Effective business communication in France (or how to avoid being another Emily in Paris)
Have you seen “Emily in Paris”? Did you find it funny, cringy or infuriating?
I must admit I found it rather funny. Yes, the clichés are lazy and the way they are used cruelly lacks nuance and subtlety. I am not offended, though. Like many other French Netflix users – tired and anxious under the second Covid lockdown this autumn – I binge-watched the entire Season 1 at the weekend purely to relax.
Paris is definitely shown as a white-washed postcard (where is its real ethnic diversity?), and far from its usual chaos. And the series’ obsession with infidelity in relationships is just sooooooooo over the top. Many things are also factually incorrect, such as smoking in offices (restricted in France since 1991, strictly forbidden since 2007).
Whether you loved it or hated it, the series is an interesting springboard to talk about cultural misunderstanding.
Obviously, you don’t want to be another Emily in Paris when you do business in France. She managed to ruffle a lot of feathers.
So, what does the effective business communication look like in France?
What should you do, and what should you avoid?
Here is my list of 12 tips for effective communication when doing business in France, whether you can speak fluent French or not:
- We love our language, but we also know how difficult it is, and we don’t expect everyone to speak it fluently. However, try to use the basic French words: “Bonjour”, “merci”, “au revoir”, “enchanté.e”, “pardon”. “Bonjour” is particularly important, whether you enter an office, a bakery or your hotel on the first night in Paris. (If you watched the series, do you remember Emily in the boulangerie? She doesn’t say “hello” or answer the baker’s greeting. This is a big cultural mistake, far more important than her mispronunciation of “pain au chocolat”. She might be smiley and sweet, but according to the French culture she is simply rude.) 🤦♀️
- You only say “Bonjour” once a day, the first time you meet a person. Remember this if you work with French colleagues or project partners. Repeating this word during the day may look like lack of respect (as if you forgot you met them earlier). If this happens to you, don’t panic, but present your excuses.
- Address your counterparts by “vous” if you communicate in French. The English “you” is both formal and informal, but the difference in French is crucial.
- We like to shake hands with colleagues every day, not just at first introduction (although Covid changed this a bit). Kissing on the cheeks is definitely only for close friends and family.
- When you introduce yourself and your company, do not boast or show off. Confidence means humility.
- Whether you sell a product or manage a project, be prepared to explain and justify your decisions or reasons. The French think of themselves as “Cartesians”. We like to know the reasons why your product is really the best, what value added it will bring to us, or why you took a decision (when you manage French people as part of your international team).
- Accept a different perception of time. A decision to buy from you may seem longer, and you can expect to have to visit your prospects more than once. In France people like to get to know their partners before they do business with them. More than just your product or service, they like to know YOU. It is a human-centred culture.
- “Stop eating. Have a cigarette”. This quote from Sylvie, Emily’s boss in the film, is total nonsense. Food and lunch are sacred. Business lunch is a great opportunity to get to know your business partners. Eating is a social moment to exchange, to debate and get to know each other. It is not a moment to talk about business, but to talk about yourself. Prepare topics to talk about. Culture, art, food and wine, or travel will be very welcome. You can also discuss private topics as they make you look more open.
- We have a saying about topics to avoid in a conversation: “Dieu, l’argent et la politique”. Religion and money are seen as very private matters. Never ask how much money people earn. Money flaunting is considered bad taste and nouveau riche. And politics can quickly become a very polarised debate, so avoid it.
- French people can spend considerable time in meetings (the time perception again!). They are occasions to exchange ideas and brainstorm new ones, so don’t expect that they will always lead to taking a decision right away. Also, avoid coming to a meeting with a fixed agenda.
- Opinions and critique are given indirectly. Instead of a “no” you might hear: “c’est compliqué”. It means “no”.
- Don’t overdo the enthusiasm. Oh, I can hear you say: a smile and a positive attitude are universal values! Unfortunately, in France, people who present their products or services with excessive smiling and enthusiasm, come across as perhaps not 100% honest or serious. So, I hate to say this, but… smile a bit less.
Need a conversation starter for your next trip to France?
Take a look at the photo of Paris above. I am sure you know the name of this river.
But… do you?
Strictly speaking, Paris is situated on the river… Yonne!
Montereau-Fault-Yonne, south-east of Paris, is the point of confluence of the Seine and the Yonne. At this point the Seine has an average flow of 80 m3/sec for a drainage basin of 10,100 km2, and the Yonne has an average flow of 93 m3/sec for a drainage basin of 10,836 km2. So, according to the rules of hydrography, the Seine is the tributary of the Yonne. However, druid legends made the sources of the Seine sacred. Then Romans declared it a deity, which also served the purpose of asserting their power. And so, the name Seine won over the Yonne…
Something to talk about during your next business lunch in France! 😉
You can read more about intercultural understanding in my other publications: