| Working with the French....
: the consultants' views
For an American, working with
the French has some good sides and some bad sides, with many
differences. Among them, many Americans cite :
The French do not organize meetings
to reach a decision : they meet to exchange information, then
the person in charge takes the decision... If you need to have
a serious and/or difficult discusion with someone, you'll invite
him/her for lunch and business lunches are
still an important part of corporate communication ; of course, be
ready to drink wine...
regarding meetings : French global companies are not very
different from their American counterparts but some " traditions
" may resist (particularly outside Paris). Among them :
- Beginning a meeting 15 minutes
later than scheduled so as to wait for those who are late and
who expected it to be (it is called the "quart d'heure
marseillais" or "parisien" or "wherever")
: most participants are surprised when the meeting starts just
- Interrupting the speaker or
speaking about a topic which is not on the agenda (when there
is an agenda)
- Forgetting to summarize the
conclusion and/or to circulate a memo about the conclusion after
- French meetings are often more
creative : take advantage of it!
- more about French meetings!
The French are more flexible
and creative and they do not feel bound to a previous decision
... Surprisingly enough for most Americans, the productivity
of the French (when they work) is higher than the productivity
of the Americans !
The French do not like clear
procedures : they want to maintain some form of " grey
zone " and do not believe that it is right to use always
the same and only way to do the same things ; organizational
charts and objectives are not clear... Michael Johnson writes
"One quality the Mediterranean peoples have brought to
the world is the ability to live comfortably with inconsistency.
The Greeks have it, the Italians have it and certainly the French
do. To northern Europeans, this ability sometimes looks more
like confusion, self-doubt or possibly mental illness. But it
Three well-known analyses of
intercultural management by Edward Hall, Geert Hofstede and Philippe
d'Iribarne illustrate the differences between American and French
management styles :
- According to Edward T.Hall,
intercultural differences in communication are based on the context,
on time and on space :
- Understanding between people
results from the combination of information and its context.
Some cultures have a rich context (close links between people,
high level of the unspoken/unsaid) : these cultures are highly
" implicit " ; other cultures valuing communication
only when it is very clear in itself are said to be " explicit
- For " monochronic
" cultures, time is seen as a tangible resource coming from
the past and going to the future : it has value and can be measured
in itself ; for " polychronic " cultures, time is seen
as an element of several tasks which can take place at the same
time and which are linked more by relation than by time.
- Interpersonal distance is limited
by a sort of protective bubble around each person : entering
it is an intrusion ; in some cultures, the bubble is very small,
in others, very large.
There are always exceptions but many French people do not
like to be blunt and say things outright in order to leave
an escape route open to the other person. In this respect, they're
almost Japanese. When in France, it's important to understand
what ISN'T being said (le non-dit).... This is why, very often,
the French are considered imprecise by Americans when they sincerely
think that they have been very clear.
A view of labor relations in France: how do employees see their job?
Philippe d'Iribarne, a French sociologist who wrote several penetrating books about intercultural differences and the French specificity, has an interesting view (see reference) on how the French are different from other Western countries :
- in the USA, and more generally in Anglo-Saxon countries, the employee sells his/her work to the employer in the framework of a contract, protected like any other commercial contract
- in Germany, the employee and the employer belong to the same community and have to decide together how to solve their conflicts
- in France, the employee considers he/she has been granted an office (in the medieval meaning : "une charge" i.e. an office granted by the King) to work for his employer under the protection of the State (i.e. the King). With this vision of the job, being laid off is an attack against his/her dignity and it is normal to call on the King for justice.
Although a little extreme, this vision may contribute to explain many labor disputes in France. Read more about the French and the State.
DID YOU KNOW
THAT.... ? Don't take it for granted that everyone speaks
English : it is not natural to speak another language and
when you have to, you are making a big effort (don't you notice
that when you try your French ?) : therefore, you must realize
that whenever you work with people who speak English with you,
they would rather be speaking their own language : they are speaking
English for your convenience ! In addition to that, you must
remember (an US companies do not always do....) that in France
or in a French company, it is NORMAL to speak French ! It is
also legal and there are laws to abide by (Loi Toubon).
The French do not believe a
win-win situation can exist ("if you win, it means
I lose") and negotiations are always difficult when people
do not try to reach a consensus...
Only written commitments are serious : nothing oral
is really binding and lying is no big deal ... (same thing in politics).
