French business etiquette runs parallel with the country’s culture. The people of France are proud of their country’s culture and history. Therefore, cultural identity is heavily integrated into their business customs. As an American conducting business in France, keep in mind that your French counterparts are inquisitive and straightforward.
As you do in the United States, greet your French counterpart with a handshake. However, unlike the multiple-shake, firm-grip style to which you are accustomed, use a quick, light technique with a loose grip. A firm handshake will make your French business associate feel overpowered. Cheek kissing is another common greeting among work colleagues, but this greeting should only be used if your French associate initiates it.
During introductions, formality is the order of the day. Address superiors and new acquaintances with “Monsieur” for male colleagues and “Madame” for female colleagues. Polite titles of courtesy help make an excellent first impression. When invited to do so by your colleague, you may address them by their first name.
Another way to make a good impression is to learn a few basic French phrases. If French dominates the conversation, your business associates will usually switch to English if they notice you are having trouble understanding them. French people separate their personal and professional life in order to maintain workplace formality. Therefore, avoid asking about their family, personal life and political inclinations. Better small talk topics include French art, cuisine, music and philosophy.
Asking a plethora of questions and interrupting others while talking is common during business discussions. Interrupting someone in France shows an expressed interest in the conversation; it is acceptable for you to reciprocate in kind. Be prepared for an abundance of information exchange and multiple detailed discussions. The French people do not respond well to aggressive selling techniques, preferring to take their time making a decision after at least one meeting.
Business lunches are still a popular way to conduct meetings. If you are invited to lunch, be prepared for a formal dining experience that may last longer than two hours. Proper dining etiquette dictates your hands rest on top of the table instead of on your lap. When wine is being served, leave a small amount in the glass to stop refills. Let your host start the business portion of the conversation, which usually will not begin until after dessert arrives.
Punctuality is key; however, it is acceptable to be up to ten minutes late. Avoid bringing a present to the meeting. It is not uncommon for small gifts to be exchanged, but it should never be done during the first meeting. If the meeting is conducted at an office, give a business card to the secretary and any other person you meet afterward. The cards can be printed in either French or English, and they should include your title or academic degree.
Quality business attire should be worn regardless of the venue. Conservative clothing with a few accessories and jewelry pieces are acceptable. If you are invited to an affair that specifies “informal dress,” this means a tie and jacket for men and semi-formal attire for women.
There are a few body language fundamentals every American in France should know. Always maintain good posture and unobtrusive eye contact. Do not put your hands in your pockets or snap your fingers. To show approval, it is rude to create a circle with your forefinger and thumb. A better alternative to the “okay” sign is a “thumbs up.” Remember, a light touch and close distance between people is common conversation etiquette.