French Business Etiquette

Dressed to Impress

If you're headed to France for business reasons, you'll want to know a little bit about French business etiquette. France does operate a bit differently in this domain, especially compared to America and some other countries. In general, the French are very formal in their social customs, and this transfers right over into the business world. Whether you're going to be working in France for five years or simply on a business trip for a week, these tips will reduce the number of surprises.

French Business Etiquette 101

The French business world is formal, organized and professional. Expect all meetings to be scheduled ones, and expect the door to each colleague's office to be closed, whether there is someone inside working or not. People are greeted (whether by telephone, in person, mail or e-mail) with a title, instead of a name.

Always stay as formal as you can until asked to do otherwise. This goes for virtually everything: language, dress, respect for appointments and deadlines, respect for personal space and personal time. If you have someone's home and work telephone number, call him or her at work until invited to call his or her home. In addition to these behaviors, language and dress code are important areas to focus on when complying with French business etiquette.

The French Language Barrier

Whether you speak English or French while you are conducting business in France, there are some important rules to remember about the formality of communication in France, especially in the business world.

  • Titles:

While in English 'Mister' is not a title unless it has a last name attached to it, the most common way to address someone is simply by saying 'Madame' or 'Monsieur'. Never use 'Mademoiselle' in the business world.

  • Formal 'You':

Always use 'vous', no matter who you are speaking to in a business context; secretaries, colleagues, managers, the president of the company they should all be addressed with 'vous'.

  • Greetings:

Never walk by someone silently. A simple "Bonjour, Madame" or "Good morning" will suffice; avoid less formal greetings like "ça va?" or "how are you?".

  • Topics of Conversation:

Do not talk about politics, unless you are talking about it abstractly. The French do not want your opinion or want to be asked their own opinion; stating facts and asking for currents states of affairs is allowed. Good topics of conversation are history, art, philosophy and cuisine.

  • Conversing:

A golden rule of French conversation is don't talk about things you know little about. Stick to topics you are familiar with, and when asked about something you don't know about, admit it. Here is another golden rule plan your sentence before you start speaking; the French hold sentences free of 'like', 'um' and 'well' in high regard.

Dressing for Business

While it's a safe bet to assume that if you're in business, you dress nicely for work already, it is also important to be aware of just how nicely the French dress, especially in an office setting. When in doubt,think about what you would wear to the most important interview of your career, and wear that for everyday business. You should be dressed at this level for every day that you go to work in a French office or meet with a French businessperson.

Don't forget that your jacket and bag should be as nicely cut as your suit. Also, do get a haircut before crossing the border, and ladies, don't forget your makeup (light and classic). In the French business world, making a good impression means being well put together from head to toe.

For both men and women, footwear is important. When packing for France, always skip the shoes that you would wear on a cold, snowy day and choose the shoes that you would wear to an evening wedding instead. Then, adjust your entire wardrobe so that you're dressed up enough to wear those shoes. Dressing in France is never about comfort; it's about style, grace and classic taste.

The French Workday and Calendar

The working day in France gets off to a slow start, has a long break in the middle, and comes to a quiet end (sometimes quite late). When people arrive at work, they like to read their email and go through their inbox in peace. If someone starts working at 9:00 AM, it does not mean it's appropriate to knock on their door or call them at 9:15 or even 9:30. Generally, the best times to seek contact with someone else are between 10:30 to 12:00 noon and then again from 3:30 to 5:00 PM. This leaves a long period free for lunch (and for coming back from lunch) and allows workers to not get something new on their plate at the end of the day when they're trying to wind down.

In addition, remember that the French holiday schedule is quite extensive. The month of August, the second half of December, the week around Easter and several holidays in May are all times to avoid when planning a week-long business trip. Additionally, if Thursday is a holiday, the French take Friday off as well.

At first, you might find the French working atmosphere constrictive, but many come to love the long breaks, the increased level of formalism and the professional air that pervades in French offices. You might just like it too! Bonne chance!!

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