Cultural Clues… Do’s & Taboos
A series of cultural tips for countries from A to Z
Communication Guidelines for France
It’s strongly recommended that you learn basic French phrases and use them whenever possible. Your efforts will be well appreciated and will be remembered. The French will revert to English if they see you floundering.
Men should stand, or at least initiate a move to do so, whenever a superior makes an entrance.
Good posture and politeness is considered important in the French culture, and business is rather formal.
Despite the formality of French business culture, people tend to stand close when speaking to each other. Moreover, touching in public is also commonplace and usually within the bounds of French business etiquette.
During a first meeting, remain polite and cordial, but keep in mind that the French tend to be suspicious of early friendliness.
Be prepared to answer questions about your own country, background, and possibly even political matters.
Smiling is treated only with indifference here. It not necessarily an indication of approval.
Chewing gum in public is considered vulgar and snapping fingers is also considered offensive.
If you feel the need to point, motion with your whole hand rather than your index finger.
The “O.K.” sign (forming a circle with the thumb and forefinger) actually means “zero” or “useless” in France. The French “O.K.” symbol is the “thumbs up”, so use this symbol to express approval.
You’ll find that conversations with the French often shift into spirited debates!
The French can be very direct in questioning and probing, so a carefully planned, logically organized proposal is very important. Moreover, it is likely that the French will focus on the aspects of your proposal that require further explanation. You may find that the French tend to treat the business discussion as an intellectual exercise.
Logic will dominate arguments with the French. They will be quick to criticize anything illogical stated by the opposition. Give opinions only on subjects that you are knowledgeable about.
Arguments tend to be made from an analytical, critical, perspective that is articulated with eloquence and wit. One’s personal feelings or belief in an ideology may also enter into the presentation.
There is rarely a moment of silence with the French, except when the topic under discussion has been exhausted and nothing new has been introduced.
The French tend to focus on long term objectives, and will try to establish firm personal relationships with the other party before pursuing business partnerships.
Although the French can often be persuaded to change their opinions, they will not accept anything that deviates from the cultural norm. They are, however, receptive to any new information that enhances the spirit of a debate.
The French will judge you on your ability to demonstrate your intellect, and this often involves discussing confrontational ideas and engaging in rigorous debates with them. You will earn their respect if you can handle yourself well in these situations.
The French are very proud, gracious people. Never overtly make them feel wrong or look wrong. Instead, make suggestions about other possibilities.
Discussions are likely to get far more heated and intense than is the custom in North America and many other countries.
In the middle of an argument the focus may change, setting aside the immediate issue. Try not to be frustrated, these digressions are characteristic of French business culture and sometimes influence the final decision.
French business protocol requires constant formality and reserve in negotiations. Trying to convince your French counterparts to “lighten up” is inappropriate.
The French tend to be preoccupied with examining every minute detail before arriving at a decision. Consequently, be prepared for a long wait before you receive an answer.
Power is intrinsic to French business culture. Only the highest individual in authority makes the final decision. Therefore, be aware that the people with whom you are dealing are probably only intermediaries.
The French workplace is highly organized and structured. Generally, bureaucracy and administrative procedures are considered far more important than efficiency or flexibility. Consequently, French business culture tends to be reluctant to embrace change.
Welcome Topics of Conversation
- The wonderful French food and cuisine
- Anything about art, music and philosophy
- French history, sports, and other aspects of the culture if you know what you are talking about
- All current events of a global nature
- Architecture, nature and the beautiful French cities and countryside
Conversation to Avoid
- It is bad manners to ask questions about someone’s political preferences unless they bring up the topic
- Refrain the standard conversation opener, “What do you do?”
- Don’t criticize Napoleon or any other French leader
- Avoid making personal inquiries in conversation, especially during initial introductions
- Praise (rather than criticism) of anything French will go a long way.
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