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Working with the French: 17 foreigners from 12 countries share their experiences

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English version of Travailler avec les Français: témoignages de 17 étrangers venant de 12 pays

An immersion in valuable feedback

Showing humility, changing perspective, taking the time to listen to the others, learning from their experiences, identifying their references and perceptions, taking a step back on oneself, and one’s own practices, identifying blocking factors and key levers of the cross-cultural relationship, grasping and integrating the complexity of interactions and, consequently, of the world, these are some of the essential benefits of the collection of testimonies that is offered here.

These were also the objectives of the group work carried out by students of the Executive MBA programs in Risk Management and Global Security Management (MARS) and Cybersecurity Management and Information Systems Governance (MACYB) at the School of Economic Warfare (EGE) in France, where I have been teaching cross-cultural risk management for nearly fifteen years.

Each group of students was asked to conduct interviews with professionals who had had an experience of cooperation with the French, to make a transcript of the interviews, and then to produce a synthesis indicating the recurring topics, the specificities, and then the practical advice that can be drawn from them for intercultural relations between the French and foreigners. Among the criteria, the interviewees had to come from three different countries, including one non-European country, and there had to be at least one woman interviewed.

These interviews are rich and fascinating to read. I would like to thank the students for their involvement and their enthusiasm to carry out this unusual work in a difficult context (notably because of the war in Ukraine: the availability of many contacts working in sensitive sectors being problematic).

I have selected excerpts from these interviews among several reports. I have taken the most concrete and recurring topics on the professional relationship with the French. The notes in italics, introducing each part, are my own. The first names have been changed and any information element that would allow the identification of the interviewees’ organization has been removed.

Finally, when reading these experience feedbacks, we must keep in mind that they include an obvious subjective part and that they cross three dimensions for the most part: personality, professional culture, and the influence of the culture of origin. There is a “mirror effect” here: we learn as much about the French as we do about the interviewee, resulting in contrasting and sometimes contradictory experiences. Thus, the hierarchical distance in France seems very high for an Israeli woman used to flatter professional relationships, but it appears more moderate for a Moroccan woman or a French-Senegalese man used to more top-down relationships in Morocco and Senegal.

To facilitate reading, the excerpts are organized into nine sections:

  1. Hierarchical distance
  2. Meetings
  3. Communication
  4. Relationship to work
  5. Relationship to rules
  6. Relationship to risk and uncertainty
  7. The place of informality, work/life balance
  8. The French and diversity
  9. Qualities and positive influence of the French

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1. Hierarchical distance

France, the country of « Liberty, Equality, Fraternity » (its motto), is also a country of personal status and vertical structures. In his book L’Étrangeté française (in French) published in 2006, Philippe d’Iribarne describes this complexity well when he explains that the French « live in a permanent contradiction« , caught « in a kind of conflicting symbiosis between the desire for greatness and the ideal of equality ». According to the references of the interviewees, it is one or the other of these extremes that surprises them in their relationship to the French context.

Ilana (Israeli): The functioning of the company is more hierarchical and less free compared to Israeli companies. In Israel, a twenty-year-old can challenge the head of the company. I find this quite unthinkable in France.

Sara (Moroccan): As far as the way of organizing and communicating is concerned, it’s the same as in Morocco for meetings. However, it’s different when it comes to relationships. In Morocco, people fear their upper hierarchy levels and do not dare to tell them everything. For example, you can’t contradict them, or you must respectfully disagree.

Dewi (Indonesian, lives in UK): In Singapore, people will be more hierarchical, or show more superiority even if they are not the manager, for example because they are in a mentoring context or they are experts.

Babacar (French-Senegalese): The French are well trained and know how to express themselves in front of the hierarchy, which is sometimes different in Senegal, where submission to the boss plays a bigger role. In Senegal, authority is accepted naturally, in France, it is consultation and consensus that allow the group to move forward, at least in the tertiary world where I made my career.

Salma (Tunisian, living in the UK for 20 years): The British can make you progress even if you have a fairly low academic level. You can start from scratch to reach top management. I have an example of an Englishwoman who did not even have the high school diploma and reached the top management after ten years. She is well educated, well spoken, she masters the social codes. Even if she makes a miscalculation, it doesn’t matter, we pass it on. She was trained by some of the leaders for a year to climb the ladder. I think that a French person would not accept that someone without a diploma arrives at this level. There is the value of diplomas that counts a lot for the French.

