The Differences Between French and US Business Culture

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Written by: pTranslate Contributors


France is a fascinating country. There is something so beautiful and elegant about this country, from the cuisine, the restaurants, the language, the people, to the architecture.

However, France is not only about romance, but also about opportunity. Being one of the most developed countries in Europe and the world, France attracts a lot of investors and entrepreneurs from countries all around the world.

If you’re a business owner in the US, and want to establish a multi-market presence in France, it is highly necessary that you understand the differences between French and US business culture. These differences can sometimes be shocking to those who don’t know, and it takes them a long time to adjust. If you’re opening a business in France, selling to French companies, or finding French suppliers, you should acknowledge these cultural differences. It will improve the relationship between you and your French business partners significantly.

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1. There is a level of protocol and formality when doing business in France

Americans are well-known for being informal and casual in social interaction. The American culture values individualism and self-reliance, and everyone is treated as equal, so there is no need to create a sense of formality. Americans can easily strike up a conversation with expressive and open gestures such as handshakes, back slaps, shoulder slaps, and sometimes even hugs. The level of closeness and intimacy in American interaction can be high, and it is an interesting and unique aspect of their business culture. It diminishes all barriers and encourages both parties to be open and honest with each other in what they’re about to discuss.

In France, different levels of intimacy are used for different stages in the relationship. This makes sense, as people are more afraid of being close and intimate with each other when they don’t know each other well. Once you have established a bond with each other through various social interactions, you can develop it by using more intimate, casual gestures.

In communication, formality is also very important. How you say things is just as important as what you say. If you want the other side to receive your message well, you should deliver it in the most suitable way. Eloquence and elegance in speech is an admired trait in France. The French language is highly expressive, and it allows the users to express their ideas in varying levels of formality.

So, in short, French people assume a low degree of trust from the beginning and build it up over time. American start from the other end of the extreme: assume a high degree of trust from the beginning, but this high level of trust can drop quickly over time.  

2. Intellectualism in French business vs. American business

French people tend to admire intellectualism and are interested in varying levels of intellectual challenges in business. If a French person notices that something you said is not “logical” then they are likely to inquire you about it. In other words, there is a sense of readiness to challenge the theories and approach the problem from a more theoretical side. There is a joke about problem-solving in France that goes like this: “Sure, we know it works in practice, but does it work in theory?”

This contrasts directly with the American way of doing things. Americans tend to approach a problem in a more practical manner. They are more likely to bring their personal experience to the table. There is a sense of pragmatism in the American way of doing things: “If it works, it works.” Americans deal with their problems in an ad-hoc manner, taking their previous experience, and sometimes even gut feelings into consideration, while the French are more likely to deal with it their problems by being analytical and rational.

These differences can make the French look nitpicky to the American and the American look hasty and uninformed to the French. Of course, the underlying reason behind this behavior is simply the difference in attitude towards risk. Americans are much likely to take risks because they value opportunities, while the French want to minimize the uncertainty in what they do. If you work with people from the 2 cultures, it’s necessary to understand their risk tolerance and find proper ways to communicate with them. Try to understand their attitude towards work and how much risk they’re willing to take.

3. Work-life balance in the US vs in France

If you’re an American employee, you’ll probably understand the increasing invasion of the professional life on the personal life. American employees are expected to stay in touch, even when they’re away on holiday, or on a day-off. American businesspeople want to be in constant contact with each other, and they want to solve problems as fast as possible.

In France, this type of constant contact is unacceptable. There is generally a healthier attitude towards work. If a French employee is away, or on vacation, they truly are on vacation. There should be absolutely no work involved when they’re on vacation unless they decide to do so. French employers usually understand this attitude of their employees, so they also don’t make an effort to contact their employees, even if they need them urgently.

To the French, the American business culture is too stressful. The Americans don’t even have time to rest. To the Americans, the French’s attitude towards work is not good for the overall development of the business. But, at the end of the day, it’s all about moderation.

4. Jokes in France vs. in the US

The American style of jokes tends to rely on the punchline. It can take a while to set up a punchline, and it’s the unexpectedness of the delivery that gets people rolling and laughing. In France, jokes with punchline are understandable, but it is not that funny to them. Clever satire and witticisms (known as les bon mots) are more appreciated in France. These jokes carry a deeper meaning behind them, and it takes a bit of mutual understanding to understand what the other person is joking about. 

5. Business Negotiations

Business negotiations are vastly different in these 2 countries.

In the US, business negotiations are negotiations. They are reduced to a contract with terms, numbers, facts, and obligations. The Americans look a negotiation as an opportunity to grow their business.

In France, business negotiations can’t be signed with haste. Business negotiations are more than just numbers and facts. Strictly business problems will be discussed in the office, but a French businessman will be more likely to invite their future business partner to a more casual and relaxed setting to develop the relationship. This relaxed and non-hasty attitude towards relationship building gives both parties the opportunity to consider the terms better, and it’s an interesting aspect of the French business culture.

Of course, it is not wise to apply the rules above to everyone from the 2 cultures that you meet. There are cases where French people don’t fit into their stereotypes, and so do Americans. The traits mentioned above are all generalizations, but there can still be some truth to it. You can use them as a reference to help you interact and communicate better with French people and American people. The important thing here is to develop cultural intelligence and be flexible in your international business relationships.

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