The Ultimate Guide to French Business Etiquette | Talk in French
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French for Business Part 1: A Guide to French Business Culture

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French business etiquette

Does your job or business require you to deal with French people? Or are you travelling to France for business anytime soon? Want to know French business etiquette to avoid any mistakes?

Whether you are an employee or an entrepreneur who is

  • Planning to relocate to France for a new job or business
  • Taking a short business trip to France or getting assigned there for a while; or
  • Negotiating a deal with some French counterparts

...read up because this article has all you need to make the most of your situation.

You will learn how to navigate your way through the French business environment, avoid dreadful faux pas, create a great first impression, and---who knows---maybe even nab that deal you’ve been eyeing for so long.

In general, the French business culture is quite formal and has plenty of rules. Please note, however, that the information shared here are generalizations and may not exactly hold true to every business organization in France. Each company has its own culture after all, especially new companies and startup environments.

So without much ado (because I know you’re one busy person), here are ten things you need to take into consideration when you’re doing business in France.

1. The General French Business Culture

Business protocols in France are hinged on its cultural norms, so as a background, you might also want to check out this article about taboos in France.

The no-no’s discussed there should provide you with the basics on how not to make a wrong first impression when you’re in France.

The social customs are mostly the same for the corporate setting–except it’s more formal and has a lot of things riding on it; and one wrong move could reduce your chances of getting that contract or promotion.

To cover the basics, here are some general things to think about.

  • The French organizations can be quite hierarchical where ranks are formally observed. So make sure to use the proper language when addressing people and use the right titles when conversing with people across the company. To keep you out of any sort of misunderstanding of any sort, you could opt to use vous for everyone you come across with and remain polite no matter what the situation.
  • The French put high value in organizational structures and regulations, and as such, only the most senior officer in the organization have a final say on major business decisions.
  • The French tend to have a cautious, highly formal approach to business and this covers all the areas including everyday interactions, correspondence, and even dress codes.
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    When in doubt, err on the side of formality instead of taking the casual route. It will save you a lot of headaches.

2. French Corporate Dress Code

business suit

The French put high value on good grooming and style, and this extends all the way to the workplace. I mean, what else would you expect from the country that created the idea of the haute couture and espoused the culture of effortless, everyday glam, right?

Business wear for the French tends to be on the formal and conservative side. For women, that means no overly sexy office wear, and for men, it means traditional business suit. Here are some more tips:

  • Dress simply but elegantly. You’ll never go wrong with tailored suits in a cut that flatters your body type.
  • If you receive an invitation for a work event that requires “informal wear”, don’t take it to mean jeans and shirt. Casual social gatherings still require tastefully coordinated outfits. This applies to casual Fridays too.
  • When in doubt as to what to wear, take a cue from your office mates and dress in the level of formality as they do. As with other countries, office culture and dress codes tend to vary depending on the workplace. Plus, with the advent of a more informal business culture in France, some offices are gearing towards less formal work clothes.

Business wear tips for women

  • Conservative suits and workplace-appropriate dresses are great for everyday office wear. Pair it with good quality shoes and bag.
  • Always dress within the bounds of good taste while throwing in some chic style, like French women do.
  • Makeup should be at a minimum, putting more emphasis on skincare.
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    Pick accessories carefully. Nothing that jiggles when you walk please.
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    If you need a primer on how to achieve that certain je ne sais quoi exuded by French women, you might want to check out this article about French women’s style.

Business wear tips for men

  • Choose good quality suits in dark colors. The key, of course, is to buy the best quality you can afford, and make sure the cut suits you properly.
  • It’s common for men in other countries to loosen up their ties and take off their suit jacket when settling down in the office or in a bar or restaurant. French men don’t do this generally. But when in doubt, simply observe your companions and follow suit.

3. What the French working day is like

Contrary to myths, French people do not actually slack off at work. In fact, they are considered to be among the most productive people! So scratch that one off the myths you’ve probably heard about the French.

Most French office workers’ days begin with people congregating around the coffee machine. The French do love their coffee after all. If, however, you want to get your morning caffeine kick from one of those quaint cafes that France is widely known for, let this article help you how to order coffee in Paris.

A caffeine-powered morning is then followed by an entire day of productive work, punctuated with some coffee or cigarette breaks every now and then, and a long lunch in the middle. The more senior employees tend to extend their hours and work well past into the evening.

4. Holidays

holiday

When planning a business trip in France, always take into consideration holidays such as August, Easter, and the second half of December. Around these times, several businesses are closed and a lot of people are taking their vacation somewhere.

Compared to other countries, the French enjoy a lot of holidays…. which apparently boosts overall productivity and improve workplace efficiency. So go on, take it from the French and take that holiday!

French National Holidays

In general, there are 11 national holidays each year in France, plus other regional festivals that mean more holidays in different parts of the country. If you want a complete list, you can check out this holiday guide.