Kelly (American): The hierarchy is more important in France than in the US. In France, a junior or experienced auditor will very rarely present a subject or conclusions to a partner, but it is a manager who will take over. This hierarchical distance can create a feeling of lack of consideration from the management team.

Alexandre (Lebanese): I didn’t expect an HR view of the working world where employees are not trusted. I had to learn how the French hierarchy works: it seems to me that « no » is not appreciated. I find that many companies expect their employees to do what they are told in a stupid and nasty way. I don’t think that’s productive at all.

Salma (Tunisian, living in the UK for 20 years): When the [French] boss arrives, he doesn’t say hello to us but when he enters a room where there are other bosses, he greets everyone, asks how they are doing… The hierarchical relationship in England is different, it is much less marked than in France in the way social interactions are managed, not in terms of salary.

Babacar (French-Senegalese): In France, you have to look straight in the eyes, but it’s not perceived well in Senegal. Here it’s the opposite, you must look at your shoes when you talk to an elder!

2. Meetings

Whatever the references and habits of the people interviewed, there is unanimity about French-style meetings: poorly prepared, too long, talkative, not very disciplined, not pragmatic enough, they are a real obstacle in the professional relationship. As a result, the French and foreigners have a different time frame for making decisions and taking action.

Hierarchical distance is not the only reason. One must certainly add to it the need to convince at length (see section 3) and the relationship to risk and uncertainty (see section 6). Before launching a project together, French and foreigners would do well to define common rules and practices for effective meetings (see for example here).

Ana (Romanian): In France, there are a lot of meetings with sometimes unclear goals. They talk a lot before acting and everyone gives a little bit of their opinion. They take a lot of time to prepare before taking action.

Derek (British): The meetings are less structured than in Great Britain and the language barrier is annoying, the French not being at ease or at the level to express themselves in English and French language being too complex to master for a Briton.

Silvia (Romanian): What I noticed the most during the meetings is that they could start debates which often prevent the decision making.

Alexandre (Lebanese): The French are very action-oriented but not results-oriented. How many times have I been in meetings to validate 40k euros worth of business and there were 35 people in that meeting!

Daniel (Swiss): The meetings are poorly prepared, chaotic, while the security culture [Daniel’s field] is rather military.

Babacar (French-Senegalese): We spend a lot of time in meetings discussing everything and nothing. Sometimes to agree on a comma!

Kelly (American): In France, meetings are always late. In the US, we have meetings all the time. In France, the frequency is not as important, but the subjects are not sufficiently prepared beforehand. You often must reschedule a meeting to make a decision, and some information is not shared with the client until very late (like conclusions, for example).

Christine (Belgian): I notice a lack of punctuality for the beginning of meetings or in respecting the time allocated to discussions.

3. Communication

The French often perceive themselves as being quite direct in their communication, straightforward, not beating around the bush. Praising freedom of expression and claiming their grumpy side, they say what they think. Of course, but… you also have to know how to put it into words, to find the right way to say it, to be able to adjust your level of language according to the person, the status, the context, both orally and in writing. And so, without realizing it, they mix the direct and the indirect, the explicit and the implicit communication styles, the frank and the allusive. A real headache for many foreigners!…

Their tendency to prefer the theoretical approach also has two sides: on the one hand, the French know how to be pedagogical and convincing; on the other hand, their taste for debate can lead them to drift into endless discussions or to topics without any connection to the agenda. From their point of view, it is a sign of commitment. For many foreigners, it is a sign of confusion, even disengagement, on a practical level.

Salma (Tunisian, lives in UK): I was surprised at the poor level of the English language. Our boss doesn’t speak English well at all, no one understands what he says during meetings. But he doesn’t care, it doesn’t block him, it doesn’t take away his confidence.

Christine (Belgian): I notice that the French have difficulty expressing themselves in a language other than their own. This is probably due to embarrassment or a lack of training. Nevertheless, my French counterparts know how to express themselves convincingly and make their point.

