Despite their close geographical proximity, France and the United Kingdom hold more than a few cultural contrasts. In spite of this, the nation’s successfully join forces in business demonstrating a great example of cross-cultural collaboration. Here are a few cultural factors for both sides to consider.
1. Making a Good Impression
The French culture is all about conversation. Be sociable, get to know the right people and show an understanding of French culture. Make an effort to join the conversation. Longer debate is reserved for friends but the French love small talk, passing the time of day, grumbling about their situation and empathizing with others.
In the UK, be prepared for a contradictory mix of open, friendly people who can also be distant and reserved. Not everyone you meet will be willing to engage in conversation but show an ability to laugh at yourself and your humour will be appreciated. In both cultures, avoid being too effusive and demonstrative or boastful, excessive displays are seen as vulgar and you may even be laughed at.
2. Forms of Address
A handshake is the standard greeting in the UK, but make it firm, in business a weak handshake is associated with a weak character so prepare to be judged on this. Make eye contact when greeting and subsequently. Use first names if invited to do so; this is standard nowadays.
Alternatively, the French culture is to shake hands firmly but briefly on introduction and when leaving. People who know each other – women with other women, or women with men – will kiss on each cheek to say hello and goodbye. France is a formal and respectful society. Only use first names when requested to do so. When first meeting a French woman, use Madame, – Mademoiselle is only for addressing young girls – and when speaking French use ‘vous’ as a form of address until invited to use ‘tu’; this could take a long-time as’ tu’ is used for close friends and loved ones, although young people are much less formal nowadays.
3. Dress Code
In either culture, dress to impress but keep it conservative. In the UK, small touches of flamboyance are allowed as an expression of individuality; for instance, a colourful tie, or designer shoes, but stick to a suit and tie (business suit for women) when visiting big companies and for initial meetings; it is better to be overdressed than too casual. Similarly, in France aim for chic and elegant to accompany a sense of self-expression. Think classy, not flashy. As a Fashion Capital, expect to be judged on appearance; the French gauge status and achievement by how a person is dressed.
4. Time Management
Working hours and punctuality could be where these nations find their most noticeable contrast. British managers put in the longest hours in Europe, many having to keep US head office hours as well as UK hours. This expectation often reflects upon other employees in the company to be accustomed to strict deadlines, and to meeting them. Expect pressure. Stress-related health issues are common in Britain. However, many companies offer flexible working hours, extended maternity leave, job-sharing and home working which help to manage the workload.
Across the Channel, you can expect a healthy work/ life balance; the French do not have a culture of very long working days although they will put in the hours if necessary. Do not expect deadlines to be met automatically; the French must understand the need for time constraints; they do not like to be hurried and this lack of punctuality only intensifies as you travel down to the south.
5. The Language
The French are very proud and protective about their language, with English words excluded where possible, although less so by young people. Speak French if at all possible, especially in social situations. The French see a foreigner speaking their language as a sign of appreciation of their culture so do not be afraid to speak bad or rusty French; this is better than speaking no French at all. Learn to love words. The French culture is about passion for language, talking and debating, complaining or joking. Some cultures see this free-flowing verbal confrontation as intimidating, but it is not intended to be. In France, recognize that you could be evaluated on your eloquence to present an argument as well as your content.
Language in the UK is much simpler. Speak English. The British assume everyone speaks English and few are fluent in other languages. It’s also important to listen to accents as Britain has an enormous variation in regional accents, sometimes from one town to the next, and many come with their own words and phrases. In addition, Welsh is spoken by 26% of the population of Wales and a form of Gaelic spoken by approximately 60,000 in Scotland although business meetings attended by foreigners will always be conducted in English.
Britain is a highly diverse society, a fact which is reflected in the workplace. The vast majority of people are tolerant and broad-minded, but religious prejudice, sexism, homophobia, racism and ageist behaviour nonetheless exist. 49.4% of the British workforce is female, and women increasingly occupy senior management positions in commerce. Women reach high-level positions in all types of business in the UK, although the ‘glass ceiling’ still exists. The issue of combining a career with being a parent and its attendant pressures is usually the main barrier to progress for women. The French generally do not separate gender from personal identity in the workplace, although this is beginning to change. Most French women value the traditional feminine role in the family and may be reluctant to assume a greater responsibility at work, which would necessarily mean longer hours, and a major compromise in their ability to fill their roles as mothers and wives. Not many top managerial roles are held by women. French women who do make it to the top are flexible, smart, organised, often multilingual, educated and well-connected.
Have you ever experienced one of these cultural differences?
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WRITTEN BY SUE BRYANT
Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.