November 5th, 2013

Travel Series: Business Etiquette in France

by Jacqueline Whitmore

Next up in my travel series on business etiquette is France, a beautiful country with a fascinating history.

I first fell in love with Paris, France when I worked as a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines in 1992. My fondest memory is eating the delicious chocolate crepes on the lawn next to the beautiful Eiffel Tower!

A lot has changed since then, but the customs still remain the same. If you find yourself traveling to Paris on business, keep these tips in mind.

Paris1_Wilhelm Lappe

Photo courtesy of Wilhelm Lappe

Attire

As you probably know, the French take fashion very seriously. Plan to dress conservatively and travel with well-tailored clothing. Bright colors are discouraged as well as flashy jewelry. It’s best to choose dark colors or classic patterns.

If you have a limited wardrobe, invest in a few classic pieces. You may be tempted to pick up the cheapest suit option, but, if cared for, high-quality clothing can last for years and be less expensive in the long run. The “cost-per-wearing” amortizing method will help you calculate the true long-term cost of a piece of clothing.

An example I give in Poised for Success is a $1,000 classic coat. If you wear it for 90 days, it will cost you approximately $11.11 per wearing. However, the cost drops to approximately $2.22 if you enjoy your coat for 450 days, which is a reasonable expectation.

Meals

Lunch is the preferred meal to conduct business and can last up to two hours. Don’t expect to eat dinner before 8:00pm or 9:00pm. The person who initiates the meal or drink is expected to pay.

You will most likely discuss business after dessert is served. When in doubt, look to your host for cues. Remember to keep your conversation professional. The French are known for their formal and reserved nature and may take their time opening up about their family.

France is famous for its wine and for good reason. Your glass will be topped off as you drink, so if you’ve had enough, leave some wine in your glass. Before you embark on your journey to France, take a few minutes to brush up on French wines. Your effort will be appreciated.

When eating, keep both hands on the table at all times.

Interactions

One of the largest differences in business between France and the US is the handshake. The French handshake is brisk with a light grip. In social settings, with friends, expect to do les bises, or touching cheeks while giving an air kiss.

Eye contact among the French is frequent and intense — so much so that North Americans may be intimidated.

Don’t use first names unless you’re given permission to do so. Find out the titles of older French people you meet. Address others using the title of “Monsieur” or “Madame.”

If you know very little French, or none at all, apologize for your lack of knowledge. The vast majority of French executives speak English and will appreciate your polite acknowledgement. If you’d like to impress, have your business card printed in French on one side and English on the other. On the French side, include any academic credentials.

When you speak, don’t be surprised if you’re interrupted. The French enjoy a good analytical debate. Don’t be afraid to diplomatically voice your opinions and critical perspectives.

Finally, avoid scheduling a business meeting during the months of July and August. It is vacation season and it’s not unusual for people to travel for four or five weeks at a time.

Have you traveled to France on business? Share your experience with me in the comments below.

Photo courtesy of Moyan Brenn

Photo courtesy of Moyan Brenn

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