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Published on Aug 8, 2013 in Europe, Featured Articles, News

French Business Etiquette

Each country has a slightly different take on business etiquette. Even within the European Union, where countries have been trading and interacting with each other for centuries, the norms of business etiquette can vary widely. Not that long ago my partner Dave Dodge and I arrived in France and were in the process of discussing the potential acquisition of a company that was based in Paris. We had flown there that morning, arriving on a short flight from Germany where we spent a week working with another one of our clients. For some reason I was thinking about that transaction (which actually went quite well, as ultimately did the French transaction) last night, and the fact that I’ve written about how to negotiate a transaction in France, but not about the business etiquette that one might need to know when conducting business there. Subsequently, below is the etiquette surrounding the conduct of business in France.

Formality is the norm. The French tend to be much more formal than Americans. Therefore, when addressing another business person, especially for the first time, address them as monsieur or madam rather than by their first name. This will show your respect and form a good first impression.

Don’t be late. It’s considered bad etiquette to be more than about 10 minutes late for a business meeting, or other event. Punctuality is a reflection on you, and being late will reflect negatively on the seriousness with which you take the meeting. The French are socially formal, more serious than Americans, and expect punctuality.

Appearance is important. What you wear is important to the French and a good first impression is primarily based on your attire. The better the quality of your business attire, the better your first impression. The French like to dress up and, even what they might consider to be casual wear, would be considered as dressed-up in many countries. Subsequently, good etiquette dictates that you also have a highly polished business look during your meetings. High-tech casual won’t be viewed favorably.

Avoid Exaggeration. French businesspeople believe that those who exaggerate are rude. They prefer, instead, someone who is factual. This is particularly true in sales transactions where some salespeople are prone to hyperbole. In France, conservative, factual representations win the day.

Avoid the use of pressure. Placing any pressure, such as time pressure, on someone during a business discussion is not well received. The French tend to be methodical in their approach and like to consider all angles before making a decision. Putting pressure on them will seem as if you’re trying to force them to make a quick decision because you’re hiding something. It’s considered bad etiquette and the French will back away from discussions if they feel they’re being pressured.

Interruptions during discussions are acceptable. Many Westerners believe that interrupting someone while they’re speaking is rude. But that’s, for the most part, not true in France. Instead, it’s viewed as a way of expressing your interest in what the other person is saying. Therefore, if someone interrupts you, they’re showing an interest in what you’re saying. Reciprocate. Interrupting them will also show you have an interest.

It’s acceptable to debate. The French value a good debate as it provides them a clearer view of the issues surrounding a transaction. When you argue your point, make sure that your arguments are logical and based on what you believe the facts to be. Presenting a logical counter-point in a French business meeting will be well received.

Business and personal discussions should be kept separate. Many Western businesspeople consider talking about one’s family and other social discussions to be a bonding experience. Not in France. French businesspeople tend to want a business meeting to focus on business. If they do decide to be social they’ll be the one to bring up personal issues, but it will only be after you’ve known each other for a period of time.

People eating outside at Cafe du Marche on Rue Cler, Paris, FranceDon’t discuss business during dinner. The French view dinner as a social occasion and a time of enjoyment. Business discussions during dinner are looked at as a breach of etiquette. Lunch, however, can go either way. In the past, business was not discussed over lunch, but that’s changing. At lunch, wait for your host to bring up business and, if he does, join in. In addition, don’t order a martini or a scotch before dinner as the French consider this to be palate numbing.

Scheduling meetings follows a protocol. Normal business etiquette dictates that appointments are usually scheduled two weeks in advance. However, this isn’t always possible and the necessity of the meeting will many times dictate a meeting that’s less than two weeks away. Also, try not to schedule meetings in July and August as these two months are normally when vacations are taken in France.

Alan Refkin


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