Europe’s second largest economy offers a number of opportunities. The key to a good relationship with French partners involves having a clear understanding of French culture and etiquette, which are distinctly different from those in the U.S. The French believe that the business relationships you develop are more important than the contracts, so think in the long-term about building partnerships.
To start with, remember: you’ll get furthest with some knowledge of French.
The traditional belief that the French often do not bother with English and other foreign languages is not far from the truth. In large and multinational companies, the situation is better, but it is still recommended to learn at least a few basic phrases in French. ‘Bonjour’ and ‘Enchanté’ (it’s nice to meet you) are almost essential. To a certain extent the emphasis on using their own language is due to national pride. The French have a deep patriotism. Although it is a very diverse country in which many different cultures live, they tend to have a reserved approach toward foreigners. If you are in doubt about a situation, it might be best to use interpreters’ services.
French society is very hierarchic, and this also has an effect on business relationships. Therefore, always be careful to ensure that your French business partner communicates with someone in a correlating position in your company. Respect toward a company’s management is also shown through gestures such as standing up when superiors enter the room, or through acknowledging their arrival, at the least.
There is a general emphasis on education and good morals. In discussions with you, French business partners may debate about the most wide-ranging topics and in the process assess your intellectual abilities. French men are gentlemen based on principle, treat women with courtesy, and adhere to ethical standards. Of course, there is also an emphasis on elegant fashion and aesthetics in general. For instance, the French consider the quality of their environment, wherever they are, to be very important. So, when choosing a location for lunch or dinner, consider not only the quality of the food and a good address, but also the restaurant’s interior design and ambiance.
First – and lasting — impressions
The French prefer personal interaction, so initial contact should be made by telephone, rather than e-mail. Arrive at meetings on time (although the French are comfortable with slight delays), shake your business partner’s hand, and start the meeting with casual conversation. The French do not get right down to the heart of the matter, and this is in part because they are seeking to understand you as an individual. If you seem disinterested in debating the issues involved with your potential deal, they can consider that a sign of arrogance.
The French pay close attention to detail, so you can expect a lot of added questions. It will be a major advantage to have a visual presentation prepared, such as a PowerPoint presentation, and descriptions in French will aid your cause. The French are generally conservative when it comes to body language.
When defending their own interests, the French know how to be tough, and when negotiating, they are suspicious of supposed “win-win” deals. They are not generally fond of risk, and prefer arrangements that leave room for adjustment and adaptation over time.
During negotiations, it is acceptable and appropriate to take detailed notes so that you will be able to ensure that everything makes sense. French meetings tend to be more creative than the average American business meeting. It can seem as if they are rudely interrupting you in conversation, but this is a customary French mode of expressing interest in the topic. It’s probably a good idea to pay close attention to their suggestions, without allowing them to throw off your focus. For important negotiations, it is a good idea to sign a written document, such as a memorandum. In fact, with the French oral agreements don’t mean much, so if you’re serious, get it in writing.