Julia (Spanish): The French are less direct. In Spain, I think people say things more clearly. In my opinion, the French pay more attention to appearances and hierarchy. The use of language, the way of presenting topics and arguments are more elaborate in France. Sometimes, even if the content is the same, they pay more attention to the form than in Spain.

Ilana (Israeli): The French are less direct. For example, they won’t say « it’s not possible », but « it will be complicated ». Before, I understood that as « it will be complicated but we’ll try », whereas now I know that it means « no, it’s not worth trying ».

Ana (Romanian): The French are more talkative, complain more at work, are less disciplined than the Romanians. They talk a lot, but their speeches are well constructed, and they try to convince others. They are convinced that they are right.

Kelly (American): In France, communication is sometimes a bit lacking in frankness, especially when it comes to breaking bad news. Americans tend to be more upfront and don’t beat around the bush as much.

Ilana (Israeli): The French cut off their interlocutors much more rarely than the Israelis, and they also expect to be listened to until the end when it’s their turn to speak. The French raise their voices more rarely than the Israelis in meetings, and displeasure will be conveyed through more polite and less explicit language. On the other hand, if a Frenchman raises his voice, it will have much more impact than if an Israeli does. For us, raising our voice is just a way of communicating, whereas the French will consider it a lack of respect or education.

4. Relationship to work

The previous sections add up to clarify our relationship to work. There is a link between presenteeism and hierarchical distance, as well as between poorly organized meetings and a weak results culture. Kelly, reacting to her American references, perceives with great acuity this lack of French pragmatism (another significant mirror effect: the Moroccan woman perceives a more efficient organization and better time management in France than in Morocco). But she adds an essential dimension: the need for a manager to give meaning to the action, to explain the « why » before going into the « how », to take the time to convince and argue in order to involve his or her team.

Since the center of gravity of professional commitment is more on the why than the how, this may partly explain why we give little feedback on this last dimension, other than to point out what is wrong.

Kelly (American): The French will take the time to explain the directives but not enough about the expected or the purpose of the work to be done.

Daniel (Swiss): The presenteeism is important in France. The French don’t like to leave the office before the boss, they could be frowned upon. In Switzerland, we arrive earlier and leave earlier, and the organization is more structured.

Kelly (American): I really felt like you had to convince the teams to work, to make an effort so that everyone is motivated. In France, the people doing the work need to see the meaning of what they are doing and why they are going to spend hours working.

Sara (Moroccan): The French are more organized about time management than we are and respect schedules more.

Kelly (American): In the U.S., if there is a particular effort required for a job, junior or experienced auditors will do it without question, or know who they are doing it for. In France, teams are inclined to work harder if they get along with their managers. I even heard one of my team members say to me, “Since you’re the one asking me, I’m willing to leave work later and do some checks that weren’t originally planned”. That’s because I had a good relationship with my teams. The extra effort is seen as a sign of respect towards hierarchy.

Julia (Spanish): I find them quite self-centered … As for appreciating the work of others: no, they are not capable of that. I didn’t get any compliments or even simple thanks. They didn’t ask me if I worked like that in Spain. I had to be in the same mold as them.

Kelly (American): I didn’t get enough feedback from my teams. I don’t find that clients give enough feedback either, compared to the US. Feedback in France is more political than in the U.S. and is less constructive. There are far fewer improvement directions in French feedbacks than in American feedbacks. Training and coaching of employees are not at the level of the U.S.

5. Relationship to rules

This is a subject of great perplexity for many foreigners! On the one hand, they see a massive presence of rules, regulations, and other procedures, which must be officially and formally obeyed; on the other hand, their French partners can apply them contextually and not strictly, or even disregard them at certain times and in certain situations.

There is a huge implicit part in French relationship to rules, both in society and in companies. But how can we decipher it? How can we maintain confidence in those French people who sometimes do not respect the rules they impose on others? This is a major subject of misunderstanding, rarely dealt with in cross-cultural training because it touches on taboos within the organization.

To better understand the cultural reasons for our relationship to rules and to make the link with safety issues, I invite you to read the wonderful work done by a group of students from École des Ponts: Do the French have a contextual relationship to rules? Exploration based on the case of the Eckwersheim accident (in French).

Ana (Romanian): The French tend to discuss or adapt orders.

