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French meetings: Eight things you need to know

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French meetings: Eight things you need to know
French meetings don't have to be endless and confusing. Photo: Mads Nissen/AFP
13:05 CET+01:00
A recent study found French managers spend on average 16 years of their lives holed up in meetings. So given that you could face such a lengthy period of your expat life in a French 'reunion' here's a guide on everything you need to know about meetings in France.

If you have been stuck in a meeting in France for so long that you considered digging an escape tunnel, there are a few things that you should know before you reach for the shovel.

Yes they tend to go on longer than an average French lunch break, yes every point seems to have to be discussed over and over again and then once more, and it may feel like everyone must have a say.

But there is no reason to stress about all this. You are simply experiencing one of the more acute differences in Anglo/French working culture. 

The good news is that you can take a few simple steps or to prepare yourself in order to avoid a meltdown or at least to stop you making unfortunate faux pas that may insult your colleagues or hosts.

The bad news of course is that you are still going to have to attend meetings in Fraace. 

We spoke to Franco-American business consultant James Dillon and Anoine Dorin a marketing manager at French online meeting consultants Perfony to put together a series of tips to help you know what to expect and how to get through a typical French meeting.

Dillon sums up the essence and importance of French meetings is one precise point. "The meetings can go on and on, especially if it's more of a traditional company," he told The Local. "Time is important, but relationships are what really matter."

1. ‘Get to the point’ is the ultimate cultural insult in a French meeting

The French may seem to spend an excessive amount of time in meetings introducing how a project started and its subsequent phases, but to them the explanation is crucial. They believe the background is essential to decision making. To rush through the details is to offend the speaker. "How can you discuss business when you don't know the context?" Dillon says. "You have just demonstrated the worst stereotype French people have about Americans." 

2. It’s OK if everyone is late

The meeting is not going to start, or for that matter, end on time. So you should give yourself some scheduling flexibility. Trying to rush the meeting will mean skipping parts or short changing the participants, which could be seen as rude. Besides, the French don't like being in meetings forever either. In fact they have coined the term "reunionite", which basically means "meeting-itis" to describe their dislike ofthe ritual  Antoine Dorin, marketing manager at online meeting management company Perfony, told The Local.

"I think you have the same thing in the United States. There are people in Silicon Valley that are trying to do away with them completely," he said. "We just think the time could be used a little more wisely."  

3. The preliminaries are important

 The French will take time before getting to business to talk about who is in charge of what and who is who. This is not wasted time. Pay attention to where the centres of power lie in order to avoid offending or embarrassing your French counterparts. It may seem obvious as looking at the arrows on a flow chart, but the true politics of a company are vastly more complex.

4. Beautiful concepts are valued

For French managers it’s more valued to come up with a beautiful, perfect concept in a meeting than a plan to make money. They may look to the Anglos, who have a reputation in France for asking tough questions, to dig into the practical questions. Your French counterparts may defer to you on these matters. 

Looking for a job in France? Consult The Local's job section here.

5. They like analysis, not action

At a typical meeting in France you will see a love of discussing a problem or question at great length on display. However, the French aren’t huge fans of deciding how to get their idea to the next step. “The verb ‘to do’ is not as important as the verb ‘to be,’” said Dillon. "It sounds funny, but it's true."

6. Things are changing 

Some French computer engineers have adopted meetings where everyone stands, instead of sits, in an effort to keep the gatherings short. Also, younger folks are bringing their iPads and smart phones to meetings and may fire off emails during a lull in the action. Their older, more traditional colleagues see this as disrespectful and it is a source of friction, Dillon says.

7. English is a foreign language

A charming and intelligent Frenchman can go monosyllabic during a meeting in English. It is important to remember you may not be seeing all of a person because they are afraid they look ridiculous when speaking English. “I’ve seen people lose a job because of this issue,” Dillon said. "It's a real problem." So make the effort to speak French or at least speak English clearly.

8. Not everyone will speak up

In more traditional or larger French companies people may be afraid to offer up their ideas during a meeting. Whether as a means to save face or not offend a superior or ally, some workers will simply clam up. It can be useful to network with people before or after meetings to get a broader perspective.

Can you tell our readers any more about what to expect in French meetings and how to survive them? Let us know in the comments section below. 

Do you really hate meetings? See our ten tips to be a successful freelancer in France

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