Recently I presented a seminar to the French-American Chamber of Commerce on the differences between French and American business cultures. As a native of France, this is an area in which I can claim special insight. Generally French and American business people interact well, but there are differences in approach that have probably contributed to the American stereotype of the French as “rude and arrogant” and the French stereotype of the American as “rude and ignorant.” I outlined some of the most significant differences between the two cultures that can impact business relationships.
Formality vs. Informality
American business meetings are often very informal with immediate use of first names, handshakes, back slaps, and even hugs. This happens even when the participants didn’t previously know each other. The French put a much higher value on formality and protocol, especially in the early stages of a relationship. This includes a greater emphasis on things like status and education in relations, where in America previous achievements can trump other indications of status.
One reason that the French may be more formal is that they start with the idea that it will take time to build a relationship of trust before you can do major business together. Trust is expected to grow slowly as you get to know each other. As a relationship grows and develops, the Frenchman will, metaphorically, build up a stock of trust in you with an ever increasing value. Americans generally start from the other extreme. Their immediate assumption is that your stock of trust is high. However, Americans’ high expectations—especially for quick results—can mean that your stock can lose value quickly.
Rationality vs. Can Do
Americans put a high value on quick results. They proceed with enthusiasm and an assumption that their goals can be achieved. They also tend to rely more on gut feelings and initial impressions in coming to decisions. The goal in any meeting is to come to a decision and leave with a plan of action.
To the French, however, the process is as important as the outcome. They pride themselves on an analytical, rational approach that takes into account all the factors involved and considers all available information before coming to a decision.
These different approaches can make an American look pushy and uninformed to his French counterpart, while the French person may seem nitpicking and dilatory. The real underlying difference may be a different attitude towards risk: Americans are likely to accept higher levels of risk rather than miss an opportunity. The French prefer to minimize the unexpected even if it means that opportunities will possibly be missed.
Vacation vs. Vacances
The American preference for quick action carries over into attitudes towards vacation and recreation. American businesspeople don’t generally take as much time off as the French and, when they do, they usually make it a point to stay in touch regularly. The more important businesspeople are, the more likely that they will be in constant touch with their offices. To the French, who get more vacation and may basically disappear for a month in the summer, the American way doesn’t look very restful. Some Americans, on the other hand, think that the French attitude toward vacation means that they are not as hard-working as Americans. The French, on the other hand, believe that this total relaxation is necessary to recharge their energy so that they do their best when they are at work.
Wit vs. Jokes
Attempts at humor can also fall flat between French and Americans, something that can be a problem in business because of American’s tendency to use jokes to establish a genial atmosphere and to lighten the mood when they feel it’s necessary. The French value les bon mots—witticisms and clever satire. These are often based on wordplay and don’t translate into English or simply don’t seem humorous to an American. American humor is more of the broad, punchline joke variety. Though such jokes may make sense to the French, they may not seem very funny.
These are some of the cultural differences that can impact French-American business relations. Of course, as with any generalizations based on culture, the extent to which they actually apply can vary from person to person. The important thing is for both sides to be aware of the possible differences and be ready to adapt to them when necessary so that business relations can still be as successful as possible. Developing your “cultural intelligence,” can help with all your international business relationships.