Within the company, the French
are less constrained by social codes such as "you must play golf with
your boss", or "each of us must give $5 for this charity"
etc... and they do not like to mix corporate life and personal
life ; being invited to one's boss' home is the worst possible
thing that may happen ! (read a funny anecdote
The French are much more sentimentally
attached and faithful to their company : they like to put
corporate relations on a personal basis...
Top-down management : for the
French, the Boss is the Boss and management is very autoritarian
("lick up and kick down") ; to understand this,
learn about the " Grandes
Ecoles " and the importance of diplomas...
The French are highly polychronic : they love to do several things at the
same time and they are good at that...
Within the company, the French
keep the doors closed (open floor offices are not popular), are
reluctant to work in a team
and information is often distributed selectively...
They often consider reporting
a sign of weakness and a risk : read about accountability
In a nutshell it is a different world: for an American and it is hard to conceive that a country
operating in the above way can be the fourth or the fifth world
economic power ! To understand better,
- More to come
|| As compared to the USA, France is a
highly contextual, polychronic and small-bubble culture.
|| Americans think that the French are...
|| The French think that the Americans are...
low context :
everything must be clear
everything is in the contract
a place must be left for adaptation
eveything is in the relationship
time is money
exactitude is essential
you can be late if you get a
too much into details
avoid physical contact
you too much
security is being part of a group
|arrogant and dominating
(© Philippe Rochefort)
to Geert Hofstede, there are five
dimensions to assess cultural differences :
- Individualism (as opposed to
collectivism), meaning more responsibility and a low level of
- A large hierarchical distance,
meaning more centralization and less participation
- High control on uncertainty
meaning low acceptance of the unknown of the future, leading
to strict rules and little delegation
- Masculinity (as opposed to femininity)
as the sign of a high level of competitiveness and a value given
- Long term (as opposed to short
term), emphasizing the relationship more than immediate results
However, French international groups are still French ! Ezra Suleiman (Princeton) in a study published in 2017 and based on a survey of 2 485 non-French managers working for French international firms showed that :
- even within the general framework of the management of international firms, there is "a French touch" which has been maintained and most non-French managers appreciate it positively
- under construction ......
Giant mergers across borders
create major intercultural shocks. According to two French academics
(Philippe d'Iribarne and Emmanuel Todd in Les Enjeux-Les Echos,
Jan. 2001), this is how you can analyze some examples of trans-cultural
As compared to the USA, France is a
much more hierarchical culture with, again, a strong emphasis
on the relationship, more "feminine", valuing long term.
Franco-Japanese (ex. Renault-Nissan) : the Japanese
see the hierarchical side of French management but do not imagine
how flexible the implementation of decisions can be. The French
underestimate the sincerity of the consultation of the workers
about management decisions. It can be difficult for the Japanese
to accept authority from a smaller economic power but the French
(like the British) can be much more successful in " colonial
" situations (because of their flexibility) than the Germans
(or the Japanese), much more rigid. The very successful French
CEO, Carlos Ghosn, was
an icon in Japan when he saved Nissan. Read our page
ParisJapan and a column about how difficult it is for Japanese
businessmen to adjust.
Franco-American (ex. Vivendi Universal) : the French are considered
both arrogant and weak. Arrogant because, in a meeting, they
love to ask destabilizing questions, show they know a lot and
have understood better. Weak because in the French culture, if
you give too specific and clear directions, it means that you
do not acknowledge the professionalism of the staff. In a French
company, after a meeting, an American can never tell if a decision
has been reached or not : for the French, " deciding "
is giving the broad lines without getting into implementation
" details ". In addition to that, contrary to the British,
Americans do not respect French culture. Read about US
firms in France and Jean-Marie Messier.
See a funny table about how US and French managers see each other.
Franco-British (ex. Orange) : for the French, the British culture
is very mysterious. The British can take the most brutal decisions
with extreme courtesy and are therefore considered very hypocritical.
But both cultures admit differences, as long as the French forget
their obsession about the universal man (man is the same everywhere)
and the British overcome the strong francophobia of their working
- Read my column "A quintessential Frenchman"
- A French disaster : read about Executive Life
- Visit a website guide
- More about working
with the French
USEFUL TIPS.... about writing a memo or a report
: the French hate the way Americans write their memos and
reports ; they think they are much too long with too many details,
they do not put things in perspective and do not contain general
ideas ("pas assez synthétique") ; the table
of contents does not illustrate a clear and meaningful plan :
it is more like a list of themes, with no visible structure.
