Understanding a country’s customs and culture will help your expats appreciate why others communicate, negotiate or build business relationships the way they do.
At the center of life
One of the most notable characteristics of France is the way in which so much of life — from geography and transportation to government and business — is centralized. This has affected the way in which the French people see the world.
In geographic terms, Paris is the center of the country, with road and rail links radiating out from the city. Even within Paris and other French cities, roads often lead in and out of a center.
Paris is also the center of many industries and activities. Unlike the US, which has its government in Washington, its finances in New York, and much of its entertainment industry in Los Angeles, Paris is the center of all of these components of French life.
In terms of power and authority, the French have traditionally placed significant power in the hands of one individual. In earlier times, this was a monarch. But even today, with a democratic government, the French presidency is a particularly strong office.
French business also follows this trend toward centralization. Authority is nearly always concentrated in the hands of a single individual. Offices are often laid out in this manner, as well, with the senior person in the middle and the lowest ranking employees the furthest distance away from the center of power.
A class-conscious society
French society is quite structured, and the lines that divide the classes of people can be difficult to traverse. This is a throwback to centuries of living with a monarch and an aristocracy.
In business, a person’s ability and accomplishments are not always the means to attaining position. In a self-perpetuating “old-boy” network, many of the top managers in the country come from the upper social classes and attended the better schools and universities. The French, more than most, rely on their status and labels to propel them to the top rather than their individual drive and ability.
Individuality is important to the French, but it has a different meaning from the “individualism” so often spoken of in the US. In American terms, individualism means self-reliance, and usually refers to a self-made and independent person. In France, “individuality” describes a person who has a distinctive character; someone who sets him or herself apart through unique and interesting opinions or style.
But while the French respect and enjoy uniquely individual characters, they wouldn’t necessarily relate to the concept of a self-made person. There is less opportunity for social mobility in France. The French are born into societal classes and don’t usually have the same individual opportunities as Americans who exhibit drive and ambition.
A love of logic and language
By nature, the French are deductive thinkers and respect articulate speakers. They also enjoy a good argument. The tradition in France is to start with the big picture and work your way down to the details. Because of this, arguments often revolve around logic. The French are known to play devil’s advocate or challenge another person’s line of thinking. They will argue vehemently to convince you of their position, but they view such arguments as sport and don’t take these disagreements personally. In fact, they especially admire people who can present a logical argument and stand their ground.
Along with their love of logic is a great appreciation for language.The French enjoy conversation and take pride in being eloquent. There are thousands of bookstores across France, and authors and philosophers can reach the status of national hero. This is an important clue to the French communication style; they stress abstract thinking and look for the patterns behind the concrete information.
Pride in their heritage
The French are very proud of their nation, so much so that they often appear nationalistic or disparaging of anything or anyone not French. The French people live off the reflected glory of the country’s years as a world power and its ongoing contributions to the arts and culture. There is a sense among the French that theirs is a special nation with a unique destiny in world affairs.
Like Americans, many French citizens do not speak another language, and often insist on speaking French in all business and government dealings. French was once considered the primary international language and today France resists the incursion of English, even to the point of barring new English words (such as in the computer field) from the French language.