Business communication

France-flag-140In business and in the workplace, on the domestic front and in our social lives, we can all benefit from more effective communication skills. Every country has its own way of saying things. Communicating across cultures begins with the basic understanding that one size does not fit all. Simply because you practice certain cultural habits or patterns, does not mean that the rest of the world does. Failing to recognize and adapt to this diversity can mean the difference between a successful transaction and failure.

The main criterion for effective communication is to understand the culture of the country you are doing business with. Culture provides a framework for acceptable behaviour and differences in ideals need to be recognised, valued and appreciated before any real communication can take place. Gestures and conversation may vary between your country and France. Topics and gestures you may deem normal and acceptable, may be viewed as taboo subjects . Such errors in communication may have a serious impact on the success of the negotiation process. While France is a culturally aware nation, the French also have high expectations when it comes to understanding their culture – so preparation is a must if you are to create a positive image from the beginning.

To become successful as a cross-cultural communicator:

  • Remember that your own culture provides an acceptable framework for behaviour and belief.
  • Be aware that your preferences and behaviours are culturally based and not the “correct” or only ones.
  • Become sensitive to a range of verbal and non-verbal signals.
  • Have an open mind towards the views of others and their ways of doing things.
  • Remember there are no universal gestures

The following section will provide you with information on both verbal and non-verbal communication in France. A focus on the initial stage of contact is followed by the application of communication skills in French business practice.

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Face-to-face communication

First impressions are very important to the French, and may have a strong impact on the outcome of your business relationship. There are a number of verbal and non-verbal communication issues you should consider when doing business in France:

Verbal Communication:

  • You will find that conversations often develop into spirited debates. Therefore, give opinions only on subjects that you are knowledgeable about, otherwise you might be expected to elaborate and defend your views.
  • Studying French history, politics, and other aspects of the culture will be an advantage for you in conversation with the French.
  • Be prepared to answer questions about your own country, especially regarding its history and political matters. There is rarely a moment of silence, except when the topic under discussion has been exhausted, and nothing new has been introduced.
  • Welcome topics of conversation include: food/praising French cuisine, art, music, and philosophy, sports and current events/history of France (but only if you know what you’re talking about especially with regard to Napoleon) – French people love talking about food so this should be an easy subject if you have to choose one.

Non-Verbal Communication:

  • Because of their Latin background, the French, not unlike the Italians, express themselves with more gestures and more emphasis than for example the Irish or British.
  • Give business cards to the receptionist or secretary upon arrival at an office and to each person you meet subsequently.
  • Print cards in English or French, preferably both.
  • Include your academic degree and/or title, as the French place great importance on these.

Communicating across cultures takes sensitivity and awareness. By studying other cultures, we become more aware and are able to adapt in our efforts to communicate. Regarding tips for integrating oneself into the culture, and effecting communication, a twist on the old cliché, “when in France, do as the French do,” is a good rule of thumb, in order to demonstrate a respect for the culture. When these attempts are accompanied by a genuine interest to learn and a considerable amount of humility, a foreign business counterpart will impress his French hosts as a considerate individual. He/she will be forgiven the occasional inevitable faux pas.

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Language Matters

French is the only official language in France. However, there are also several regional languages spoken, mostly by elderly residents. English is widely taught in schools because of its importance in international trade as a “global language”. Consequently, in France most of your counterparts will be able to understand you if you speak English, especially if they are of the younger generation.

As political and economic issues become increasingly international in scope, there is a growing need for Europeans to be competent in foreign languages. A command of French can be an asset to a career in business or international affairs. The business person who can do business with a foreign customer in his or her own language will have an edge. Large and small companies are recognising this as the global market becomes more competitive. A basic competence in French, combined with training in business may open opportunities in France to a variety of small to medium sized enterprises that are active in the European Union

Despite their knowledge of and competence in the English language, the French consider their use of French as a sign of respect for their culture. Therefore, to make your business negotiations easier you should at least try to use some French when dealing with French counterparts. It is helpful at your first meeting with a French-speaking individual, to apologise if you cannot speak French fluently. This creates respect for the French culture and reduces any stigma about potential ignorance.

Many French speakers consider themselves and their language as being under attack by the wide use of international English, therefore if you are able to show willing, it is more important than being a fluent speaker.

For example, if you cannot speak French, preface what you are saying whenever possible with: ‘Excusez-moi, s’il vous plait, de vous deranger, mais je ne parle pas bien francais’ (‘Please excuse me for troubling you, but I do not speak French very well’). This introduction is likely to break the ice and help you to get a response. Do not see it as offensive if people help you by correcting your language – they are being courteous. If your counterpart’s voice rises to a high pitch during discussions, do not be alarmed since the French do like to express their interest in the subject areas being discussed by raising their voice.

