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Building business relationships

When working in another country, it pays to familiarise yourself with the local business etiquette and structure, as accepted mores will differ from place to place.

With some local knowledge under your belt, you’ll be better placed to navigate your way through the business world and make the right impression from the start. The following acts as a guide but the general advice is to use your intuition to judge what may or may not be acceptable in the office and beyond.

Hierarchy

Business culture in France hinges on a defined system of hierarchy and complex tributaries of personal relationship and alliances. The more competence and experience you exhibit, the better you will fare in the workplace.

You should expect this to be reflected in seating arrangements during meetings, and limited direct contact with senior members of the company or ‘The PDG’ (Président Directeur Général) or ‘patron’ (General Manager), who often will have limited contact with subordinates and will often field communication through his or her secretary. Long-term business strategies are planned by senior members of company and instructions are filtered down to the lower members.

It’s a good idea to keep up-to-date with current affairs as rhetoric and reasoning skills can be reflective of your status within the business hierarchy. The ability to hold your own, however rich the rhetoric or abstract the theory, and to intellectually defend your opinions, is a sure way to win respect. Avoid making false claims or professing an opinion without being able to back it up — the French value good discussion.

Bear in mind that socialising across hierarchical divisions is rare, verbal contracts are not binding, and there is a balance between strict adherence to hierarchical structures and more laid back attitudes. Project deadlines may be more flexible.

Dress Code

In a business context, a formal but conservative dress is important. Suits and ties for men and trouser suits/skirts women are the norm, with jackets often kept on in meetings or at restaurants.

Meetings and appointments

Meetings or appointments should be arranged at least two weeks in advance — a good time is directly before or after lunch, or in larger cities, Paris in particular, business lunches and breakfast meetings are common. This is less so in provincial areas, where the pace isn’t quite so fast. Avoid the holiday season of August, as many people will be away on annual leave.

Be prepared for much discussion within the meeting, and if in a larger corporation, for any decisions to be made after the meeting by senior staff, before being handed down.

Formalities such as punctuality are important and a matter of courtesy — it will reflect poorly on you professionally if you are late to meetings. The exception is dinner parties when it’s acceptable to be 15 minutes late. Dinner is a more social relaxed environment with the emphasis on good food, excellent company, and often political or cultural debate. So try to avoid discussing business at this time.

If you attend a business meeting in a restaurant, which is more likely to happen in larger cities, the person who organised the meeting is expected to settle the bill (but use your discretion on this), and remember to wait for the most senior person to finish their meal before you make your exit.

Language

Speaking French is vital in the business world, as English is rarely spoken in a working environment and it can be taken as rude if you assume your companions speak English.

There are many language courses that can help you get started, such as those offered by the Académie Française. You can also find private language tutors on websites like Leboncoin, expat websites, or social media platforms.

Greetings

For acquaintances, rather than close friends, a handshake is perfectly acceptable.

If you are greeting a long-term colleague (or a close friend or family), a kiss on both cheeks known as the ‘bisous’ is the norm. Depending on which region you’re in, custom can dictate up to four kisses. The French have two different forms of the pronoun ‘you,’ one formal and one informal. It is important you use the correct term in the right context to avoid causing offence or awkwardness.

Goodbyes are important too — make sure you say goodbye to people individually, one at a time when you’re preparing to leave. If you don’t, you risk the term ‘filer à l’anglaise’ being applied to you. This translates literally as ‘to leave the English way’ and it is not complimentary!

Moving to a new country can be daunting, especially when you're starting a new job too but with a little initiative and a friendly, professional attitude, you'll soon fit in. Arranging international health insurance is even easier — give our team a call today, and they'll talk you through the process.

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