French business culture and etiquette

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French business culture and etiquette

18/07/2018 Europe France 0

An insight into French business culture and etiquette

© Eleonore Breukel

How we look upon and judge the lifestyle and workplace of other cultures depends on how we view the world from our own cultural background.

France. A world power

The French Republic has a population of 65 million. The French language, the French culture, the French juridical system and political influence are not just felt in France but also on the strategically located French islands in the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean as well as in other French Overseas Departments and Territories and their ex-colonies. France maintains strong trade relationships with most of these countries.

Paris is the absolute center of the power of the French Republic which is symbolized by the 12 lanes leading up to the Arc the Triomph in the heart of the city. A decentralization process was initiated in the late nineties but the results of this initiative are not clearly visible yet.

France is a multicultural society as people from all her colonies and ex-colonies flock to France for work and education. There is a large middle class and a strong small elite with classes well defined in this stratified society.

France has a predominantly rich Catholic background in contrast to the soberer northern European predominantly Protestant countries. Le joy the vivre (the joy of living) can be interpreted as enjoying the good things in life e.g. food, wines, elegance, art, but mostly by spending quality time with family and friends. The French value a clear separation between business and private life.

The French language

The French language is a Roman language that has its roots in the Indo-European language family. French is the official language in 29 countries. The French are careful guardians of their language and try to ban foreign words. A ‘computer’, is not called ‘computer’ like most western languages but an ‘ordinate’ in French. Most foreign books are translated into French. French songs and French cinema are usually more popular than foreign songs and movies. Foreign movies are often dubbed by French actors.

The business culture of France

The French have played an important role in the world history; they are well traveled and aware of cultural differences. However, do not always put their knowledge of cultural differences into practice since the French way is considered the best way for a smooth business operation. In business this means it may take French people some time to be open to ideas that are introduced by foreigners.

French organizations are well structured with a clear steep vertical chain of command. There are many rules and regulations. Many of those rules are unwritten.

  • Always ask your boss or a French colleague when you don’t understand a process.

Status in society and in organizations is obtained by education, politics, the position one holds in the organization as well as family background. Thus, the following patterns occur:

  • Working cross-level is not favored.
  • It is best is to have people of the same level approaching each other when meeting for the first time.
  • A large network of connections in business and in politics is required to sustain your status and may help to make rules and regulations more flexible.
  • First names are only used when invited to do so.
  • Academic titles are used when addressing people; “Professor Lefevre how are you today”.

When talking with French colleagues or friends you may call each other by the first name but it is advised to still use the formal –Vaus- instead of the informal –Tu- when speaking in French. This is a form of respect. English does not have such a formal way of addressing others, so when speaking in English one needs to show respect in another way, e.g. by being very polite and cordial.

Leaders and decision making

French leaders are often charismatic and articulate. Decisions are usually made at the top and should not be questioned. People involved are not always consulted prior to the decision-making process. To work effectively you should;

  • Make sure that you have a large internal network to find out what exactly is going on within the organization.
  • Frequently socialize with colleagues e.g. by having lunch.
  • In case of virtual communication make sure you call the people you work with on regular basis.
  • A good leader or superior gives his subordinates clear instructions. Assignments and job descriptions should be well defined
  • Communication style

The French excel in debating so interrupting in the conversation is permitted as it is seen as taking on an active role. They often refer to their famous philosophers to anchor their thoughts and ideas.

  • An area of tension may occur when French people speak English and keep to the French language structure. The structure of the French language may suggest, when speaking in English, that one is making a statement or giving instructions however this is usually not the case. However, it often causes irritation and misunderstandings.


Meetings are not always structured. One of the challenges around the meeting table is a difference in thinking styles;

  • The French are usually deductive thinkers. They often focus on the “why” when others focus on the “what “and “how”. This of course depends on the field you work in.
  • It may well be that people solve their problems in different ways resulting in the same outcome.
  • The French enjoy a good intellectual monologue or debate at the meeting table. Being articulate is a basic condition for a successful career.

French etiquette

Mind your manners. Your behavior reflects your social class and education.

  • Show respect for your superiors at the meeting table. Do not oppose them openly in public.
  • Shake hands with everyone when you enter the meeting room beginning with the highest in rank. In many organizations people shake hands every morning.
  • The way you dress reflects your respect towards your colleagues as well as your social class. Elegance above fashion for men and for women. The colors of your tie, shirt, suit, socks and shoes should match.
  • For ladies some make-up e.g., lipstick is appreciated. It shows that you care about your appearance and this is respectful towards those with whom you meet.
  • When women at work receive compliments about their appearance they should accept the compliment with grace. Answer with: “thank you, you are so kind”.
  • For men; be a gentleman and open the door for a lady.
  • At the restaurant; understand the order of the courses on the menu. Appetizer, main course, cheese, dessert, coffee. Use the cutlery from the outside to the inside.
  • If you do not know about the fabulous French wines ask the waiter. Be careful as he will without doubt sell you the most expensive wine on the wine card. Red wine goes with red meat a white wine with white meat and fish. Some knowledge of French wines is appreciated by the French.

Your international virtual team

Whether you are English, Russian, Japanese, Indian, German, Chinese, American, Dutch, Brazilian or any other nationality your French team leader expects you to:

  • Be loyal to the project and the team leader.
  • To copy the team leader in emails to other team members.
  • Be open and transparent to the team leader.
  • To share ideas with the team leader before bringing them to the group.
  • To follow the chain of command and not overstep authority.
  • To be comfortable with receiving instructions from the team leader.
  • Maintain a friendly atmosphere and collegiality in the team.
  • To keep in close touch with the entire team and be informed of what is happening in the organization.
  • To provide detailed information instead of bullet point information.
  • To keep to the set deadlines. If you cannot make the deadline inform the team leader well ahead of time.
  • To keep the team leader informed of any changes at all times.

© Eleonore Breukel

Intercultural Communication bv.