Kelly (American): In France, procedures and good practices are adapted according to one’s whims. For example, it is forbidden to have a coffee in the open space or at the desk. So, teams will spend 30 minutes in the cafeteria instead of having a coffee for 5 minutes. The French will tend to follow certain rules excessively if it suits them. On the contrary, sometimes you are asked to do the opposite of what is in the procedure, and you have to apply it without question!

Paul (British): The French are very sticklers for compliance with regulations and standards. They often hide behind these arguments to avoid doing certain things. My counterparts are conscientious and respectful of deadlines, but also of their office hours, if you know what I mean. The French can also be undisciplined and critical of their bosses.

Kelly (American): In the U.S., meeting deadlines is an important issue that should not be overlooked. In France, a due date often tends to be pushed back. In my opinion, this is linked to a lack of discipline because we know that the team waiting for our audit results has given us a date well before the « real » date. When this situation is known, we know that the team has several more days than the communicated deadline.

6. Relationship to risk and uncertainty

Although the testimonies below are limited in number and diversity (British and American points of view), they should be read in continuity with those in the previous sections to shed light on our relationship to risk and uncertainty.

Many foreigners feel that their French partners have a need for security, which slows down decision-making and the launch of action. This can result in a very demanding upstream exploration and an accumulation of information before the decision is made. In the background of this phenomenon, the fear of error (not mentioned below) may also be at work to explain this delay in taking action compared to other partners.

Salma (Tunisian, living in the UK for 20 years): I also understood that the French don’t like risk. Thus, they send us the business here [in Britain] so that we take risks!

John (British, lives in Dubai): The French people I worked with could handle the stress very well, but they lacked that decision-making ability that the British have.

Salma (Tunisian, living in UK for 20 years): The French are good theorists, they make specifications for five years and the action is not yet launched. On the other hand, the English take the risk, the French do not.

Kelly (American): In France, there is a real lack of foresight. Supervisors will wait to know who is going to be involved in the mission, to have the best auditors and the best organization before making a decision and booking the schedules. This leads to emergency situations and arbitration because everyone is making decision very late.

7. The place of informality, work/life balance

With a combination of formal and informal relationships at work on the one hand, and the separation of work and private life on the other, we find a confusing ambiguity here for many foreigners. Those who prioritize task and action appreciate the French formality but are uncomfortable with the intrusion of non-professional topics and relationships during the workday; those who are sensitive to interpersonal connections appreciate the warmth of the relationship but find it difficult to understand why this relationship ceases outside of work hours.

Ilana (Israeli): With the French, everything is quite formalized compared to what I knew. But at the same time, there is still a lot of freedom and flexibility. Especially if you get to know the person you’re working with. I think the French want to appear formal, but fortunately for me they are quite flexible and open.

Kelly (American): In France, employees are much more careful about work/life balance and spend more time on personal activities. In the U.S., we are surprised when we learn that teams in France take vacations, while an audit is not finished, and we are still in high season.

Ilana (Israeli): What surprises me the most is the annual leave and that the time between noon and two pm is sacred. It’s not like that in the Israeli culture.

Silvia (Romanian): We can’t plan meetings between 12:00 and 2:00pm, and it can be complicated to find a time slot available for everyone.

Kelly (American): Working time is well protected in France, teams respect the daily 8 hours. In the U.S., priority is given to results, which can lead to many hours of work at the expense of personal life. In France, some very urgent matters can be postponed. Teams find a solution to protect themselves and propose partial conclusions, for example.

Paula (Spanish): The French are more distant, they observe more time before making a connection.

Adamou (Nigerien): The French are impatient, too hurried, too respectful of schedules, too respectful of regulations, obsessed with detail, the computer tool (email) and administrative red tape. Interpersonal relations with them are less important than with people of Niger, because « the Whites have a watch but never the time »!

Dewi (Indonesian, lives in UK): I noticed something: the French almost never turn on their camera during a Teams meeting. I don’t know if this tells anything about the French work culture, but I noticed it.

Sara (Moroccan): I saw some weird behaviors, for example, my colleagues during breaks would talk badly about absent colleagues, I would stay neutral on my side and not say anything, and it affected my day-to-day relationship with the group. For them, it was strange that I didn’t criticize my colleagues.