Aside from this, each French citizen is also entitled by law to five weeks of vacation each year, which most French natives avail during the peak of summer in July or August. When planning to do business in France, take note of these holidays and avoid it, otherwise you won’t get much done when your counterpart in Paris is away and enjoying wine and cheese in a charming French town somewhere.

5. Workplace Interactions

Office Greetings

Pleasantries are a big deal in France and this includes the workplace. So remember to always greet your colleagues with a “bonjour!” in the morning when you arrive. But there’s a way to overdo this, so don’t keep repeating bonjour each time you meet people in the hallway. One bonjour per day is fine. When you pass colleagues in the halls, you can say “salut” (hi or hey) or you can simply nod in acknowledgment.

Coffee Breaks

When your co-workers are having a morning or afternoon pause café (coffee break), you could be considered impolite if you don’t take part on it as well. So take time to mingle when you can. This extends to cigarette breaks, too—if you smoke, that is.

Personal Space and the “Faire la Bise”

French business etiquette dictates that you should always respect the personal space of your colleagues. The same rule applies in any workplace anywhere. What’s odd though is that despite the formality of the French business culture, touches like a pat on the arm or shoulder is considered acceptable. So is kissing on the cheeks which is generally a form of greeting between co-workers regardless of the gender. Just make sure not to let your lips touch the cheeks;  it’s an “air kiss” after all. Cheeks may touch–definitely not the lips though.

For men, it is best to wait for the woman to initiate the “faire la bise” . This greeting, however, should not be interpreted as anything more than just a simple customary greeting.

Personal Privacy

The French put high value on personal privacy and put a clear and distinct line between personal life and work. It would be good to consider this often in your interactions. No personal questions that intrude on business associates’ privacy, please.

Flirting at work?

Flirting is generally a part of French culture as pure harmless fun and a way to lighten up the day. But never ever confuse it with sexual harassment which is a totally different ballgame. Some cultures have a different approach when it comes to flirting, but in France, it’s perfectly acceptable as long as it’s done harmlessly.

For example, when an opposite sex colleague compliments your outfit or the perfume you’re wearing, take it as a genuine compliment. The French just really appreciate these things.

Organizational Hierarchy

Here's another thing to remember when it comes to French business etiquette. In interacting with colleagues, always keep the hierarchy in mind, and put priority on politeness and respectfulness. An example of this is when a person of higher rank enters a room, the French tend to stand up or make a gesture of doing so, as a sign of respect.

6. French Business Etiquette: Meetings

meeting

Business meetings are a mainstay regardless of where in the world you are. In France, regular rules in effective business meetings such as thorough preparation, planning, and circulating agendas in advance are appreciated.

A few tips to ensure your business meeting goes well:

  • Make sure that your presentations are clear, logical, and appeals to the intellect of the French counterparts that you’re meeting with. French business people greatly appreciate clarity and logic.
  • Arrange meetings in advance and confirm the meeting a day before the schedule.
  • Prior to the meeting, you might want to know if your French is enough to tide you through the entire ordeal, or if the French people you are meeting are comfortable with speaking English. Confirm these beforehand to find out if you will have to consider the help of an interpreter.
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    Pay attention to details. The French have an eye for detail and appreciate this in other people. Make sure your reports, presentations, and any materials you provide reflect your keen attention to details.
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    Have your business card printed out in both French and English. Business cards printed in French should clearly state the details about you including your position in the company you’re representing.
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    In the first few minutes of your meeting, state your agenda and try to reaffirm what the purpose of the meeting is.
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    Remember that the French will have a tendency to ask very direct and probing questions. Don’t take it as something to be offended about. It’s a habit ingrained into the French system and French people would simply like a thorough intellectual discussion so they could understand the logic behind what you’re saying.
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    If you find yourself at odds with the person you’re meeting with, or you are facing some differences during your discussion, don’t worry too much about it. If you could reason properly and clarify your stance, you will earn their respect.
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    Business meetings are generally meant just for business topics, so avoid going off-course or bringing personal topics into the conversation.
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    During lunch meetings, remember that the French put high importance on enjoying the food, so refrain from discussing business while eating. Unless the person you’re meeting with brings up the topic, it is best to wait until the dessert is served before you talk shop. The first several courses of the meal is meant for small talk about food and wine appreciation or other cultural topics. (Note: if you want to brush up on French culture topics, check out the Culture section of this website!)
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    Remember that in lunch or dinner business meetings, the person who extended the invitation is the one expected to cover the bill.
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    Lunch meetings are usually around 12:30 pm to 1:00 pm and could extend up to 3 in the afternoon. Dinners are a bit late than in other countries and could be between 8:30 to 11 in the evening. Consider these when you are booking your reservation for a lunch or dinner meeting.
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    Seating arrangements are often observed during lunch or dinner meetings, with the most senior person taking a seat at the head of the table.

