In both politics and business, the French like to be independent (at times maverick) and can appear frustrating to Americans, Japanese and Europeans alike.
They are immersed in their own history and tend to believe that France has set the norms for such things as democracy, justice, government and legal systems, military strategy, philosophy, science, agriculture, viniculture, haute cuisine and savoir vivre in general. Other nations vary from these norms and, according to the French, have a lot to learn before they get things right.
The French know virtually nothing about many other countries, as their educational system teaches little of the history or geography of small nations or those that belonged to empires other than their own. Their general attitude toward foreigners is pleasant enough, neither positive nor negative. They will do business with you if you have a good product, or if you buy, but their initial posture will be somewhat condescending. If you don't speak French, you appear to be an Anglophile. That is not a good start in their eyes.
You are not seen as an equal. You may be better or worse, but you are different. The French, like the Japanese, believe they are unique and do not really expect you will ever be able to conform completely to their standards. What approach should you adopt when dealing with the French? Should you gallicize yourself to some degree, becoming more talkative, imaginative and intense? Or should you maintain stolid, honest manners at the risk of seeming wooden or failing to communicate?
In order to get the best of your dealings with the French, you have to study their psychology and tactics when they enter commercial transactions. They approach negotiation in a very French manner, which includes the following characteristics:
- They arrive at a meeting formally dressed, regarding it as a formal occasion.
- Surnames and formal introductions are used, and seating will be hierarchical.
- Politeness and formal style will be maintained throughout negotiations managed by the French.
- Logic will dominate their arguments and lead them to extensive analysis of all matters under discussion. They will pounce on anything illogical said by the opposition.
- Meetings will be long and wordy.
- They do not present their demands at the beginning, but lead up to them with a carefully constructed rationale.
- They reveal their hand only late in the negotiations.
- The French try to determine the other side's aims and demands at the beginning.
- The French are suspicious of early friendliness in the discussion and dislike first names, removal of jackets, and disclosure of personal or family details.
- They pride themselves on quickness of mind but dislike being rushed into decisions. For them, negotiation is not a quick procedure.
- They rarely make important decisions inside a meeting.
- They will prolong discussion, as they regard it as an intellectual exercise during which they are familiarizing themselves with the other party and perhaps discovering their weaknesses.
- Their objectives are long-term; they try to establish firm personal relationships.
- They will not make concessions in negotiations unless their logic has been defeated, which often makes them look stubborn to some.
- During deadlock they remain intransigent but without rudeness, simply restating their position.
- They try to be precise at all times. The French language facilitates this.
- They believe they are intellectually superior to any other nationality.
- They often depart from the agenda and talk at length on a number of issues in random order.
- British and Americans often complain that the French talk for hours but make no decisions. (The French clarify their own thoughts through extensive discussion before arriving at any decisions or taking action.)
- They arrive at the negotiation well informed in advance, but seeing things through French "spectacles" often blinds them to international implications. Sometimes they are hampered by their lack of language skills.
How to Empathize with the French
When dealing with the French, you should behave much more formally than usual, using only surnames and showing almost exaggerated politeness to French senior executives.
Stick to logic at all times, avoiding American-style hunches or British-style "feel for situations." If you contradict anything you said, even months earlier, a French person will pounce on the contradiction.
You should be willing to appear "more human" than usual, as the French are, after all, Latins in spite of their logic and exactness. They like a good discussion and observe few time limits for this. If you don't talk enough, they will label you as monosyllabic afterward.
If you want to gain points, you can score by criticizing the English — a favorite French pastime. You need not be unfair to anyone, just show that you are not entirely in the Anglo-Saxon camp. The French do not mind if you have a go at their other neighbors — the Italians and the Spaniards — either.
Do not criticize Napoleon — he has a kind of lasting identity with the French soul. You can say what you want about Charles De Gaulle, Francois Mitterrand or any current French prime minister. They probably won't know who your president or prime minister is, so they can't crucify him or her.
The French are often criticized by people of other nationalities, and it is not difficult to see why. Essentially argumentative and opinionated, they frequently find themselves out on a limb at international meetings, isolated in their intransigence when all the others have settled for compromise. This naturally leaves them open to charges of arrogance.
And yet one must have some sympathy for them; they are clear-sighted, perceptive thinkers who feel that they have a better historical perspective than most of us. They would rather be right than popular. Are they usually right? Like all others, they are fallible in their judgment and subject to bias, but they have great experience in politics, warfare, domestic and overseas organization and administration, and the humanities.
Like the Germans, they cannot be accused of taking things lightly. Their long and significant involvement in European and world affairs gives the French the conviction that their voice should be heard loud and clear in international forums. Their political, military and economic strengths may no longer predominate as they once did, but the French perceive no diminishment in their moral and didactic authority.
Like the Americans, British and Russians, they have a strong messianic streak. They would not be human if they did not resent the rise of the British after the fall of Napoleon, the decline of the French language as a world tongue, the incursions of the Japanese on the European economic scene, and, most of all, the pernicious Americanization of large parts of the world, including once-French-dominated Europe and even French culture itself.
Though often seen as selfish defenders of their own territory, it is not inconceivable that with their old-fashioned doggedness and resistance to precipitated globalization, they might one day emerge as the champions of the age-old values and philosophies that Europeans subconsciously cherish. The maverick of Europe may well turn out to be its moral bedrock. At all events, the French merit a closer examination of their apparent obstinacies and negative features.
This anecdote was provided by linguist and cross-culture studies expert Richard Lewis. Read his work in detail in " When Cultures Collide" and check out his services for businesses and individuals at Richard Lewis Communications.
Richard Lewis is an internationally renowned linguist and the founder of Richard Lewis Communications. He founded the Berlitz schools in East Asia, Portugal, and Finland and spent several years in Japan, where he was personal tutor to Empress Michiko and five other members of the Japanese Imperial family. He is the author of the award-winning book "When Cultures Collide," and lectures on cross-cultural issues around the world.