Before you go to a meeting in France, you should inform yourself beforehand about what kind of meeting it is. If it is an in-house meeting, then it is merely an informal exchange of ideas, a “sounding out” of a specific project or topic. At this type of meeting, participants determine the current phase of the project. As it were, this meeting serves as a platform for exchange.
Different types of meetings
Things are very different though at meetings where decisions are made. These can turn into heated discussions and arguments. At such meetings, specific positions are clearly taken and presented.
So when you go to a meeting in France, you ought to know in advance exactly what type of meeting it is. You need to have implicit knowledge about the meeting, as it will not be specifically mentioned in your invitation. Your French business partner will require that you inform yourself in advance and obtain any necessary information.
Starting a meeting
In France, greeting and introducing oneself personally, i.e. with a handshake, is considered to be good manners among business partners. Even if you are late for your business meeting – which you should avoid – please make the rounds and shake hands with everyone present.
A business meeting in France is not started at the chime of a gong, but when all the important people, that means the key people, have arrived and are ready to begin. The right time to start the meeting in France is therefore not determined by the clock but depends very much on feeling what the right time to begin is. The project leader, the meeting leader or the host business partner initiates the meeting. This is not necessarily the head of the French company who might be attending.
The agenda will be sent to each participant in advance of the meeting. The time and topics on this agenda do not necessarily have to be strictly followed. While in many other cultures meetings are held in a linear/chronological order, your French colleagues may suddenly find item three of the agenda more important at the meeting itself. Accordingly, this will then be moved forward without further ado.
French people are laid back about things like this; they don’t believe that it’s necessary to always stick to the rules. Rather, the order is changed according to an inner logic following the priorities of the person in charge at that particular moment. Feel free to ask why this change is being made.
If someone has the floor in France, theirs is not necessarily the only voice to be heard. People don’t usually talk alone. Moreover, constructive opposition or critical scrutiny of the content is very welcome in France. As an outsider, you can easily get the impression that the French are all about “being against”. The truth is that controversial debate in France is quite a popular sport. In this discourse, the interlocutors will attempt to come together and find a common denominator. This does not divide the parties but creates trust and brings the discussion partners together. In the end, French people are pleased after having fought through this often energetic exchange of words and having “teased out” the best for the project.
It’s wonderful if you speak French well enough for business discussions. Otherwise, in 95 per cent of international meetings, English is the lingua franca. However, when discussions get heated, one or the other Frenchman will revert from English to his mother tongue. Don’t get into a huff about that. Ask your business partners discreetly but firmly to speak English again so that you can participate in the lively discussion.
At business meetings in France, transcripts tend to be more result-oriented. These can also change accordingly. Stubborn insistence on the minutes will therefore not get you very far. There may be new aspects that no one knew about at the time of the meeting, and these will be taken into account afterwards. In France, therefore, minutes tend to serve as a reminder rather than as evidence of what has been said and decided. As a result, these minutes are not written in much detail.