When meeting someone, the handshake is a generally acknowledged from of greeting, as well as kissing the person lightly on both cheeks. First names are used for family and close friends, so wait until you are invited before addressing a new acquaintance by their first name. ‘Madame’ is a basic term of courtesy for women, and ‘Monsieur’ for men. It is customary to greet shop assistants or waiters with ‘bonjour (/bonsoir) Madame/Monsieur’ (good morning/ good evening) when entering a shop or restaurant. A similar courtesy is expected when crossing neighbours in an apartment building or even in the street. If you are feeling especially friendly you can also wish acquaintances a nice day (‘bonne journée’) or evening (‘bonne soirée’). If giving a gift, be careful with your selection - flowers such as lilies and chrysanthemums are now associated with funerals, and when choosing wine, make sure you find a good quality (preferably French!) bottle. When you are the recipient of a bottle yourself, make sure it is properly appreciated and avoid being that British visitor who has one too many or who puts ice in his glass of hundred euro Burgundy Blanc.
A French dinner organised by a host will typically involve a pre-dinner ‘appératif’ of Pastis (a French anise-flavoured liqueur) or similar, with nibbles in the living room. The dinner itself normally comprises three courses, followed by cheese and coffee. During dinner, obey the continental table manners of holding the fork and knife in left and right hands respectively. It is polite not to start eating before the host or hostess has said 'bon appetit'.
Planning a Business Meeting in France
Appointments for business meetings are essential, and should be made well in advance, either by writing or telephone. Depending on the level of the person you are meeting, such appointments may often be arranged by a secretary. Attempts to schedule meetings during August will probably be futile, since this is a common vacation period for the French. The whole country tends to come to a standstill during this month, and the streets of Paris are more likely to be filled with tourists than native business workers. Also note that although the French working day is generally quite long (begin between 8.30 and 9 in the morning and ending around 6 or 7 in the evening), this almost always includes a long lunch break, sometimes of over two hours.
French business emphasises courtesy and a fair degree of formality. Dress conservatively - men in dark suits, women in elegantly cut suits or a smart, formal dress. When you arrive at a meeting, wait to be told where to sit. Throughout the meeting, try to maintain direct eye contact while speaking. In your conversation, avoid exaggerated claims or behaviour that may seem overly friendly; the French do not appreciate hyperbole and often tend to compartmentalise their business and personal lives.
The French are often impressed with good debating skills that demonstrate an intellectual grasp of the situation and all the ramifications. High-pressure sales tactics should be avoided. The French are more receptive to a low-key, logical presentation that explains the advantages of a proposal in full.
Be aware that business is conducted slowly in France, and every detail of a proposal will be analysed, regardless of how minute it may be. Even when an agreement is reached, the French may insist it be formalized in an extremely comprehensive, precisely worded contract. Remember to be patient and not to appear ruffled by the strict adherence to protocol.
If you do not speak French, it is polite to apologise for this, but also to try to learn a few key phrases in advance of your trip. Some useful business terms which may come up in business correspondence, or in the course of a meeting, are as follows:
• Corporate name = Nom de société
• The articles of association = L'acte d'association
• The articles of partnership = Le contrat d'association
• The by-laws = Les règlements intérieurs
• Subsidiary = Filiale
• Branch = Division
• Limited liability CO = Société à responsabilité limitée (SARL)
• Open end investment CO = Société d'investissement à capital variable (SICAV)
• Close end investment CO = Société d'investissement à capital fixe (SICAF)
• Manager, managing director, assistant manager, personnel manager, sales manager:
Cadre, directeur, sous-directeur, directeur du personnel, directeur des ventes.
• Finance department, legal department, accounting department:
Département financier, département juridique, département comptable
It may be an idea to have one side of your business card translated into French. Although not a strict business necessity, it demonstrates an attention to detail that will be appreciated.
This post has, hopefully, taught you something about the intricacies of French business culture. There is, however, a lot more to learn: a professional lifetime’s worth. At TJC Global, our interpreters are experts in French practice as much as they are experts in the language. To find out how our services can assist you on your next business trip to France, visit TJC Oxford, or contact us.