Business Relationship

There exists a strong, vertical hierarchy in French business culture. French bosses generally favour a dictatorial and authoritative leadership style. However, it is essential that you work successfully with all levels of the business organisation, despite the clear hierarchical structure. This said, only the most senior individuals can make the final decisions in business.

The French have an inherent sense of privacy and there is a definite distinction between business and personal life. Respecting this privacy is particularly important when working in France. In accordance with French business culture, relationships must be formed first, before business can begin.

Business correspondence in France is very impersonal in nature. Letters will start with a prefix alone (i.e., Monsieur) or with the prefix followed by a title (i.e., Monsieur le Ministre). Closing salutations will be replaced by an entire paragraph, which translated into English couldread, “I beseech you, sir, to accept the assurance of my most distinguished sentiments”. In order to avoid blunders, even French secretaries need specific training in how to address individuals, depending on their rank and the nature of the message.

Overall, the French respect a cautious, incremental approach to business relationships. This pervades all areas of their business culture, from correspondence to dress. It is advisable to be well prepared, with all documents translated and presented with the necessary supporting materials. If one is prepared to answer all questions in an articulate and logical manner, the French will be impressed by the value and quality of the company’s product or service – thus ensuring the development of a positive relationship.

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Making contact

The French in general are typically conservative when it comes to body language. However, despite the formality of French business culture, people tend to have smaller personal space and are happy to stand within arms length when speaking to one another. The personal space also varies between those living in the country (preferring more distance) to those in larger cities (happy with smaller distances) who tend to use the Metro and crowded places more often. Moreover, do not be alarmed if your counterpart touches your shoulder or pats you on the arm, since this is commonplace and usually within the bounds of French business etiquette.

In France men tend to stand up, or at least indicate a move to do so, whenever a superior in terms of rank makes an entrance. This is a sign of respect and an opportunity to show your good posture, which is used as a sign of good upbringing and education.

Handshakes are expected as a form of greeting, however a more friendly greeting practice is kissing on the cheeks. When “air kissing” your cheeks can touch but not your lips – one kiss on each cheek – (across genders) starting with a kiss to your left first and then one to your right. The practice of kissing is also used as a greeting by colleagues at work on a daily basis. The kissing practice is not extended to unfamiliar people and if you are meeting for the first time, you should wait until your female counterparts have initiated the move – this is just a warm greeting and should not be interpreted as anything more than that.

Eye contact is important to show your trustworthiness and interest in the meeting, however, constant eye contact such as staring is considered inappropriate, especially during a first business meeting. Smiling has no impact in communicating a greeting or as a sign of agreement. Expressive use of hands to communicate should be kept to a minimum in most conversations.

As business people tend to be formal and conservative, business relationships are orderly and professional. Keep the hierarchy in mind and this will help you maintain proper distance and contact.

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Personal titles

The French are a formal nation and tend to make extensive use of titles, especially in corporate life.  Some individuals have family names which include a “de” or “d’” prefix, this is usually an indication of nobility. The same applies to academic titles and degrees, which are very important, and you are expected to use them in all conversations. The French language is highly regarded as a symbol of the culture and the use of it is an indication of respect for it. When developing a business relationship, it is important for the visitor to make an effort to speak French and to address their counterparts by title and in French.

The use of last name terms and relevant titles must be made until you have been specifically invited to use first name terms. The use of first name terms is mainly reserved for close friends and family, but colleagues with the same level of responsibility generally use first names in private, but titles and last name terms in public. However, this practice is less frequent when there is an age gap or a considerable disparity in the status of counterparts and in these cases formal terms are used at all times.

Where names and titles are unknown you should use ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’. When you are addressing people as Monsieur, Madame or Mademoiselle, do not use their surname. Madame is a basic title of courtesy used for all adult women, married or single, over 18 years of age (except for waitresses, who are addressed as Mademoiselle). The word Mademoiselle cannot be used in formal administrative paperwork anymore. ‘Monsieur’ is the courtesy title for men.

The order of first name and last name is also particular – the French tend to use the last name first and first name second. This can cause some misunderstandings since both could sound as if they are first names. For example “Pierre Paul” or “Jason Andrew”. If unsure, it is best to double check and look at their business card or signature on the documents you might have from their correspondence. There are also instances where, the last name could be substituted by the person’s official title (e.g., Monsieur le President).

The use of the familiar “tu” or “less formal you” should be reserved for small children. The “vous” or “formal you” is obligatory in business culture. You may be invited to use ‘tu’ but until you are it is safer to use “vous” so as not to cause offence.

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