Meetings come in a variety of forms, and are more important than ever in business today. There are the everyday office meetings, board meetings, and seminars. Meetings can now be face-to-face, by teleconference, video-conference, or online via the Internet. Meetings are a common form of corporate life in France.
As you will be travelling to and from a foreign country, it is essential that you recognise the value of planning for a meeting, according to the principles of proper etiquette. Deciding on the contents of the meeting and the appropriate negotiation strategies should be based on the cultural habits and customs of the country. The appropriate steps should be taken in preparing an agenda and it is advisable to circulate agendas in advance to ensure everyone’s preparedness. Always double check that the facilities you require for the business meeting are available and ready to use. Presentations should be well-prepared, comprehensive, clear, well-written, informative and presented in a formal, rational, professional manner – always appealing to the intellect of the French.
The following sections deal with the various stages of a business meeting and examine the issues of cultural sensitivity in this area.
Importance of business meetings
As with any other international business behaviour, respect for the national business culture will improve your chances of achieving your business objectives in France. This starts with the way you conduct your business meetings – appointments should be arranged a couple of weeks in advance and confirmed before their scheduled day as a gesture of good business etiquette.
Once you arrive in your French counterpart’s office it is good practice to give your business card to their secretary so that they can log your arrival. Your business cards should ideally be printed in both English and French. Attention to detail is generally much appreciated in France and having a dual language business card is a great opportunity for you to show your attention to detail too. Once you have exchanged business cards with your counterpart, you should examine their card carefully, before you put it away. If you are considering printing your business cards in French, make sure that you state a) your position within your organisation in French and b) your university degree, for example if it is at masters or doctoral level.
Usually, the initial minutes of a French business meeting are used to reaffirm the main purpose of the meeting and to deal with any questions before the main meeting commences. Make sure that you state your business intentions directly and clearly since meetings follow a rigid format with a detailed agenda. During your first business meeting, try to remain respectful and welcoming, bearing in mind that your French counterparts need time to build trust in you and your organisation. The French do have a habit of direct and probing questions, so don’t be offended and offer your plans for a carefully considered proposal – remember they like attention to detail. Be prepared to expand on the details of your proposal. It might seem as if the business discussion becomes an intellectual exercise, this is because the French like a full understanding of the logic behind it. Since they prefer to concentrate on the long-term objectives, make sure you have considered these in your proposal.
The French will judge you on your ability to demonstrate your intellectual faculties and this would usually mean discussing polar views and placing you in the middle of a rigorous debate. If you are able to reason and make yourself clear you will earn respect from your business partners. If you have differences don’t let it worry you, since as long as you can justify your views this will help your counterparts to see that you are well briefed and prepared as well as serious about your intentions. Although the French are happy to be convinced of new ideas as a consequence of debate, they are not likely to accept anything that deviates from their cultural norms.
As mentioned in other sections of this guide, it is strongly recommended that you learn basic French phrases and use them whenever possible in your meetings. Your French language efforts will be much appreciated and remembered however, if you can’t speak French it is advisable to confirm if your counterparts are fluent in your language or in English to facilitate your communications and if necessary consider using an interpreter.
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Business meeting planning
When scheduling your meetings, remember that with five weeks of vacation to which they are entitled by law, many French employees take several weeks off in the summer. Some companies even close operations for the entire month of August. With the mandatory reduction of the working week to 35 hours, executives receive additional vacation time in lieu of shorter working weeks (14 to 16 extra days every year). This results in a lot of offices being practically deserted during Christmas and Easter school closings. You will need to take this into account when planning your business trips to France.
The best time to schedule meetings is considered to be in the late morning or mid-afternoon – usually 11:00 am or 3:30 pm. Ensure that you make appointments for both business and social occasions, with at least 2 weeks notice. French business people like to have their social itineraries planned as well as their business ones.
Appointments may be made in writing or by telephone and, depending upon the position of the person you are meeting, are often handled by a secretary. While you should strive to be punctual, you won’t be considered late if you arrive ten minutes after the scheduled time. Be careful and don’t take unnecessary risks! If you expect to be delayed further, telephone immediately and offer an explanation.