8. The French and diversity

The remarks on this matter are not flattering. While most companies have become more international and their environment has become both richer and more uncertain, requiring teams capable of crossing different perspective to deal with this complexity, there are real obstacles to valuing the diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and origins. If the French are not very effective in practicing interculturality on the national level, they will also be ineffective on the international level. For some explanations, I invite you to read L’illusion aculturelle (in French).

Daniel (Swiss): There is a lack of listening to people who have a different experience from those who are represented in the majority. I was asked to come to a French company, but in the end, they don’t value my point of view, which should bring something more. Superiors rely heavily on their experience, their past, and therefore their own references. The French don’t value enough the points of view of those who don’t come from the same background as them. In a way, the French under-estimate the qualities of others in such cases, which is ironic because that’s what I was brought in to do.

Kelly (American): There is a real hierarchy between schools and universities. It is very surprising that some good profiles are not even contacted because they do not come from a school targeted by the company. In the U.S., a company will evaluate the level of a candidate by looking at his or her GPA [Grade Point Average] and the type of study, but not only the school.

Ilana (Israeli): I am also very surprised by the fact that when the French recruit someone, even with twenty years of experience, they will first ask about his or her academic background.

Salma (Tunisian, living in the UK for 20 years): The British know how the French behave with minorities. For example, one of my colleagues went on vacation to Paris. He was in a café and next to him there was a group of black people. Some policemen arrived and behaved very abruptly with them, even though they had not done anything. My colleague asked a policeman why they were behaving like that. He replied that it was none of his business. In fact, the French like the world to adapt to their world. That doesn’t mean the British like foreigners. But they have a strong sense of politeness and diplomacy.

Adamou (Nigerien): The French [in Africa] still have in their strategy and behavior a philosophy of colonization.

Salma (Tunisian, living in the UK for 20 years): As I work in an international company, they have put in place a guide « Ethnicity, inclusion, diversity » which explains how one should behave with others, who do not necessarily share the same cultural codes, with dignity. Here, they try to apply it. But I still have the impression that the French vision on these issues remains in the mind.

9. Qualities and positive influence of the French

The following remarks are consistent with those I have collected during more than twelve years of cross-cultural training. Seriousness, competence, general culture and conviviality are generally praised by foreigners working with the French. Many of them envy their ability to balance professional and private life. Many wonder about the secret of our performance when they spend more time at work or plan better than their French partners. Some even end up « Frenchifying » themselves, changing their own references to incorporate the best of their practices or values.

John (British, lives in Dubai): The socialization was really what I enjoyed most with my French colleagues. I enjoyed the time with them, they showed a positive side of their personality, different from the one they had in the office.

Alexandre (Lebanese): One quality that stood out for me? I would say seriousness. In my team, most of the people I worked with were graduates of top engineering schools. So, they were always very rigorous technically. Competence too. Most of the people I work with are ultra-competent. This is not necessarily the case elsewhere, even in the most serious companies. The French also have a strong sense of duty and value fairness in teams.

Julia (Spanish): I like the attention they give to form. I admire the polite formulas they use, even if they are just formulas.

Ana (Romanian): I’ve become a fan of the preparatory meetings and the bonding moments!

Daniel (Swiss): I noticed an exceptional general culture and I appreciate the art of living and working together, including moments of conviviality.

Paul (British): We criticize a lot the work done but we are impressed by the results while the French seem to work less than us and without real clearly defined method. This amazes and overwhelms us, sometimes making us a little jealous and, of course, even more critical!

Kelly (American): I try to protect my personal life more, putting up barriers. I force myself to say stop when I can’t make a night out because I have a schedule for the evening (sports, going out…) whereas before my stay in Paris I would have cancelled my plans. I have learned to put off certain matters until the next day when the priority allows it. My family tells me that I sigh a lot more since I came back from France! Pfff…

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2 Comments

  1. Hello,

    It’s funny how some people project the behavior of their culture onto French culture.

    It’s very hard to talk about another culture without going through the bias of ours.

    But, do we really know her?

    Best regards

    Christian

  2. Benjamin PELLETIER

    @Christian – Yes indeed! « Mirror effect »… I see myself in you 😉

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