7. French Business Etiquette: Gift-giving Customs

gift

In other countries, giving gifts between business associates is quite customary. Not so much in France. It is still acceptable though, but there are plenty of things to consider when you do. For example, gifts are generally not exchanged during the first meeting, so don’t make an effort to go all-out, and spend that time and effort instead on preparing yourself.

Here are some other things you should know about French business etiquette on gift-giving:

  • In other countries, it’s quite common for business people to give a gift with their company logo stamped on it. Try to avoid this in France because it could be considered tacky.
  • After attending a social event or when you’re invited over to a person’s house, a gift is expected as a thank you. It could be flowers or you could also give pastries or cake. If you opt for flowers, you can send it in advance or after the event–to save the host the time to arrange it during the event itself where he/she will be busy
  • French business etiquette dictates that unless it is an event-related gift, never send your gift to your colleague’s home.
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    Choose the quality of your gift. Make sure it’s of good quality, otherwise, it’s best not to give anything at all. No gift is better than tacky gift! Also make sure it’s beautifully wrapped.
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    During holidays, giving cards is considered appropriate and will be appreciated by the French, especially if it contains a sincere greeting or sentiment.

8. Verbal Communication

The first thing to consider in communication--in both French business etiquette as well as personal dealings--is the use of titles. Unless you are quite familiar with the person, always address a person from work with a “Monsieur” or “Madame”, regardless of position or rank. And oh, Mademoiselle is not to be used in any business setting as it could be considered disrespectful.

See more tips below

  • Address a person using the last name and his or her titles in every conversation. Unless you are invited to be in first-name basis with them, always opt for the formal way.
  • Using the formal form of you or “vous” is obligatory in business communication, no matter what the person’s title or rank is. It’s not something to be taken lightly too, as not doing so would be a reason for someone to get offended. So use vous unless you are invited to use “tu” or if you are already quite familiar with the person you are speaking to. For a useful guide on when to use tu or vous, check out this Ultimate Guide to Tu vs. Vous.
  • In most face to face discussions, do not be surprised to discover that in France, a lot of conversations turn into spirited debates. This is quite common and is considered to be just another intellectual exercise. So if you share your views in one of those lively exchanges, make sure you know enough about the topic so that you can defend your opinions when you need to.
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    Some good topics to discuss in informal settings include food, music, cinema, philosophy, current events, art, sports, and other aspects of culture, so it would be good to brush up on these topics. If you are in need of something to talk about, French cuisine would be your best bet.
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    You’ll eventually be expected to share cultural aspects about your country, so make sure to come in ready!
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    Avoid talking about politics; it’s never a good topic to discuss unless you’re with very close friends. Same with religion and money—never broach the topic. If you are to discuss these in an abstract sense, however, it is fine. That would be a great fodder for more intellectual discussions that the French love.
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    If you like to use humour, the French appreciate wit, funny anecdotes, irony, or other intellectual jokes. Be careful in using humour though because it could be misinterpreted. Always take into account the situation and time your humour so that it doesn’t come in as inappropriate.
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    Compliments are fine, but the French are not lavish with these, so most of the time, it doesn’t find its way into conversations.

9. Official Correspondence

Written correspondence can be quite tricky but more so in France where written business letters are expected to be very formal. In fact, French secretaries often need to undergo trainings just to avoid blunders in addressing individuals properly. So a word of advice, if you have to lay something down in writing, review, review, and review your work some more!

Here’s a small tip! Letters either begin with Monsieur or Madame or followed by a title (i.e., Monsieur le Ministre)

10. Some Taboos for Business

Before we wrap up this guide, here are a few more things you should take note of. Take to heart these no-no’s and you won’t end up making a mess of things!

  • Never ask about salary. It’s just very wrong and truly unwelcome.
  • As much as possible, don’t start a conversation in English. Even if your French is limited, starting a business conversation in French would generally increase your chances of a positive outcome of your meeting or make your negotiations flow easier. Now who wouldn’t want that?
  • Try not to call or meet anyone during their lunch break which is from 12 until 2pm–-unless you have been invited for a lunch meeting.
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    Do not show off your wealth. It’s considered in bad taste.
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    Politeness is very important to the French. Rudeness is not taken lightly. Try to be very respectful in your dealings and be welcoming in your approach.
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    When you’re pushing for a sale, it can be easy to switch on to hard-selling mode. It’s best to avoid this though. When you want to close a deal with your French counterparts, do not press them for a decision right away.

I hope I covered everything you wanted to know about French business etiquette in this guide. In case I missed anything, and if you have any other tips you might wish to add, feel free to leave a comment below.

You can also check out the next part of this series: French vocabulary related to business and employment.

Whether for business or for pleasure, never travel to France without your copy of French Phrasebook. Learn more about it below!

About the Author Frederic

Frederic Bibard is the founder of Talk in French, a company that helps french learners to practice and improve their french. Macaron addict. Jacques Audiard fan. You can contact him on Twitter and Google +

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