It is important to note that in France, meetings are held to discuss issues, not to make decisions. The French view formal surroundings as appropriate for meetings and don’t hold meetings in bars or cafes. Lunch/Dinner meetings however are growing in France, particularly during the initial phase of the business relationship.
When the meeting includes female business personnel, they will be treated with special respect by men, both in business and social situations, and this is meant to be perceived as an honour.
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When conducting business negotiations with your French counterparts you need to be aware that you are very likely to come across bureaucratic and centralised decision-making. This is not to say that radical change does not happen but it takes time since traditions are always given precedence.
This importance of tradition is evident in French business protocol, which adheres to persistent formality in the negotiation stages. You cannot change the serious approach that your French counterparts will take and you are advised not to attempt to . In your negotiations, you have to focus on the subject matter of the deal you are discussing and at no point should you bring in other matters such as family as this will, if anything, reduce your chances of getting what you want and also possibly offend your negotiation partners.
During business negotiations, be prepared to answer direct and detailed questions. Your persistence and tenacity are likely to be rewarded since the longer the negotiations continue the higher are your chances of success, since agreements usually take a long time to reach. Because your negotiation partners will want to be comfortable that all risks have been identified and managed or mitigated, it might appear to you that they are making things more complicated than necessary.
A common sign that you have reached a point where your counterparts will not change their position is when they begin repeating their viewpoints. The main way to persuade your counterparts to change that viewpoint is through the use of logical reasoning. Any hard sell techniques or hard bargaining are likely to cause offence and reduce your chances of getting a deal altogether.
Because of the hierarchical structure of organisations in France, once a decision has been reached between those in the negotiation process, there is a high likelihood that your partners will have to go through a similar internal process and therefore even if you have signed a contract, there is a chance that they will come back to re-negotiate it as a result of internal negotiations. This is another reason why you should always try and seek out the top decision maker in the organisation to speed up your negotiations and reduce discussions with intermediaries. However, if you are facing intermediaries treat them with same respect, even though you might be aware that they are not able to finalise the decision on their own. They can help you to reach a positive outcome, but if you offend them this will also be reported and your chances of successful negotiations will be reduced.
When negotiating be upfront about your deadlines and make sure that your counterparts are reminded of them if they are critical for you, otherwise these will generally be regarded as flexible dates.
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The shaking of hands when greeting and departing is a French custom in business etiquette. The initiation of the handshake should be left to the highest-ranking individual unless you are dealing with a woman, in which case the initiative is left up to her. Your handshake should be measured and not so overly firm that it is considered bad mannered. When a superior or a visitor enters a room, you should stand up or make a token move as if you are about to stand, which will be sufficient.
The use of first names can be interpreted as annoying and disrespectful to the French. Only use first name terms when you have been invited to do so and don’t expect that this will actually happen at all. When you are addressing people for the first time, make sure that you use their family name, preceded by a French honorific such as Monsieur for Gentleman or Madame for Ladies. It is considered polite to say, “Bonjour” when entering a place of business. Similarly, when exiting, politeness requires an, “Au revoir.” This practice is also followed when entering and exiting elevators.
La bise (or the kiss), is a common greeting once there is an established business relationship between women and men. Usually, it is a kiss, or more correctly an “air kiss” on two cheeks, first on the left side (for the other party), and then the right. When family and close friends greet one another, they often kiss on both cheeks.
When working with French counterparts at all times prioritise formality and good manners. These qualities are given high priority in particular in business relationships.
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How to run a business meeting
Business organisations in France are highly organised and well structured. Consequently, rules and administrative practices are favoured over effectiveness or flexibility, and the administration of a meeting should be taken very seriously.
One of the most important factors is careful planning and preparation, ensuring that all objectives and strategies have been set out and an agenda has been confirmed. In France, meeting agendas tend to be structured and fairly inflexible. It is anticipated that all attendees contribute to the discussion so it is important for you to be alert and prepared to share your views.
