French-American Cultural Differences in Business
by Alicia Ventresca, MA in Developmental Psychology, Columbia University
Photo Credit: Getty Images
While America prides itself on being a melting pot of diverse cultures, ethnicities, and languages, France struggles to preserve the purity of its historical heritage. Because national society plays a major role in defining social business behavior, distinct differences exist between French and American protocol. Learn to manage French/American cultural differences in business with the following expert etiquette advice for mesdames et messieurs of the global workforce. The first step in cross-cultural etiquette training: understanding where and how these differences lead to conflict.
Among the many differences that exist between French and American social business behavior, one of the most apparent is professional style. Quality. Elegance. Chic. France is known to be a world fashion capital and so it comes as no surprise that the French place great emphasis on appearance. First impression largely depends on dress, charm and attractiveness. So, when meeting with French business associates, it is in your favor to wear high-end clothing, jewelry and accessories. To the contrary, American businesspeople tend to be rather casual on the day-to-day (for example, many global giants like Google encourage employees to dress down at work). Likewise, it is acceptable, if not customary, to conduct business from the comfort of your own home…and favorite lounge pants. Avoid making a major business etiquette faux pas by being conscious of this issue—and “looking” like you mean business.
Americans by nature are accustomed to the notion that time is money, moving to a fast-paced daily tempo. To quote French economist Michael Chevalier, “America has an exaggerated estimate of the value of time and is always in a terrible hurry.” This conscientiousness has led to the development of practical time-saving tools and technologies that serve to feed the American “addiction to speed,” discordant with other lifestyles. The French, however, operate on the principle that life is not to be “disturbed” by work, with the workday setup to allow time for daily pleasures such as socializing and gastronomy. For example, when dining with a French client, remember that the standard “lunch hour” is much more flexible and unhurried. Sit back. Relax. Bon appétit!
Job-hopping is hardly uncommon in today’s economy, however, it is significantly more prevalent among Americans than French. Whereas Americans tend to play their hand at corporate roulette, French are more inclined to pursue positions at private, family-run companies, supportive of long-term work. For this reason, the French interviewing process or “getting to know you” period is prolonged, with the objective of establishing a sense of trust and mutual interest. For example, when embarking on a new contract with French colleagues, commitment is demonstrated largely through proper business etiquette, such as well-maintained phone and email correspondence and positive body language in-person. Also, being referred by a third party is always preferable so that an intermediary may “vouch” for you as potential partner. Bear in mind that strong social business etiquette is, above all, consistent.
Finally, workplace climate is heavily influenced by social business etiquette, especially lingo and humor. Hence, it is important to consider two main points of contention: 1) French businesspeople routinely use terms of endearment in conversation. Literally translated, terms like “mon chéri” may be viewed as inappropriate or sexist when in fact they are purely linguistic. The French language, romantic and unadulterated, continues to be fiercely guarded against modern changes, attributing to its uniqueness. Respect this cultural hub by overlooking breaches of “political correctness” and demonstrating mature social business behavior. 2) French humor, which centers on wit and clever use of satire, often fails to translate. In a similar manner, hyperbole or exaggerated claims that are not meant to be taken literally, make little sense. Thus, when joking around with French coworkers, it is best to keep quips light and simple.