French business culture

10 tips on French business etiquette

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Whether it's a simple handshake, interruptions or an epic business lunch, professional protocol is serious business in France.

Business etiquette in France is strongly guided by a number of unique customs. From a quick handshake to a long business lunch, being aware of French business customs can be the difference between landing an important job or crucial client, or offending your host. Expert Kara Ronin, who runs her own company Executive Impressions in Lyon, guides newcomers to the French business scene with the following 10 points to help you make a deal, not break it.

1. Address others using Monsieur or Madame

Formality is highly regarded in France. You should always address your superiors and those you meet for the first time using Monsieur or Madame. Many non-French find it difficult to get used to this level of formality. However, in order to make a great first impression in France, a high level of politeness is critical.

2. Introduce yourself using your first and last name

In a French business context, introductions are always made using both your first and last name. At times you may hear others introduce themselves with their last name first, followed by their given name. This is also acceptable in French business culture. If you have trouble remembering names (don't worry, everybody does), repeat their name aloud when you receive their business card. Another tip is to use their name as much as you can in conversation, of course without sounding like a parrot in training.

3. Use a brisk, light handshake

French-style handshakes are known to be brisk and light. You should expect a loose grip with only one to two movements. If you're not familiar with this light style of handshake, you could easily walk away with the costly misunderstanding that the other person is in a hurry to get away from you. Similarly, if you use the stronger American style handshake with a firm grip and two to three pumps, you could easily leave your French business associate feeling overpowered and inferior.

4. Learn French gestures

The French are just as famous for their gestures as they are for les bises (greeting kisses on the cheeks). If you haven't spent a lot of time in France, it can be difficult to interpret the meaning of certain gestures that often come up in day-to-day business life. You may come across j'ai du nez where you tap your index finger on the end of your nose to indicate that somebody is clever. You should also be careful using the 'OK' gesture (forming a circle with your thumb and index finger) that is common to Anglo-Saxon countries. In France, this gesture actually means ‘nothing', ‘worthless' or ‘zero', which is not the best response when somebody asks, "Did you enjoy my proposal?"

5. Wear quality business attire, even if it's Friday

First impressions in France are heavily dependent on appearance. Quality business attire, jewellery and accessories will earn you valuable points in the office. The concept of ‘Casual Friday' is not widely known in the French workplace, so don't automatically turn up to work in your cosy weekend sweater, and especially not in sneakers. You need to look like you mean business. Grooming is another important issue in France. Facial hair for men is not well received, particularly with superiors. Before an important business meeting, it is advised to get rid of any stubble.

French business culture

6. Have one side of your business card in French

It always shows respect and courtesy for the other person when you have one side of your business card printed in French and the other in your native language. In France, people commonly write their family name in capital letters so that it stands out. You should do the same. If you are interviewing in France, you will be remembered if you present to the interviewer your personal business card. If you attend networking events, you will always look organised if you use a professional business card case. Just make sure there is enough room for both your cards and for the cards that you will receive.

7. Keep your hands on the table at lunch

The French business lunch is an experience: Be ready for a style of dining that is formal and long. A very important rule in French dining etiquette is to keep your hands resting on the table, never in your lap. If wine is being served, remember the more you empty your glass, the more it will be topped up. If you've had enough wine, simply leave some resting in your glass. Business conversation generally starts after the dessert is served and it is up to the host to initiate it.

8. Make business meetings two weeks in advance

Generally, French business people do not plan meetings on short notice. If you are asked to attend a meeting, expect it to be scheduled in about two weeks time. Similarly, if you want to invite somebody to a meeting you should aim to schedule it at least two weeks in advance. Not enough notice will make the other person feel pressured.

9. Avoid high-pressure sales tactics

French business people do not like to be pressured into making quick decisions. Aggressive selling techniques won't work. If you are in a business meeting, be patient and expect a lot of discussion and exchange of information. Decisions are generally not made on the first meeting. They are made after many detailed discussions and by somebody at the top. Be patient.

10. Expect probing questions and interruptions

It is not frowned upon in France to ask a lot of questions and to interrupt somebody before they have finished. It is a common French conversation style. In other countries, interrupting may be inappropriate but in France it is simply a way to express your interest in the other person and the conversation. If you are being interrupted, take it initially as a positive sign that they like what you're saying. Reciprocally, if you want to show your interest, don't be afraid to interrupt and finish other people's sentences, too.

Kara Ronin / Expatica

Kara Ronin is an international business etiquette consultant living in France. Australian born, she spent most of the last 10 years living in Japan working in finance, and some time in New York. She created Executive Impressions, where she guides professionals and companies through international business situations.


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3 Comments To This Article

  • Ian posted:

    on 23rd November 2014, 20:22:40 - Reply

    A helpful article, Kara. Regarding the OK gesture, which you rightly cite as being inappropriate, i would suggest that the classic Thumbs Up is both common and acceptable in France.
    When we arrived here 20 years ago, the spoken term Okay was frowned upon, as the French preferred "d'accord", but Okay seems to have gained acceptance now. In a traditional business situation, however, I would stick to "d'accord".
  • Kara posted:

    on 4th July 2013, 19:45:18 - Reply

    Thanks for the kind words Bruce. I'm glad you liked my article. You're right, the morning 'Bonjour' is so important in France. Shaking hands with everybody you see in the office when you arrive in the morning is vital. The amount of times people shake hands in France was one of the first things that surprised me when I arrived. The second was the style of handshake.
  • Bruce posted:

    on 3rd July 2013, 16:02:11 - Reply

    Good article. You forgot to add that you need to shake hands with everyone in your office area each morning. Some do it at night when they leave but the morning is not an option. Doesn't matter if you're on the phone or talking to other people, you have to complete the morning bonjour. But only once, if they meet you later they may stick out their hand again and then remember that they "deja bonjour" you and pull it back like they narrowly missed making an error.