Business à la française

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In a British work meeting, the aim is usually to make decisions. Nobody will expound a philosophy of, say, the toiletries market. If they do, they are joking. (Approximately 61 per cent of British work conversation is spent trying to be funny.) But French meetings are different, says a new guide to Franco-British business relationships. In France, “a meeting is a debate … In extreme cases a very unstructured meeting in France may be perceived by the British as an ‘intellectual orgy’.”

The fascinating bilingual guide “Light at the End of the Tunnel: Practical Reflections on the French and British in Business”, published by the French chamber of commerce in Great Britain, is full of shrewd insights into both sides’ codes. My only question is whether that’s much use. After 11 years in Paris, I reckon the main reason for Franco-British incomprehension isn’t clashing codes. It’s different languages.

The chamber’s guide joins a long tradition. In 1944, for instance, the UK’s Foreign Office issued the booklet “Instructions for British Servicemen in France”. Sixty years later it was republished as a cult classic. Many of its recommendations remain useful, such as: “It is as well to drop any ideas about French women based on stories of Montmartre and nude cabaret shows.”

By contrast, the chamber of commerce’s guide concentrates on working life. From its bullet points emerges a picture of a French boss strangely like the late French comic actor Louis de Funès: loud, excitable, given to tantrums, and usually late himself. Here are some of the guide’s insights into French business practices:

• “Raising one’s voice or losing one’s temper may be seen as a sign of leadership”

• The French “sometimes disagree for the sake of discussion and to test conviction”

• They make “greater use of … body expression in confrontational situations”

• Performance appraisals “start as a ‘one way’ process subsequently evolving into an emotional dialogue”

• “Criticism can descend into personal observations”.

There are other differences besides. A British employer might hire you for your experience, or because you were captain of cricket at school. In France, what matters is education. Cleverness rules. Consequently, the guide says, in meetings the French can be “perceived as arrogant due to use of intellect and logical arguments”. Even worse, for Britons: French business people “will potentially view humour as lack of seriousness”.

Meanwhile, the French – like everyone else on earth – are baffled when Britons say inscrutable things like, “I agree with you, up to a point.” (Guide for foreigners: this means, “That’s insane!”) As a Dutchman I know in a British company complains, it’s tiring being in a workplace where nobody ever says what they mean.

The chamber’s guide was written by “a group of plain-speaking non-academic Franco-British business men and women” who understand both countries. They explain French and British codes well. And yet knowing another country’s codes is of limited use. If you are British, your French interlocutor won’t expect you to act French. She knows you are different. Maybe she even likes that. She may, for instance, have an exaggerated admiration for “le fair-play britannique”. She probably understands that British executives share emotions only when drunk. People tend to allow each other their national codes, up to a point.

The greater Franco-British problem is language. Most French business people under 50 can now speak “Globish”: the simplified, dull, idiom-free version of English with a small vocabulary. It’s silly to expect more from them. If Brits had discovered circa 1995 that English no longer sufficed internationally, they wouldn’t have adapted well either.

Globish just about gets the French through international business meetings. But it isn’t enough for building relationships. French people build working relationships over lunch, and Brits over evening beers, but the principle is the same: this is when trust is created, and information casually exchanged. And these informal exchanges only happen between people who speak the same language almost perfectly.

I’ve seen it at conferences. During the day, everyone spends the sessions checking email. Then the French go for dinner together to speak French. The British eat with the Americans (often swapping complaints about the French). At 11pm the Americans go to bed, and the Brits go to the bar to build more trust.

These exchanges pay off. The Zurich-based economists Peter H. Egger and Andrea Lassmann recently analysed 81 academic articles on language and international trade. They found that on average a common language “increases trade flows directly by 44 per cent”. That’s where things break down between French and British.

It’s customary at this point to urge British schools to start teaching French again. But that probably wouldn’t help. When dealing with French people, only near-native French confers an advantage. Speaking mediocre French is worse than useless. If mediocre French is all you have, it’s much better to speak English, and force the French person to operate on your turf. Then when he has a tantrum, just smile fondly and say: “I agree with you, up to a point.”

‘Light at the End of the Tunnel: Practical Reflections on the French and British in Business’ is available from, £6

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