French Business Etiquette
France is one of the most important business and trading partners on a European and global level. In order to do business with French people successfully, it is helpful to make oneself familiar with some characteristics of French business culture.
In France, the common form of greeting in a professional environment is the handshake. Among friends it is much more common to kiss each other lightly on the cheeks: one kiss on the left and one kiss on the right cheek. The same applies when leaving: a handshake for colleagues, two kisses on the cheeks for friends.
In addition, people are addressed politely with Monsieur/Madame and the formal form Vous, instead of the more informal Anglo-Saxon you. A typical greeting in France would be: Bonjour monsieur Dupont (good morning Mr. Dupont), or Bonsoir madame Blanchard (good evening Ms. Blanchard). The informal tu is reserved for close friends and family members. Among colleagues who have worked together for a long time, it is not uncommon to use the less formal tu, but always wait until someone else invites you to use their first name.
Relationships and Communication
The French way to conduct business is very formal and emphasizes courtesy. If you do not speak French, apologize for not knowing the language. French people often appear very direct and they do not hesitate to ask questions. Discussions might be heated and spirited.
The French business environment is shaped by hierarchical structures; business and private life are sharply separated.
Although French business culture emphasizes formality, people tend to come closer to each other than in North American and Northern European cultures. It is not unusual to touch each other’s shoulders or to pat a colleague’s arms.
Welcome topics of conversation in France are always the food and French cuisine, art, music, and sports, as well as current events.
However, it is extremely insulting to ask a person about their political orientation or how they voted in the last elections.
When you are invited to a dinner or to a restaurant you should not be more than 10 minutes late. However, the more south you get in France, the more flexible time is.
French people dress well and are very fashion conscious and might have a different perception of what is “casual” than North American people, for example.
Table manners are continental. When dining with French business partners you should not begin to eat before the host says “bon appetit”; neither put your elbows on the table nor your hands in your lap.
When going out for a drink, French people do usually not have more than one drink or two.
When asking for the bill, French people make a writing gesture in the air.
Although French people might sometimes be perceived to be rude by foreigners, formal language and behavior are considered very important.
A typical gesture of politeness in France is to hold open the doors for other people and let them pass through first. If somebody holds the door open for you, it is common to say merci (thank you) or pardon (sorry).
If somebody holds a high position or office, he or she is usually called politely by his or her title. If you wanted to say good morning to the mayor you would say: Bonjour monsieur le maire.
When asking directions, address people politely by saying: Exusez-moi, monsieur (madame).
What you should avoid
The American symbol for “O.K” (forming a circle with the thumb and index finger) means “zero” or “useless” in France. The French symbol for approval is the thumbs up sign.
If you need to point at something, use your whole hand instead of the index finger.
France has a turbulent history and history is common topic of conversation in France. However, when talking to a French do not criticize Napoleon, who is closely tied to the French spirit.