Even though we’re only about 21 miles apart at the shortest point of the English Channel, France can sometimes feel like a world apart from the UK. Stereotyping both parties is almost too easy – The French think that the British drop everything to drink tea at 5 pm, while the Brits think that the French drop everything to go on strike…well, whenever they please!
But actually, when it comes to business, there are some very subtle cultural differences between the UK and France, and although we’re neighbours, being aware of these can make a world of difference.
Greetings and honorifics
Even in our home country, it’s a British person’s worst nightmare to navigate greeting someone with confidence – sometimes you stick out your hand for a handshake but the other person was just expecting a brief nod and has already turned away. But the French bise – one kiss on each cheek – is very prevalent in business as well as in everyday life.
The French stay formal for longer, too – stick to addressing them as Monsieur / Madame X, unless told otherwise. Don’t forget that there are two ways of saying ‘you’ in French: use the polite vous form until you are invited to use the less formal tu form – unless you are their superior, in which case you can use tu straight away. This minefield is what trips Anglophones up the most, as outlined in the hilarious book, A Year in the Merde:
As everyone seems terrified of causing offence to their colleagues, speaking in ‘corporate jargon’ has become increasingly common in British office spaces. It is now almost used ironically (although, that may depend on where you work). Some classic business buzzwords include…
“Do you have the capacity?” – “Just do it.”
“Can you take this as an action?” – “Just do it.”
“This fell off my radar.” – “I forgot to do it.”
But nevertheless, the British are also quite euphemistic in direct discussions, to avoid appearing rude. A Brit may not say “I disagree” outright, but they will say “that is something we could discuss.” This can be confusing for other cultures, who hear a positive statement that actually means “no.” Brush up on your conditional verbs, because could, should and might are thrown around a lot in order to soften the blow.
The French, meanwhile, are a lot more direct – and clear, eloquent arguments are expected. They may be happy to interrupt you if you are failing to persuade them, and direct disagreements are more common than in British meetings. This doesn’t mean that there’s more yelling and animosity – it’s just a way to analyse the situation more logically.
Attitudes to time
The stereotype goes that the French have a notoriously laissez-faire attitude to punctuality – they take 2-hour lunches, they rock up late for meetings – while the British are a little bit timing-obsessed and hate tardiness (which is funny, because I can’t remember the last time I caught an on-schedule train).
“Don’t worry I’ve only been here a few minutes” – Translation: I’ve been here an hour repressing remarkable rage at your lateness
— VeryBritishProblems (@SoVeryBritish) May 17, 2016
It is true, though, that it is the height of rudeness to be late to a meeting in Britain – it implies that you think your own time is more valuable than the other person’s. Meanwhile, the French have more of a holistic approach to time, as long as it’s well spent. Urgency can imply a lack of confidence, and if discussions become passionate, all timetables may go out of the window.
Business lunches really can take up to two hours, but you may or may not actually talk about business – they are used more as an opportunity to build closer relationships. Come hungry, because there’ll be more than one course!
These are just a few examples of how business is conducted differently between the two countries. It’s amazing to think that countries located so closely together can take such different approaches, but it’s important to remember that people are rarely being intentionally rude – it’s just a different outlook on life. Being aware of this can lead to more effective communication in your life – and maybe a fresh new perspective, too!
As a specialist in business and corporate translations, I help international businesses convey the right message to English-speaking markets. If you’re after translation services, don’t hesitate to contact me.