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Ten tips on French business etiquette
Lunch is a serious business in France. Keep your hands where people can see them. Photo: psd/flickr

Ten tips on French business etiquette

Published on: 04 Mar 2013 12:46 CET

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Whether its a simple handshake or an epic business lunch, professional protocol is serious business in France and it is, at times, very different to anywhere else in the world. To help guide you through the minefield of French business customs, expert Kara Ronin, who runs her own company Executive Impressions in Lyon, has come up with ten points of etiquette, that could help you land that all important job or clinch that crucial deal.

1. Address others using ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’.

Formality is highly regarded in France. You should always address your superiors and those you meet for the first time using ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’. Many people from outside France find it difficult to get used to this level of formality. However, in order to make a great first impression in France, a high level of politeness is critical.

2. Introduce yourself using your first and last name.

In a French business context, introductions are always made using both your first and last name. At times, you may hear others introduce themselves with their last name first, followed by their given name. This is also acceptable in French business culture. If you have trouble remembering names (don’t worry, everybody does), repeat their name aloud when you receive their business card. Another tip is to use their name as much as you can in conversation, of course without sounding like a parrot in training.

3. Use a brisk, light handshake.

French style handshakes are known to be brisk and light. You should expect a loose grip with only one or two up and down movements. If you’re not familiar with this light style of handshake, you could easily walk away with the costly wrong impression that the other person is in a hurry to get away from you! Be careful of this. Similarly, if you use the stronger American style handshake with a firm grip and two or three movements, you could easily leave your French business associate feeling overpowered and inferior.

4. Wear quality business attire, even if it’s Friday!

First impressions in France are heavily dependent on appearance. Quality business attire, jewellery and accessories will earn you valuable points in the office. The concept of ‘Casual Friday’ is not widely known in the French workplace. So don’t automatically turn up to work in your cosy weekend sweater and especially not in your sneakers (trainers)! You need to look like you mean business. Grooming is another important issue in France. Facial hair for men is not well received, particularly with superiors. Before that important business meeting get rid of that sneaky stubble.

5. Learn French gestures.

The French are just as famous for their gestures as they are for ‘les bises ’ (kisses). If you haven’t spent a lot of time in France, it can be difficult to interpret the meaning of certain gestures that often come up in day-to-day business life.. You should be careful using the ‘OK’ gesture (forming a circle with your thumb and index finger) that is common in Anglo-Saxon countries. In France, this gesture actually means ‘nothing’, ‘worthless’ or ‘zero’, which is not the best response when somebody asks ‘Did you like my proposal?’

6. Have one side of your business card in French.

It always shows respect and courtesy for the other person when you have one side of your business card printed in French and the other in your native language. In France, people commonly write their family name in capital letters so that it stands out. You should do the same. If you are interviewing in France, you will be remembered if you present to the interviewer your personal business card. If you attend networking events, you will always look organised if you use a professional business card case. Just make sure there is enough room for both your cards and for the cards that you will receive.

7. Keep your hands on the table at lunch.

The French business lunch is an experience in itself. Be ready for a style of dining that is formal and long. A very important rule in French dining etiquette is to keep your hands resting on the table, never on your lap. If wine is being served, remember the more you empty your glass, the more it will be topped up. If you’ve had enough wine, simply leave some resting in your glass. Business conversation generally starts after the dessert is served and it is up to the host to initiate it.

8. Keep your professional and personal life separate. 

In French business culture people prefer to keep their professional life and family life very much separate. This helps to maintain a consistent structure of formality in the workplace. When you are engaged in small talk at the beginning of a meeting or a networking event, it is in your favour to keep the topic of discussion purely professional and avoid questions about the other person’s personal life, family or even what they did on the weekend.

9. Avoid high-pressure sales tactics.

French business people do not like to be pressured into making quick decisions. Aggressive selling techniques won’t work. If you are in a business meeting, be patient and expect a lot of discussion and exchange of information. Decisions are generally not made on the first meeting. They are made after many detailed discussions and by somebody at the top. Be patient.

10. Expect probing questions and interruptions.

It is not frowned upon in France to ask a lot of questions and to interrupt somebody before they have finished. It is a common French conversation style. In other countries, interrupting may be inappropriate but in France it is simply a way to express your interest in the other person and the conversation. If you are being interrupted, take it initially as a positive sign that they like what you’re saying. Reciprocally, if you want to show your interest, don’t be afraid to interrupt and finish other people’s sentences, too.

Kara Ronin is based in Lyon and runs Executive Impressions. To find out more about business etiquette you can email her at kara.ronin@executive-impressions.com or follow her on Twitter at @execimpressions

For more on working in France read The Local's Ten Tips for working in France

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