It may take little over an hour from Dover to Calais, but there’s a big difference in how business is done in France. If you’re hoping to forge relationships across the Channel, you need to be aware of certain cultural differences. Awareness of these nuances could save you considerable embarrassment.
Firstly, when you greet someone you should keep handshakes brisk and light. Don’t be surprised if they lean in to kiss both cheeks, as kissing across and between genders is commonplace – best wait for them to make the first move, though. On the whole, you should address them as ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’ until invited to use their Christian name, and remember there are two forms of ‘you’ in French. Stick with the formal ‘vous’ over ‘tu’, the latter is for friends and family.
The majority of French business people will speak English to a high standard, but they will appreciate you making an effort with some of the basics. Get a few polite phrases off by heart before you introduce yourself. Some topics of conversation will be welcome, especially if you praise French food or art. Others should be avoided, including politics, money and French history. Personal and professional are generally kept apart, so don’t offer up small talk on that front unless invited to.
The French really value long-term business relationships, so they may be cautious in getting to know you and spend a lot of time building the partnership up. First impressions are important, and a chic appearance will help you fit in when you turn up to a first meeting. At that first meeting, present your business card but not gifts – gifts are generally reserved for further into the relationship, and should be small and discreet.
Business lunches are another important part of French working life, and can last for up to two hours. They’re not as common as they used to be, but if you’re invited, it’s considered rude to decline. More formal business meetings are usually highly structured but don’t expect a decision on day one, and don’t push for one. Most French companies are very hierarchical, and the final say is taken by the person at the top after lengthy consultation.
As our nearest European neighbour and an important trading partner, France is a great place to do business. Stick to these basic rules and you boost your chances of success.
Kissing to greet is common
Be formal in address
Avoid controversial topics of conversation
Expect lengthy business lunches
Don’t expect a quick decision