When voyaging to France, a country most renowned for its cuisine, fine art, and resplendent landscapes, it’s easy for travelers to forget certain cultural formalities and customs that lie at the core of the country’s social fabric. Their tumultuous and vibrant history, rich heritage, and widely-diffused language are a source of pride for the French, and have fostered a distinct culture at the heart of the European continent. Awareness of these nuances is especially crucial for those doing business with French companies, as neglecting customs such as la bise and vouvoiement can ruin a deal before meetings even begin. Whether you’re expanding your business horizons, negotiating a partnership, or looking to merge with a French enterprise, these three tips will help you facilitate a successful dialogue and build strong ties with French businessmen and women.
- Le Premier Pas: Making an Elegant Impression
Often regarded as the fashion capital of the world, France has a long-standing reputation for avant-garde style. In the business world however, it’s not Fashion Week attire that will impress your associates; opt instead for more neutral colors in classic silhouettes. Flashy colors and daring cuts are often regarded with distaste, whereas more conservative dress demonstrates a willingness to integrate into company culture.
When introducing yourself for the first time, offer a handshake followed by la bise, a light kiss on each cheek. This custom seems shockingly intimate to some foreigners, and if you’re unsure of how to proceed, do some research or watch a video to learn how to exchange la bise effortlessly.
- On peut se tutoyer ? Respecting the Formalities
France has a long-standing social hierarchy that manifests itself most notably in different forms of address for those of different status. In a business setting, one will invariably use the vous form when discussing with a new associate as a sign of respect; using tu is perceived as condescending and shockingly impolite. In most cases, it is best to wait for the other interlocutor to use tu before switching to a more relaxed form of address. If you are still uncertain, asking if tu is appropriate works as a polite gesture that reflects your awareness of national customs.
Even if you don’t speak French, it’s likely that your French counterparts speak English at a high level. Nevertheless, be sure to learn at least a few French phrases such as greetings and professional titles. This effort will be appreciated by your colleagues as a sign that you respect their language, which is viewed as intrinsically tied to national identity.
- Bon Appetît: Observing proper table etiquette
Meals shared between business partners and colleagues are convivial hours of delicious food and light-hearted discussion, and allow colleagues to develop personal connections and trust. Lunchtimes might run over an hour long, so use this time to engage in friendly dialogue as a means of intercultural exchange. Don’t be afraid to ask questions (politely, bien sûr!) about their culture, history, or customs that you’ve noticed, either. Demonstrating curiosity and interest in their way of life opens the door to enriching conversations that will help you better understand your colleagues and foster business connections that last long after the wine stops flowing.
Sharon Schweitzer and Amanda Alden co-wrote this article. Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural consultant, an international protocol expert and the founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. She is accredited in intercultural management, is the resident etiquette expert for CBS KEYE We Are Austin, popular on-air contributor, regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, Fortune, Inc., The New York Times, The Vancouver Sun, and numerous other media. She is the best-selling, international award-winning author of Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, named to Kirkus Review’s Best Books of 2015.
Amanda Alden is a cross-cultural communications intern with Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. She is currently a senior at St. Edward’s University, majoring in Global Studies with concentrations in Europe and International Business, and minoring in French. Feel free to connect with Amanda at https://www.linkedin.com/in/amandamalden