All you need to know about business etiquette in France

All you need to know about business etiquette in France

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated September 7, 2023

Up for a career change chez les Français? Whether you’re starting a business or applying for a job in France, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with more than just le droit du travail (French labor laws). From start to finish, French business etiquette is quite different from Anglo norms. Being aware of the social and cultural idiosyncrasies of the French professional sphere can help you build solid and trusting relationships with your French counterparts. Read our guide to get a solid understanding of all the faux pas you should avoid in the French business world. 

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The rules of greetings in French business etiquette

Meeting your counterpart

The most appropriate business greeting in France is usually a handshake. It typically consists of one or two brisk up-and-down movements made with a loose grip. The handshake is the preferred greeting gesture among both men and women. 

Contrary to what you might expect, kissing cheeks is not so common in the professional arena. In particular, it’s a big no-no when meeting a business partner or client for the first time. Faire la bise is usually reserved for colleagues who know each other well and who have not seen each other for some time. Even in those cases, it isn’t a common greeting gesture between two men, who generally opt for a handshake instead.

Addressing your counterpart

When meeting a business client or partner for the first time, a certain degree of formality is expected. 

When saying “hello,” you’ll need to add the proper form of address for the person: monsieur (sir) for men and madame (madam) for women. Technically, madame refers to married women, whereas mademoiselle (miss) refers to unmarried women. But social customs have evolved and madame is now the default honorific for women in a working context. 

By the same token, you should not call your business partner or client by their first name or use the informal tu when addressing them. Use the formal vous unless invited to do otherwise.

The art of the conversation in business meetings in France

Here, too, French cultural norms differ from those in the Anglo world. These discrepancies may even feed the reputation French people have for being rude

For instance, French people are generally more direct and less over-the-top in their compliments. They may not hesitate to question, probe and even criticize a particular point, even if it means interrupting someone before they have finished their argument. Far from rude, this behavior is considered part of a healthy debate. It’s even a way to show that you’re paying close attention!

With that said, some topics are considered taboo in a business context. It’s best to steer clear of mentioning your religious or political inclinations. These subjects usually belong more in the personal arena and, generally speaking, French people tend to keep their private and professional lives separate. Similarly, discussing salaries and money matters can be touchy or considered rude, even if you’re on friendly terms with someone. 

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The details that make the difference in business customs in France

Give your French a try

As the fifth most spoken language in the world, French is a useful business language to learn. Furthermore, French people are very attached to their language — and making an effort to speak it goes a long way. Even if you don’t have the advanced level necessary to conduct an entire meeting in French, your counterparts will appreciate your effort and may even interpret it as a sign of respect for their culture. They will probably praise you for your attempt before happily reverting to English to properly get down to business.

Punctuality in business

It may seem obvious, but make sure to be on time for your meeting or business lunch. The reputation French people have for tardiness doesn’t apply at work. If you’ve been delayed for some reason, make sure to acknowledge it at the start and apologize for the inconvenience. 

Dress for success

Appearances are equally important, so make sure you dress for the part. Trends have evolved over the decades, and long gone are the days when French office workers were expected to wear a tie. Even so, a smart casual approach (complete with a suit jacket) is the safest bet, especially for a more formal meeting. 

Business meals

During a business lunch in France, there are a few general rules to follow:

  • Keep your hands on the table. Placing your hands on your lap below the table is not considered polite.
  • Chew with your mouth closed. 
  • Hold your fork with your left hand and your knife with your right hand. Keep your fork in the left hand to bring a piece of food to your mouth.

Get down to the business culture in France

As one of the top economies in Europe and the world, France is an attractive country for work and investment. But, to be successful, you’ll need to know the proper business etiquette in France. It’s often the small details that make the difference, especially when it comes to fostering trust and fruitful collaboration with your French partners and clients. 

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Anne-Lise Vassoille

Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries… Settled down in London, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.

Anne-Lise Vassoille
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