One of the most challenging aspects of doing business abroad is the tremendous effort required to overcome all the cross-cultural aspects when adapting to the culture of the new country. This is why it is considered of utmost importance to ponder all possible scenarios and consider every aspect of the country to visit in order to ensure that all negotiations run smoothly.
Now, France is a country that can be very complex due to its many subtleties. So, when doing business in France, visitors are highly advised to learn about the main differences when it comes to French business practices, protocol and any special negotiation techniques. Also, the French are immensely proud of the quality of their cuisine, so it is also advisable to learn about table etiquette in order to be ready in case there is a business lunch or dinner.
Considering all these factors, here are some guidelines in order to be prepared to meet these cultural differences and overcome any potential obstacles that might present themselves while doing business in France.
- Language: Language should be the focus of anyone planning to do business in France regardless if it is for just a few days of for the long term. This is because the French take enormous pride in their language, so anyone who does not speak it at least with mild fluency runs the risk of being disregarded by his/her French colleagues or business associates. Also, another reason why learning French is important even if not being able to learn it proficiently, is that it is a great way to show every possible French business associate that you care and respect their country’s culture and language.
- Formal Business Behavior: One of the aspects that puzzles people doing business in France, is how formal business communication can be. The reason for this is that French people follow very strict business protocols and behaviors, so they can appear somewhat unfriendly and even cold to those not accustomed to the French way of doing business. However, this type of behavior will be found only on the surface, where there seems that almost no personal relationships are going on. But beneath all of this, there is a very complicated network of personal relationships and subtleties that make everything work smoothly.
- Meetings and Introductions: The first thing that you should do when meeting someone new is to shake his or her hand firmly while making eye contact. Also, when just introduced to some possible business partner or associate, French will usually introduce themselves by their last names, so you should call them using their last name until they invite you to use their first names. Another important thing to consider is the use of titles. Thankfully, in France they are not used anywhere as near as much as they are used in other countries, so generally, sticking with Monsieur or Madame should be more than enough in formal situations.
Now, for more personal/informal situations introduction rules in France vary greatly, and French usually resort to kissing on the cheeks after they already become acquainted with someone who is now part of their social circle.
Another very important thing to consider when you are meeting people for either business or socially, is to dress well. With very few exceptions, people from all over the world think that just because they are dressed with a suit they are dressed well, but countries like Italy, and even more so France, are countries that are extremely fashion conscious. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to go to the next Hugo Boss store and buy everything, but you do have to make sure that every single thing that you are wearing is of quality and in pristine condition. People in France draw a lot of information from a person according to his/her appearance, and a careless or untidy look will instantly project the wrong image. A great way to learn about dressing well is to buy fashion magazines or business dressing guides (available for both men and women) and take ideas from there, as well as from French people surrounding you and that you see are elegant and stylish.
- Culinary Culture: One of the aspects all of France is most proud of, is their culinary culture. This attachment and pride for their food can be also experienced in almost every business situation. Of course, a traditional French meal is not near as simple as a regular meal would be in most countries, since in France, a regular business meal will usually consist of an appetizer, a main meal (with French cheese and wine included), a dessert and a cup of coffee, and it can take up to two hours time. This serves a purpose of course, which is relationship-building in a warm and more informal environment.
As for table etiquette in France, whenever sitting at the table, wait for the host to say the words “bon appétit” before you start eating. Also remember to keep your wrists (but never your elbows) on the table. Also, another subtlety that you should bear in mind is that it is not viewed well to add too much seasoning (either salt, pepper or any kind of sauce) to the meal you eat, since people around you can think that you don’t like the food and, if you know the chef, you might be offending him/her too.
Lastly, while all of the advice mentioned above can be quite strict, you should always consider that France is a country that (maybe more than any other) likes to enjoy life. So every aspect of both business and personal relationships can be somewhat flexible, like when it comes to punctuality or to doing business on holidays. Finding the perfect balance, while at the same time learning all the subtleties that France has to offer, is part of the full experience of doing business in France.