How Business Manners Differ in France—And No, It Isn’t All Bad

Written by admin on October 25, 2009 – 3:45 pm -

Have you noticed that in U.S. offices, people who work together tend to confide in one another? They frequently spend more waking hours in each other’s company than they do with their families. If you opt to work in a French office (or for that matter, conduct business in France), be prepared to encounter differences. Some are subtler than others, but it’s important that you understand the ground rules. It’s a different playing field in France compared to the U.S.

Laurence Caracalla, a former French press attaché, has tried to demystify the subject by writing a guide about office life in France that covers subjects including clothes, manners, parties, and romances. The first book became such a quasi-bible that Caracalla wrote a sequel. It’s considered the Emily Post for office etiquette, instructing readers how to rise to the top of the pyramid without committing a career-breaking faux-pas.

For example, there may be a bit of a caste system in both the U.S. and in France. American female executives may try to keep things secret from people in the rank and file. Part of the work ethic is doing your own typing and organizing, and welcome to the world of answering your own phone and voice mail.

In France, there are still vestiges of support staff – that is for now. Some men and women still have secretaries. But they’re rarely taking dictation, and they hold the title executive assistant. These assistants inevitably hold the keys to their bosses’ lives and decide who may and may not be granted audiences. These powerful people can make or break a business deal by determining whether you’re allowed to speak to Mr. (M.) or Ms. (Mme.) X.

Americans are fast to tell work colleagues about their children, romances, and fights with their spouses or significant others. There’s considerable talk (and occasional gossip) during coffee breaks. It’s not unusual for coworkers to share intimate details of their lives with their bosses.

If your child is sick, it’s public knowledge. Should you need to do an extra car-pool duty, American colleagues will probably know why you’ve left the office without giving advance notice. French workers more than likely will leave citing a family emergency, and coworkers will rarely query whether there’s been a death in the family.

Americans are simply more open. Is this a positive? Probably not, considering some people remember things you wish they wouldn’t. When all is said and done, people go from being dear friends to “yes, we worked together” if and when someone changes jobs or snags a big promotion.

There’s invariably a pecking order wherever you’re employed. The French are simply more cautious that something they say today doesn’t come back to haunt them tomorrow.

Dying to talk about your daughter’s exams or being stuck in traffic on your way home the previous evening? How about your dental work? People are convinced their lives are enormously interesting. The reality, Carracalla reminds us, is that these things may only be of interest to the closest of friends. Certain subjects just aren’t appropriate during business hours.

The French are more reticent except with their friends—and work colleagues aren’t necessarily considered friends. Problems tend to be left at home, and conversations dealing with money, romance, or even childcare issues generally remain private. When working, the French consider themselves professionals and usually act and dress the part. Protocol is important.

French women have a certain je ne sais quois when it comes to appearance. How they manage to look as fresh at the end of the day as at the beginning is a mystery to those of us who tend to look increasingly bleary and rumpled as the day progresses. At 7 p.m., a French woman will look as if she’s just showered, and clothes will still have that just-pressed look. Some people say it’s because the French tend to buy fewer clothes, but the ones in which they invest are better quality, and many French women have their clothes altered to fit just right. Or perhaps they starch their blouses and their backbones.

Other rules French women learn and never forget: Don’t overwhelm yourself and others with perfume—a couple of dabs behind the ear are quite enough. Don’t wear jewelry that clings and clanks, and steer clear of bling.

Keep your voice down, and don’t carry on long conversations on your cell phone for all to hear. It’s an invasion of other people’s privacy as well as yours.

If you’re at a business lunch, refrain from waving across the room if you spot a friend or business associate. A smile will suffice.

Never drink more than one glass of wine (and you may want to stick to water) in a business situation. Being professional in France means being dignified and (okay) somewhat aloof. At office parties, be careful not to get tipsy. The French may like their wine, but don’t drink too much, and whatever you do, steer clear of those who do. Don’t tell jokes unless you know you can tell them well, and avoid any story that may be construed as being a wee bit off-color. Not everyone may understand the humor, and there’s nothing worse than being greeted by silence plus some stares. It’s all in the cultural nuances.

If your work superior wants to tell you his or her life story, including the problems of the day, listen carefully and with interest. Do not think this means he or she wants to hear yours. Discretion is an important part of climbing the corporate ladder.

The French may flirt, but it’s considered bad form to have interoffice romances. If they occur, be certain they happen as far away from the premises as possible. Then, there’s always the problem that the affair might not last, and you’ll be forced to confront one another in meetings or halls. Whatever you do, don’t confide in a third party about your indiscretion. If you decide to announce your engagement, that’s another story.

Another thing I’ve learned from working in France that may or may not stand you in good stead: Don’t go up and introduce yourself. Wait for the introduction to be made. When I used to do this, I’d occasionally hear someone say “Why did she tell me her name?” It took all of my restraint not to reply “Because I’m an American and was raised that way.” What’s polite in one country isn’t necessarily in another. Cultural differences are precisely that.

My last bit of advice: always send a thank you—whether in letter form or, as the French say, un mail. You never know where that person may end up in his or her next job, and politeness goes a long way in La Belle France. And yes, your communication will probably be remembered. If the recipient doesn’t, you will.

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