French Mentality

When dealing with French business partners, you will quickly realize that nothing works without good connections with French people. And you have to work for these connections. Surely you have wondered why French people don’t respond to your emails. The answer is: they don’t know you or don’t know you well enough and don’t feel like answering you. This is different from Germany, where we actually reply to every email addressed to us personally. Germans feel an inward obligation to reply. Therefore, introduce yourself to the French by phone, preferably in person of course, instead of writing them emails.

Establishing connections works best in personal contact. There are two success factors for this: One is time. Take time for and with French people. Don’t rush into things.

Example: It may well happen that you are invited to France by an important French target customer. They may invite you to dinner in Paris. The ambience and the food will be excellent. But you will get little opportunity to discuss the business matters you want to move forward. Instead, your client will want to talk to you about the political situation in Germany and learn more about you personally. You will chat about music and literature and then say goodbye again. Your target customer is not at all concerned with business details; rather, they are interested in getting to know you as a person and finding trust with you. Business will then start to build.

Don’t spend the long lunch break in many companies alone, but use it to get into conversation with others. If you spend the lunch hour alone, you will not be well received. Use the opportunity to get to know French colleagues better. However, avoid talking business during the lunch break; instead, choose private topics.

The second success factor is language. Most French people will try to speak French to you. If you address French people in English, their response will be muted, to say the least. Many French speak poor English and find the situation of speaking English uncomfortable. Occasionally, however, historical resentments still resonate when they prefer to stick with French. It is therefore best to address French people in French. They will appreciate that.

But the French also approach work quite differently than Germans. In Germany, time is money. In France, time is quality of life, even in business. This does not mean that French people work fewer hours than Germans. Quite the opposite: French people are often in the office much longer in the evening, even when they don’t really have much to do. They take their time and feel more comfortable doing so. “Nous ne sauvons pas des vies ici.”. (“We’re not saving lives here after all.”) Efficiency is not as much of a priority in France as it is in Germany.

While e. g. Germans take deadlines very seriously, in France, a deadline is understood more as an idea, but without a binding character. In France, it is completely natural that deadlines are exceeded. This takes pressure off the lives of the French. Projects take longer. On the other hand, Germans have to be patient and sensitive when working with the French. French people often start projects at the last minute.

Perfection is not as important to the French as it is in some other European countries. If mistakes occur, they are corrected. Mistakes are less serious than in some other European countries. This occasionally affects quality, but it has enormous advantages in terms of innovation. French people are creative because they are allowed to be. The final touches are occasionally not made to products. That, too, gives the French quality of life. And French people’s demands for perfection are not as strong as their demands for innovation.

French people will answer your questions, but you will often find that they have not answered your posed questions precisely at all. French people associate something with the question, which they then go into quite a bit of detail about.

Example: If you want to make an appointment to evaluate a machine installed at a production site in the south of France, it can take a very long time to coordinate the appointment with everyone. When you finally all arrive on site, it may well be that the machine in question is no longer there at all … (no joke).

Cultural differences become obvious when Germans and French present projects: Germans will emphasize the facts about profitability and existing risks, as well as financial figures, whereby the French will get bored. French people appeal to emotions with often rambling explanations and vivid examples. Instead of inspiring Germans with this, concrete questions often remain open for them; for them, the facts are too incomplete or too imprecise. In such situations, French people usually reply that they will answer the questions at a later time and find solutions to them. Germans want convincing arguments first, while the French want to start implementing them.

And the contrasts continue in the implementation. While French people are concerned with identifying the most important aspects of a project and drawing contours, Germans want to see a complete and detailed project plan. These different approaches feed on different motives for engagement. For the French, important motivations are challenges, innovations and developments. For Germans, the main motives are profitability and safety. Therefore, Germans want to know all the facts and, if possible, counteract any uncertainty through good preparation. French people are less concerned about the future than Germans. This also affects the way French and Germans develop concepts. Germans come to a workshop prepared and then create a plan together. They focus on making the best plan. French come to the workshop unprepared. For the French, a concept is a creative brainstorm. French people often manage – big results – out of nothing, while Germans constructively perfect proven things in detail.

The leadership culture in France is also typically different from that in Germany. French people are very hierarchy- and authority-oriented. Bosses want control and show that they have power. Employees wait for instructions from above. Every activity must be formally approved. Employees’ own responsibility is less in demand in France than in Germany.

French organizations have comparatively many levels of hierarchy, and French people expect hierarchies to be respected. Anyone who ignores hierarchical levels will have a difficult life in the future. The long decision-making paths mean that processes take quite a long time. You still have to be respectful of the French, because otherwise you won’t get anything done.

Example: If you manage a company that is a holding of a French private equity company, you are controlled and managed much more closely than if you had German or Dutch shareholders. As a rule, you have considerably less freedom to shape things yourself.

The hierarchical culture of the French also weakens their effectiveness in teams. In teamwork with the French, everyone does something, but the French are not used to coordinating among themselves. If a statement “from above” is missing, nothing coordinated comes out. In Germany, where managers have long seen their role more as mentors, promoters and supporters, teamwork works better.

And another important aspect of dealing with the French: although French people politely say “vous” to each other, they now address each other by their first names in many organizations. Don’t take a French person’s offer to be on a first-name basis as an invitation to use the informal “tu”.

Look also to the British mentality, the Swiss mentality, the Austrian mentality, the Spanish mentality, the Dutch mentality, the Scandinavian mentality, the Turkish mentality, the US-American mentality, the Italian mentality, the Latin American mentality, the Indian mentality, the Chinese mentality, the Japanese mentality, the Russian mentality, and the Arab mentality.


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