Doing Business in France: Save Room for the Cheese!

June 2, 2011 by Alyssa Paris
Category: Culture, International Business

French cheeseIf you think your business ventures will take you to France anytime soon, it’d be a good idea to study up on a few of the moeurs, or local customs, in advance. The more prepared you are to conduct yourself and your affairs with French flair, the better your experience in l’Hexagone will be. Here are a few pointers.

Dress the part.

Tie? Yes. Scarf? Absolutely. Though business casual is standard in many American corporations, French attire tends to be rather formal. A suit and tie with impeccably shined shoes are recommended for men. French women accessorize to the max, coordinating scarves, jewelry and high-heeled shoes with their business suits. Appearances in French culture are very important and can influence hiring decisions. If you are meeting with clients several days in a row, try to change a few elements of your outfit each today and keep a fresh appearance.

Be prompt.

Promptness is highly valued in France, even if not always respected. You don’t want to be too early but arriving late is an absolute taboo.

Get your greetings on.

When you walk into a room, it is customary to greet everyone, either individually or with the all-encompassing “Bonjour Mesdames, Bonjour Messieurs”. If you don’t know someone, always refer to him or her as Monsieur or Madame/Mademoiselle: “Bonjour Madame. Au revoir Monsieur. Merci, Mademoiselle.” If you have a certain familiarity with your business associates, you may be on a first name basis with them. But when in doubt, it’s better to err on the site of being too formal. The French greatly value la politesse, so make extra efforts to be cordial and practice those good manners.

Shake it.

The hand, that is. Handshakes are standard business gestures in France between men and women. If you are familiar with the culture, you may have seen female colleagues who are peers “faire la bise” and feel tempted to do the same to fit in. Halte! Do not reach out to kiss anyone unless the other person initiates the gesture. La bise is not typical in the business environment, though it is very much a part of social culture.

Work the small talk.

Skillful small talk in France is important and expected. Try to avoid being too direct by using the sandwich approach. First ask questions about your contact’s family and well being in general, while taking care to avoid anything too personal. After some healthy discussion, make a subtle transition to the topic at hand. Then when your objectives have been accomplished, transition back to pleasure topics. Never cut to the chase as this can be perceived as too aggressive. Nuancing is an art in France and les jeux de mots are one of the favorite pastimes. It wouldn’t hurt to prepare a few jokes or anecdotes in advance to humor your French associates.

Wine and dine.

Lunch meetings in France can often go long, in part because of the aforementioned sandwich approach, but also because many restaurants offer prix fixe menus that involve more than one course. The lunch “hour” in France is often more like two hours, between noon and 14:00h (bonjour military time!). Now’s your chance to embrace the wine-and-dine approach to doing business. This is also an excellent opportunity to show off your table etiquette. Wine will likely accompany your meal. Most French restaurants have an inexpensive house wine that they serve by the carafe. When in doubt, let your host select the wine. And save room for cheese!

Offer to pay when appropriate.

The unspoken rules pertaining to who pays for a business lunch in France are similar to those in the U.S. Use your judgment and prepare to pay if appropriate. Make sure to carry some cash with you as some French credit card machines don’t accept non-European bank and credit cards. The service is typically included, though it’s courteous to leave a few Euro coins if you're happy with the your experience.

Get ready for petit.

It can be surprising how much smaller everything is in France (or, conversely, how much bigger everything is in the States!). If you know what to expect, the tiny factor won’t inconvenience you. A few things that you should expect to be smaller:

  • Cups and plates, sometimes silverware. Smaller cups and plates usually mean smaller portions as well. The “large” in French fast-food joints is often equivalent to or smaller than our tiniest cup in the States. Coffees are small too, as mainly espresso is served. Give yourself time to order a few in the morning if you need a bigger jolt.
  • Cars. Luckily you’ll be able to park in that intimidatingly small parking spot with your petite voiture or voiturette.
  • Beds and hotel rooms. California King does not seem to be in style yet in France. That’s probably a good thing given that the older hotels tend to have less spacious rooms. If American-style comfort is a priority for you, however, try to reserve a room in a modern hotel with an international clientele.
Photo attribution: Pixies and Pixels

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