Planning a business trip to France? Learning about French business etiquette is an important part of that planning process. “Minding your manners” the French way shows respect for your French counterparts and increases your chance of getting a positive outcome.
French business culture is formal. "Water cooler” conversations tend to be about culture, politics, current events, etc., rather than about personal details. In fact, it’s not uncommon to work with someone for years without knowing whether they’re married, have kids, etc.
In keeping with that formality, introduce yourself with your title as well as your first and last names, and address your hosts by title and last name unless you’re invited to do otherwise. However, after initial introductions, it’s okay to use just titles, like Monsieur and Madame.
French business dress is formal and conservative. Suits in black, gray, navy, or beige are common for both men and women. The French appreciate quality, and even entry-level employees typically buy the best clothes, shoes, and accessories they can afford. Since the French put so much emphasis on dressing well, they’re likely to make assumptions about your status based on how you’re dressed.
Dress for social occasions is formal, too. If you receive an invitation that specifies “casual” dress, that doesn’t mean jeans. It’s more likely to mean business attire, and maybe even a jacket for the men. If you’re in doubt, ask the host.
- Planning is important, as it’s considered rude to just drop in on someone, whether for business or social reasons. Try to schedule meetings two weeks in advance, and call a day or two before to confirm.
- Don’t assume that everyone in France speaks English. Many people do, but it’s still best to confirm and, if necessary, to arrange for an interpreter.
- Meetings in France usually take place in the office rather than in a restaurant.
- In contrast to their formal approach to business, the French tend to be relaxed about punctuality. Your best bet is to be on time yourself but to not be surprised if your French counterparts are late.
- The custom in France is to shake hands when arriving and when leaving. The most senior person initiates the handshake, unless one of the people is a woman; in that case, the woman initiates the handshake regardless of rank. Once you’ve established a relationship, female executives may offer their cheeks for an “air kiss”.
- Have business cards printed in both English and French. When someone gives you a business card, take the time to carefully examine it before putting it away.
- Meetings usually begin with restating the purpose of the meeting.
- The French value intellect and logic and may test you on both fronts. Be prepared for questions and challenges, and provide logical answers based on facts.
- Don’t expect a decision to be made during the meeting, especially if the most senior person involved isn’t present. Meetings in France are more about gathering facts than making decisions.
Manners and customs
One of the most challenging aspects of doing business in another country is making sure you don’t unintentionally offend your hosts. That’s because what’s considered “mannerly” is greatly dependent on culture, and what’s considered polite in one culture may very well be considered rude in another. These guidelines will help you mind your manners in France:
- Don’t chew gum in public (or in meetings); it’s considered vulgar.
- Don’t put your hands in your pockets when you’re speaking.
- Don’t snap your fingers at a waiter; it’s considered rude. To ask for the check, simply make a writing gesture in the air.
- Smiling isn’t recognized as a greeting, so be ready with a “bonjour” and a handshake.
- Say “bonjour” when you enter any place of business, whether it’s your hosts office or a store or restaurant. And make sure to say, “au revoir” when you leave.
Mastering the business etiquette of any country you’re visiting is a sign of respect. The French, in particular, will appreciate your attention to detail and will be more likely to develop a favorable opinion of you and your business proposal.
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