allowing for impassioned discussion that will strengthen, not limit, a professional relationship with your French colleagues.
Discussion of French cultural topics is also welcomed and appreciated, though any criticism of Napoleon is greatly discouraged.
This list was assembled with the help on World Business Culture and Kwintessential.