Written communication of a meeting should be made both in English and in formal French that is grammatically correct. An elegant style will be appreciated. The way a letter is written can impact on how a person is received, so it is vital to pay close attention to detail since a high importance will be placed on the accuracy of the letter.
Ensure that all required attendees are aware of the meeting time and destination and that they have confirmed their attendance. If you are responsible for the meeting, ensure that the location is convenient for all parties, and that the meeting room facilities are of the highest standard.
As meetings will generally be conducted in French, interpreters are an important element where there are language barriers, and should be organised a number of weeks in advance prior to the meeting. All presentation material should if possible be bilingual unless you have agreed a common language such as English. If possible also prepare material in French or with some French references, as your French counterparts will be impressed with your attention to detail.
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Follow up meeting
Once a meeting has concluded with your French counterparts, then normal meeting procedures should apply. Prepare and distribute minutes within 24 hours. Quick action on this reinforces the importance of the meeting with the French and also reduces errors in memory. Follow up on any delegated decisions and see that all members understand and carry out their responsibilities. Place unfinished business on the agenda for the next meeting. A number of days after the meeting, your French colleagues will appreciate a follow-up phone call. This personal touch and effort is important in French business practice.
As French businesspeople are very formal, socialising after meetings will not occur until firm working relationships have been established. While a degree of formality will continue to exist within the business relationship, an effort to build an understanding of their language and culture will improve relationships significantly.
Business meals are common practice and usually conducted in restaurants rather than cafes since the latter tend to be too noisy. Because of their love of food, French business people do like to concentrate on a discussion of the dishes during your meal. If you need to discuss business matters, wait until the desert is served or unless invited by your counterpart to do so. The earlier courses are usually used to discuss your food and wine preferences. Because of the long term approach in business relationship building, meal times are used to develop a more personal relationship and discover shared interests in food and wine. Food is very important in France and is taken very seriously, thus long meals are customary, and offer great opportunities to conduct a more open and less formal business discussion.
Be aware when ordering your meal that portion sizes tend to be smaller than in other European countries, so you would need to have several courses – a starter, main and a desert are common practice. The French are very particular about their food and high quality is more important that quantity. Eating etiquette and table manners are also highly important – “bon appétit” is a good phrase to use before starting to eat since this will illustrate your respect for the French culture. If you dining in a party, it is considered impolite to leave until the last person has finished their final course.
Generally, lunchtime is from 12:30 or 13:00 and can last until 15:00. Dinners are usually from 20:30 to 23:00. Some restaurants close between lunch and dinner service so you have to phone in advance and confirm their opening times and reserve a table. Most restaurants will have reservations and a waiting list, so it is important to reserve a table; if you are looking for last minute bookings, consider a brasserie or a hotel where reservations are not as important. The person who extends the invitation for a meal is also expected to pay for all.
Business lunches are not considered appropriate for spouses, but they are welcome to attend business dinners. Status in an organisation is also important when it comes to socialising and senior managers will only go out for a meal with their equivalents. The seating arrangements are also important with the most senior person being seated at the head of the table and the second most senior person to their left and third most senior to their right. Guests of honour are seated either to the right of the host if they are female or to the left of the hostess if they are male.
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Business meeting tips
When meeting and discussing business with your French counterparts try to lower your voice and generally behave in a more formal way. Traditions, formality and attention to detail are highly valued and if in doubt take clues from your counterparts on how to behave.
Business meetings and interactions should stay focused on business and any discussions which are off topic that could infringe on personal privacy can be offensive Common topics which you should therefore avoid unless invited to discuss these by your counterparts are: salary, age, their children and family. On the other hand, topics that show your appreciation of French culture, are welcome including: language, food, wine, politics and French history.
Compliments are welcomed, however, unlike in other European countries such as the UK where they are acknowledged with a “thank you”, the French tend to deny them to show their humility.
Humour can easily be misinterpreted depending on the situation and the French tend to be amused by intellectual jokes, irony and situations from real life.
The main emergency telephone numbers are:
- Police: 17
- Fire: 18
- Ambulance: 15
- SOS Help (English-language crisis line) Tel.: 01 46 21 46 46
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