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 should you do and what should you avoid?

Emily-in_Paris-in-the-bakery
(Netflix)

Here is my list of 12 tips for effective communication when doing business in France, whether you can speak fluent French or not:

  1. 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.) 🤦‍♀️
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. When you introduce yourself and your company, do not boast or show off. Confidence means humility.
  6. 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).
  7. 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.
  8. “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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Opinions and critique are given indirectly. Instead of a “no” you might hear: “c’est compliqué”. It means “no”.
  12. 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.
Paris-eiffel-tower

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! 😉

Enjoy!

Further reading

You can read more about intercultural understanding in my other publications:

https://www.linkedin.com/posts/elzbietadubois_culturalawareness-translation-culturalintelligence-activity-6729694195239452672-COXo

https://www.linkedin.com/posts/elzbietadubois_digitalmarketing-internationalmarketing-globalbusiness-activity-6727545419821330432-Mqnq

https://www.linkedin.com/posts/elzbietadubois_why-the-french-dont-show-excitement-activity-6647871536663412736-MY02

Too much “thank you” in France puts you in the position of inferiority

When I lived in the UK, I often heard a judgement about French businesses, restaurants or commerce that the customer service is rude and unhelpful.

It is true to say that phrases such as “I’m afraid we don’t…” or “I am really sorry, but” are not really part of the French language. The excessive use of sorry, please and thank-you is unnatural. We simply follow other codes to express the same tone and message. (Hint: try to start your conversation in a bar or a café in Paris with a “Bonjour” instead of “Excuse me” and see the difference.) There are actually business coaches in France who actively discourage salespeople from starting a pitch with a “thank you for receiving me today”, because, they argue, this puts them in a position of inferiority. And this is in a country where selling in just one meeting with a prospective client is notoriously difficult! You don’t want to look like you are asking a favour when you want to affirm yourself as a potential business partner. When you sell, you actually solve somebody’s problem, so who should thank whom in the end?

Here is what the French professionals say

For the past year, I have been teaching business English to many professionals in Normandy. They are all business owners or sales staff, with many years of successful careers in industry, retail or e-commerce under their belts. Some already work with international clients or suppliers, e.g. in Germany or Italy. They are all stunned when I show them British or American business writing or play telephone conversations. Their typical reaction is: “Why do I have to thank people at the start AND at the end of the letter (conversation)? I have already done it!”

Yep, you got it: helpful, but proud.

Less is more

So, do we not thank people for their business, or for queries or enquiries?

Yes, we do, but… whilst we would say it once, it’s not going to happen more than that in a phone call or a letter. In France, we serve customers for sure, but we do not grovel.

If you complain to a French company, do not expect a response starting with “Dear Mrs Dubois, thank you for your letter about your compensation claim”. A customer is being difficult? We respond to their query or complaint, but we do not thank them for being a pain in the backside.

Status vs. money

The priorities are somewhat different. In the so-called Anglo-Saxon countries, the customer is the king. Not so much in France. Status and dignity are more important than money. A professional you do business with (or a Parisian waiter, for that matter!) wants to be treated as an individual in an equal-playing field, not like a serf. Salespeople will not bend over backwards to you to get a sale.

High vs. low context culture

The French culture is also more “high context” than say, British or American. The meaning is more understated. We don’t tend to repeat information or summarise action points at the end of a business meeting. The cues in communication tend to be more implicit (the famous sous-entendus). If you repeat the same information or recap constantly, you may run a risk of offending your audience. They may think that you patronise them, or worse: that you don’t trust them.

The other meaning of “thank you”

If you have ever travelled around France, have you noticed how often in French we say “thank you” where an English speaker would say “please”?  It makes an instruction sound more assertive. So, where an English sign would say “Please do not park here”, in French it will say “Merci de ne pas stationner”. The same rule applies in business writing. An English email would say: “Please confirm your availability.” In French, we thank instead: “Merci de confirmer”. “Thank you” is an assertive “please”

(Here comes a side note, but I can’t help it: You can see in France poor, but alas frequent translations like this one: “Thank you for not parking here”. I have seen many of these in Normandy and even in a well-known museum in Paris😮. It is high time that tourist boards or local authorities stopped using machine translation for tourist information, but that is another topic altogether. Rant over.)

Too much “thank you” in France puts you in the position of inferiority. How not to translate the affirmative "merci" into English or Spanish.

Working in multicultural contexts

I must say that even after 22 years of living in an English-speaking country I have remained French in many ways. My translation business coach, Jenae Spry, invariably starts every webinar or Q&A session with: “Thank you guys so much for hanging out with me, I know you guys are so busy”. And every time I cannot help thinking: “Why are you thanking me again? I am paying you for this service, so of course, I am tuning in!” 😊

Straightaway though, my little culture-awareness voice answers: “Yes, but she is American, and this is the way she manages business communication with her clients. She sells me a coaching service and she thanks me for the business”.

If like me, you like the topic of cultural differences, I highly recommend the fabulous book by Erin Meyer: “The Culture Map” ( https://www.erinmeyer.com/book ). That map is very complex, but the most important lesson I have learned from her book is this: try to put yourself in other people’s shoes and understand their perspective. What may seem rude or cold in one culture may be a sign of respect and self-respect in the other.