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2 Behaviour expectations at work

If you’re planning to use your French skills for work, it will be very useful to find out about cultural differences in business settings too. This may not be something that is taught in all beginners’ French courses, but if it’s relevant to your goals, you should keep an eye out for opportunities to explore this topic further. In this section, you will get a flavour of what attitudes and expected behaviours are like in France. Do keep in mind that things will be different in other French-speaking countries.

Described image
Figure 4 Business etiquette

What many international business people notice when working with partners or customers from France, especially if they come from a British or North American background, is the higher degree of formality in relationships at work in France. This is manifested, for example, through more formal dress (like suits and ties being the norm for men). Formality and hierarchy are also marked in several ways linguistically: through the use of formal titles (e.g Madame la Directrice), last names rather than first names (e.g. Monsieur Beaupin), and vous rather than tu. There is often a strong sense of hierarchy, with team leaders or managers being somewhat detached from the team, and decisions being made at the top.

High professionalism and courtesy are expected, and displaying these behaviours will yield trust and respect. Punctuality is valued. Hard work is also expected, but without tipping over into excessive workaholism. Indeed, keeping clear boundaries between the professional and private spheres is considered to be important too. This can be seen in the way conversations are held over meals. Formal business lunches and informal lunches with colleagues are commonplace, and are a way of developing relationships between partners and colleagues. The conversation is likely to keep personal lives well separated from business discussions.

There are also differences in communication styles between people from different cultures. For example, people from France will generally have a much more direct communication style than British people. It is acceptable to state very directly that you disagree with an idea in France (e.g. by stating ‘je ne suis pas du tout d’accord’ meaning ‘I completely disagree’) whereas the norm in Britain is to make very indirect statements to indicate disagreement (with phrases such as ‘this is interesting’ or ‘this could be something to look into’, which are often used to express conflicting views). Other different behaviours such as making more direct eye contact, and more physical contact, can also be observed. You may have noticed the latter if you have ever observed the behavioural differences between French and British politicians at international summits.

Activity 2 Your business etiquette

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

What are the business behaviour expectations in your own culture? How different are they to the expectations in France as described here? You could think about the following aspects:

  • degree of formality and courtesy
  • sense of hierarchy
  • communication style
  • attitude to punctuality and time management
  • mixing of private and professional spheres.

If you aren’t particularly involved in business culture, you can adapt this to your own circumstances, and think about relationships and interactions between people in any formal environment.

Reflect and make some notes in the box.

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It is worth noting, of course, that many variations will be found from the behaviours and expectations described here. Degrees of formality will change depending on the culture of specific businesses, how close the relationship between colleagues might be, and simply due to personal differences. And some middle ground will be reached between cultures too – French companies that frequently do business internationally tend to adapt their own culture and behaviour to match that of their partners. They will, however, appreciate it if those partners make an effort to understand and adopt French business customs.