Vouloir c’est pouvoir: Learn to impress with French business etiquette

French Business Etiquette: How to make a good impression in a proud culture

In many people’s minds, France is the country of love and elegance. Who doesn’t fantasize about escaping to the French coast, forgetting your worries over a nice glass of Château Margaux, and soaking up the sunshine on a picturesque terrace on the Côte d’Azur?  It sure is a dream holiday destination, but what if you’re traveling to France for business? What is the business culture like? What should you take into consideration when exploring the French market? How should you address potential business contacts? And most importantly, what are you going to wear?  This article is going to delve deep into these matters, to help you prepare for your business trip to France.


The vital preparation phase

French business fashion

Let us start at the beginning; packing your suitcase. When you travel to France for a business meeting, it is crucial to bring elegant and classic outfits. Aim for muted colors, and avoid cluttering your outfit with jewelry.  France is famous for being a country of beauty, fashion, and luxury. Needless to say, the French are proud of this culture. So get that haircut before you go, and pack some smart clothes. Don’t forget to check the weather – bringing a three-piece suit might seem like a great idea until you’re sweating bullets in the French summer climate.

Before you travel to France, you need to take care of a few things. If you haven’t scheduled the meeting yet, remember to check French holidays when suggesting a date and time. There are plenty of them. Many people plan their vacation during July and August, so try to avoid these months. As for the time, the French often schedule their meetings between 10:30 am and 12:00, or between 03:30 pm and 5:00.


Make sure ahead of time that your business partner is willing to speak English. French people like their language, and can be reluctant to switch to English even if they speak it. Do not attempt to speak French unless you’ve fully mastered it, even if your business partner would prefer to converse in this language. Again, the French are proud of their language, so it’s not worth the risk of insulting them by butchering it. Learning a few phrases can support the building of your relationship, but when it comes to the actual conversation it is best to bring an interpreter. Interpreters often offer their services for video calls and online conferences, which can be very helpful during the initial communication phase. The presence of an interpreter shows your client you’re willing to invest in the relationship.


A formal introduction

French business meeting

It’s time to make your way to France! Plan your journey ahead of time – it goes without saying that the French, like anyone else, appreciate it if you’re on time. Once you’ve arrived at your desired location in France, it is time for the introductions. If there is a receptionist, offer them your card, as well as anyone you speak to afterwards. Exchange your card after the greeting. Even though it is not strictly necessary to translate your business card, it is highly appreciated when it is. Be polite and formal and greet everyone you pass with a polite “bonjour, madame/monsieur”.

Greet your French contacts with a short and brisk handshake. This usually suffices, as the (in)famous kisses on the cheek are usually reserved for friends and family members. Should you find yourself in a situation where a kiss seems to be inevitable, simply follow the lead of the French person and lightly touch their cheek with yours while making a kissing sound. The usual number of kisses is two, but it may be more.

Keep your suit jacket on even in the office or restaurant, and remain standing until you are pointed towards a seat. When talking to your partners, address them as Monsieur or Madame plus their title (or last name, if no title is given). As it is desirable to be as formal and proper as possible, you should never use their first names or drop the title unless explicitly invited to do so. During the initial small talk, stay away from personal questions and politics. History and culture are good topics to talk about, especially if you have some insight into these topics.


What to expect from the meeting

After a bit of small talk, the actual meeting starts. To avoid frustration, you should take into consideration that French people do not see meetings with partners as an occasion to make decisions. Don’t expect to walk away from the first meeting with a deal. Instead, they will focus on discussing the prospects and gathering relevant information by asking plenty of questions. Be honest and prepared – avoid mumbling and speak with intention. Make sure to explain your point clearly and in a logical manner. And, lastly, do not attempt to be “salesy”. In France, this approach is not appreciated at all. It may even have a negative effect on their trust and respect for you, which are two of the main ingredients of a successful meeting with French business professionals.


Individualistic nature

The culture of France is one that combines seemingly dichotomous cultural dimensions. On the one hand, French companies adhere to hierarchical structures, with CEOs of larger companies often being addressed as Mr. PDG (President Director General), a title perceived as more prestigious than that of a CEO. On the other hand, French people tend to be rather individualistic (though some might use the less friendly term “stubborn”). This means that an employee might occasionally promise the manager to do something – and then do something else that they consider a better option. This clash of cultural aspects is also visible within the hospitality sector, where people from other countries may think social standards are reversed when a waiter raises an eyebrow over a businessman’s lack of dining etiquette.


Divide between private and professional lives

French business etiquette meeting

Another cultural novelty is rooted in Frenchmen’s appreciation of their private lives, which is completely separated from work. This can lead to some confusion. French people tend to be talkative and sharp-tongued, with a heart for debating even with business partners. A visitor can easily mistake these habits as the first spark of a friendship. In a professional setting, however, it is often better to assume that this is not the case. If you choose to engage in a discussion, it is valuable to have good debating skills. However, try not to show off or be too aggressive. Similarly, it is important not to be overly friendly or familiar during your conversation. You’re still in a professional setting. It’s good to be polite and friendly, but your business partners are not your friends.

With these tips, you should be well prepared for your next business trip to the unique country of France. Here’s to making your French business plans a great success! We say: where there’s a will, there’s a way. Or, as the French would say: Vouloir c’est pouvoir.

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