As a major player in the European Union and on the world political stage, France has a long history of recognition as a political, intellectual and cultural force in the world. Doing business in France requires recognition of the pride many French people take in their culture. It also requires the ability to respect the formalities that still exist, the intellectual discussions that don’t always feel like they are contributing to the task, and the willingness to provide formal, detailed information.

Traditional French Worldview

Individual Orientation
Individual success leads to well-being of the group. Teamwork and group identity important, but each individual is responsible for his/her own decisions and productivity.

Balanced Cooperation
Sharing individual ideas leads to better cooperation. Cooperation rather than competition is the most effective way to achieve goals.

Relationship Orientation
It is important to have subject matter or technical expertise, but who you are and how you fit into the group is equally important. Network culture built on long-standing connections in the family, community and workplace.

Equality / Hierarchy
Democratic ideal;  large middle class; long tradition of freedom to question authority. However, need for authority is recognized and respected.

Need for Certainty
Change is accepted only after careful examination and consideration.

Not all of the rules apply to everyone all of the time.

Fluid Time
Setting time and agendas is necessary, but it is also necessary to recognize that priorities can change, and people must be flexible enough to accept that schedules and agendas may have to be altered.

French Cultural Notes:

  • After English, French is the second most widely used language in the world for communication, business and diplomacy between nations.
  • In 1966 the French government established a commission to prevent the expansion of English words into the French language.
  • France is home to 29 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
  • France is one of the founding members of the European Union and is the largest country in the EU.
  • French cultural roots go back to the Celtic Gauls who were conquered by Julius Ceasar in 52 B.C.


Traditional French Communication Style

Direct / Indirect
French communication style often feels direct because people are not afraid to share their opinions and argue for their positions. The message itself, however, may not be expressed directly in the words. Reading between the lines is often necessary to find the full message

High Context
The way a message is communicated may be determined by relationship, rank, status and position of the individuals. The way someone speaks, dresses and behaves  also communicates who that person is.

Emotionally Expressive
Sitting quietly and not participating may show lack of interest or commitment. Sharing opinions, and demonstrating a passionate, well-presented position earn respect.

Use of title is the norm until a relationship has developed. New acquaintances address each other with “vous” until it is agreed that they will switch to the familiar “tu.”  This is relaxing with the younger generations; however it is still prominent in traditional business or government settings.


Guidelines for Communicating with the French

  • Take time to develop relationships by talking about France, places to visit, sports, literature, art or other interests, while avoiding personal and family topics, including religion.
  • Do not confuse debate and discussion with conflict. Debate is seen as a way to clarify ideas and is respected.
  • Avoid communicating in a way that seems accusatory. Opt instead for questions such as that allow for face saving, “What do you think has gone wrong?”
  • Giving many compliments and using superlatives can be seen as disingenuous and manipulative. At the same time, pointing out mistakes should be done with discretion.
  • Present ideas and opinions with a logical succession of facts and reasoning.
  • Understand that interruptions are common and be prepared to respond logically.
  • Understand that your needs will not be a priority with colleagues until a relationships has been established.
  • Boasting or talking about oneself or one’s belongings is seen as immature and unrefined.
  • Face-to-face meetings or telephone calls are appreciated more than emails.
  • Apologizing for not being able to use French fluently can go a long way.
  • Use the formal “vous” until it is agreed to use “to.” Use formal titles upon first meeting.

Non-Verbal Dynamics

Always shake hands when meeting someone and when leaving. A woman usually offers her hand first. Grip is not strong. Thumbs up means “okay.” A circle with the thumb and forefinger means “zero.” To call for a check at a restaurant, make a writing gesture. Men may stand or move to stand when a visitor or superior enters the room.  Eye contact is important.

Touching and hugging is not common in the workplace, however friends and even close colleagues may greet each other with “air kisses” on each cheek. Men and women may hold hands or show affection in public. Touching or “backslapping” during conversation is not typical behavior.

The French generally value their personal space. Eye contact and physical contact between strangers is not common. People will usually apologize if they bump into or accidentally touch another.

Business Practices

PROBLEM SOLVING Day-to-day problems and challenges are a main topic of discussion and constant criticism may make it seem like there are many problems. Agreeing on solutions may take a long time as all members of the team express their opinions on and explore well-reasoned solutions.P
MOTIVATING PEOPLE Respect for individual contributions to the team; opportunity to demonstrate strengths and have expertise and recognized. Hard work in exchange for life / work balance.
APPRAISING PERFORMANCE Employees don’t expect to hear lavish praise from their supervisors; they are expected to do their jobs. Performance appraisals offer ways to improve. Traditionally, seniority rather than merit raises are given.
NEGOTIATING, PERSUADING Cautious, stretch out process using language, time, distance, not very susceptible to advertising gimmicks.
PERFORMANCE EXPECTATIONS Use individual talents to support the goal of the team. Respect authority and co-workers. Expect precise, thorough explanations for decisions.
DECISION MAKING PROCESS Detailed information about company background critical. Immediate bottom line focus is seen as unrefined. High pressure tactics are not well-received; persuasion is through presentation of facts leading to the conclusion. Written contracts are binding. Relationship-building is key.
PARTICIPATION IN MEETINGS May start slightly later than planned, and run past the stated end time to allow for discussion that may feel tangential to an outsider. Don’t always end in final decisions. All who are present are expected to participate.
Leaders may be autocratic, expecting loyalty and respect. To earn that, subordinates expect supervisors to have a high degree of technical competence as well as charismatic leadership skills. Employees may share opinions, but it is difficult to question expertise of a supervisor.
HIRING Technical skills, education and experience play a large part in hiring, but so does ability to fit in with the organization. Who you know may be important in the hiring process. Dismissal is difficult and expensive.
CUSTOMER RELATIONS Based largely on long-standing relationships, or the perceived desire to enter into long-term relationships. Customers become part of extended network. Quality and relationships are more important than price.