It is absolutely essential in France to strengthen business contacts by cultivating personal relationships because trust – beyond such things as products, services or quality – is generated by communication between people. It is not possible to form a long-term, successful business relationship without trust.
Business meals in France usually take place at lunch time and are often called déjeuner d’affaires. Most French go to the canteen in groups between 12.30 pm and 1.30 pm or they go to a nearby restaurant. Eating together can be a break in the discussions taking place that day, can mark the beginning or the end of discussions or the discussions take place during the meal. You may well find yourself explaining your USP between paté de foie gras and prawn kebabs. It is important to stay wide awake and not to switch to ›leisure-time mode‹ just because you crossed the threshold of a nice restaurant!
Business meals in France are a good opportunity to show who you are as a person. If you are used to keeping business and pleasure strictly separate you may find it difficult to become more personal over lunch with business partners or colleagues. In that case you should use the atmosphere in the restaurant to help you speak more about yourself and to learn more about your business partners or colleagues. It is important to engage in conversation.
Meals where nothing is said are a nightmare for the French and a sign of great disrespect. Accordingly, meals are usually eaten more slowly. Talk about your hobbies or what you are interested in like films or sport, talk about your own personal experiences like your last holiday and of course about the food and the restaurant. These subjects can alternate with business topics such as your last visit to location X or new developments in the company. It is important to find the right balance between the personal touch and gossip. Describe how you feel about certain things or ask your business partners how they experienced this or that. You should avoid judgemental statements.
Be careful not to hold monologues, but always ask politely in return or launch a new topic of conversation. It is greatly appreciated if you have perfected the art of asking questions, in order to give your counterparts a chance to speak. Remember to try and discover common ground when engaging in small talk. The second step is to remember the information and to take this up again at the next opportunity.
Seating arrangements are determined by the host of the business meal in France. This also applies to less formal meetings. The basic rule is: the most important guest sits on the right of the host, the second most important on the left. The second rule is to place men and women alternately around the table. It is sometimes difficult to combine both rules at business meals in France e.g. when men and women are not present in the same numbers. Then a compromise has to be made. If you are shown to a table in a restaurant it is advisable not to sit down too quickly but to wait and see if anyone has any special seating arrangements.
It is commonplace to drink an aperitif before a business meal in France. Usually alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are served. A glass of wine is drunk to accompany a meal, although this is not always the case. Since the wine should complement the food it is selected after ordering the meal.
At a formal dinner the host will select the wine, usually after consulting the head waiter or in very good restaurants the sommelier, who is specifically responsible for suggesting a wine best suited to the dishes chosen and the wallet of the person paying.
No-one will be offended if you do not wish to drink alcohol. In any case, consumption in moderation is the name of the game. It is bad manners to be intoxicated, even slightly, in French business circles. Remember, too, that anything talked about during a business meal in France is just as important as that which is discussed in the conference room. You need to keep a clear head at all times.
The host pays and does so as discreetly as possible. If it is not clear from the outset: you can recognise the host by the fact that he asks the guests what they have chosen to eat and gives them precedence when ordering. If you are dining with colleagues or friends, it is usual in France to divide the bill by the number of people present, regardless of what each person actually ordered and ate. It is considered to be both petty-minded and also disrespectful to try and work out the exact sum for each person.
After Work In Business Circles
Colleagues usually disperse and go straight home after work, especially in Paris and the surrounding area. As employees often have to travel between one and a half and two and a half hours,6 it is understandable that they want to get home quickly. It is only in the provinces that employees sometimes drink an aperitif together. Normally, however, the evening is reserved for family or friends.
For this reason, there are not many after work activities in French business life, apart from a mutual meal. If, however, your French counterparts know that it is your first visit to France or Paris, or if you are to be honoured as a particularly important business partner, you may be invited to certain events or locations, for example the famous Parisian cabaret theatres. But be warned: compliance policies in French companies are becoming stricter all the time.
It is unusual to be invited home to a business partner in France especially if he or she lives in the Paris area.
Extract from Business Culture France, Courtesy of CONBOOK Verlag