The French often think it is a vicious strategy to hide important
things among piles of uninteresting details. Conversely, Americans
probably hate French memos (too many ideas, not enough facts),
pompous and not precise. If you write for a French boss, make
it much shorter, with a very clear structure and a few general
concepts to start with....
here for detailed figures
managers think that the French are...
|| French managers think that the Americans are...
like UK, Netherlands
responsibility of the manager
relying too much on the group
(or the state)
like Germany, Italy
loyalty to the company
do not listen to others
like UK, Germany
like Belgium, Portugal
each one at his place
like UK, Sweden
it is good to take risks
the boss does not have to be
not enough delegation
do not take risks
like Belgium, Spain
rules and structures must be
the boss must be an expert
take too many risks
like Germany, UK, Italy
like Belgium, Spain
harmony of relations
| Long term orientation
market share oriented
|not faithful to the company
(© Philippe Rochefort)
USEFUL TIP..... Responsible ? To better
understand the French, always remember that in France, you rely
on the King to protect you against any danger, including yourself,
like parents do with children. A large part of the so-called
bureaucracy is designed to force you to do things that are in
your own interest. An example : in France, it is very complicated
to create a company and to hire someone or hire yourself. Why
? Because you have to comply with many differents rules, including
contributing to public health and retirement programs to ensure
that, if you're sick you'll have the best medical care and when
you retire, the maximum possible pension. It is unthinkable to
say : "well, if people do not participate in these programs,
they won't benefit from them : that's all ..." ; if someone
took this risk and got caught, his compatriots would march in
the streets " to defend his rights " : the collectivity
(i.e. the State) should have forced him to be protected. This
is why many things are forbidden (like opening a shop on Sunday
or working after age 65) : to protect people would could be FORCED
to do so by their employer.
| Read about Doing business in France
analysis emphasizes the concept of "honour" which values
unselfishness and grandeur. For instance, delegating responsibility
and then controlling it is considered perfectly normal in the
USA and absolutely insulting in Spain (and in France).This is
another example of the logic of the contract as opposed to the
logic of the relationship.
Bibliography : for a look at cultural differences
in corporate life
with the French :
- Luigi BARZINI, The Europeans,
DEZALAY, Marchands de droit - la restructuration de l'ordre
juridique international par les multinationales du droit,
T.HALL, Guide du comportement dans les affaires internationales
: Allemagne, Etats Unis, France, Paris, Le Seuil, 1990
- Edward & Mildred HALL, Understanding
Cultural Differences, Intercultural Press Inc., 1990, Yarmouth
HILL, Euromanagers and Martians, EP, 1994
HOFSTEDE, Culture's Consequences : Comparing Values, Behaviors,
Institutions and Organizations Across Nations, Sage, 2002
d'IRIBARNE, La logique de l'honneur, Paris, le Seuil,
- Philippe d'IRIBARNE, L'etrangete francaise, Seuil, 2006
- Michael JOHNSON, French Resistance
- Individuals vs the Company in French Corporate Life, Casell,
- Jacques LESOURNE, Le modèle
Français : grandeur et décadence, Odile Jacob,
- Richard D.LEWIS, When cultures collide - leading across cultures, David Brealey, 2000
- Salvador DE MADARIAGA, Englishmen,
Frenchmen & Spaniards, Oxford University Press, 1929
- Ezra SULEIMAN & al., La prouesse française. Le management du CAC 40 vu d'ailleurs, Odile Jacob, Paris, 2017
- More to come...
|To related pages : more intercultural (#1), anti-Americanism (#2), the French vision (#4), intercultural misunderstandings (#5),
the US press (#6) and
favorite US artists (#8), America and the world (#10), French society, etc....
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Back to home
For more on intercultural
differences, order Harriet Welty Rochefort's books :
- "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
- "French Toast, An American in Paris
Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press,
New York, 1999
- "French Fried, The Culinary Capers
of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001
Rochefort speaks on inter-cultural differences in corporate life or gives person-to-person training sessions about how to adjust to French corporate life.
||More on Harriet's books (excerpts, upcoming
events, testimonials, etc..) and on speeches by Harriet and/or by Philippe Rochefort
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