Communication In France

communication in France
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There are many aspects to communication in France and everywhere elese in the world because it is closely linked to us as people. The different situations we have to deal with influence the way we express ourselves. We know too, that we cannot not communicate.

Communication comprises far more than just verbal expression. All this and much more, dealt with in communication studies, is universally human and has nothing to do with the culture of a country. Cultural differences are found more in the style of communication and in the use of para-verbal and non-verbal elements which are accepted within a social group:

  • in what detail is the information passed on? When is extremely exact information considered to be acceptable and when is it exaggerated?
  • with which partners and in which situations is it considered appropriate to communicate personal information?
  • when are verbal statements made not only because of their content but also to take up a point of view, to satisfy the subconscious or to generate emotions?

Since communication is such a universal matter, as briefly explained, it plays a very important role in business life. Every misunderstanding can mean a risk for business relations – and is therefore also an economic risk.

In France, language is often used, in business life too, as a means of not only describing one’s inner state of mind, one’s personal opinion on a subject or the situation as a whole but to evaluate these points. The reason behind this is a deep conviction that every individual should be able and be allowed to express his or her opinion on a particular subject. It is a sign of commitment, good relations and trust.

In a business environment, the tendency in some countries is to keep communication as business-like as possible. For a French partner, this method of communication is not only surprising but also unsettling because it gives the impression of not being interested in one another and of preferring to keep one’s distance.

Conversely, people who are used to a rather business-like style of communication often return from France saying that they found it difficult to understand on which level discussions were taking place, or why certain side comments were made.

French Style Of Communication

The expressions context reference and relationship orientation best describe the French style of communication. This results in indirect communication which is often difficult especially for managers from countries, who are used to a more purpose-orientated, direct approach.

Context Reference

Context reference means that everything that is said must always be seen ›in connection with‹. This connection may be past history, the people present and their functions, any current major topics within or even outside the company or perhaps ongoing struggles for power etc. Another problem for those who are used to thinking and communicating in a more matter-of-fact manner is that these elements are not referred to directly but only by allusions. They are merely mentioned in passing. Most French people can only use language in this way in their mother tongue. This may be the reason why it is a challenge for many French people to express themselves in a foreign language.

Nevertheless, the French can also be very direct e.g. in technical discussions – French engineers think like engineers! – or in controversial debates. As soon as the same engineers start to talk about subjects that have a more social dimension, foreign partners have to listen really hard to understand the context. It has therefore proved to be advisable to invest a little time after speaking to French counterparts in order to ask oneself the following questions:

  • what did the partners talk about which did not appear to have anything to do with the actual topic?
  • what names were mentioned in which context? What do I or do I not know about these people?
  • what tone of voice/which non-verbal signals were used for which subjects?
  • what gave rise to irony or witty comments?
The answers often indicate which additional information you should understand, or you should at least be able to determine what reference is being made. If you do not have the details, it is usually no problem to ask one of your French counterparts. It may even be wise to take a French colleague with you to a meeting in France.
 
Context reference also means that negative answers often occur. A common pattern of communication in France is to begin by being against something and then, after discussion, to maybe approve of something. The initial negative stance certainly does not mean that the subject should no longer be discussed, on the contrary! Discussions are popular in France because they give everyone present the opportunity of stating their opinion and of being involved. The original subject may be slightly amended by the discussions.
 
During talks, participants make reference on the one hand to elements that are not confined to the actual topic but which include the context and on the other hand add arguments that are related to their opinion, their surroundings etc. While talking around the subject something very important happens: personal identification and getting to know the subject. Discussions which are too short are more likely to be demotivating for French spirits.
 
What are the strengths and weaknesses of this constant reference to the context? One weakness is that some aspects may be overlooked. The ›antidote‹ is informal talks. Missing aspects are pointed out, if necessary, additional information is supplied.
 
However, this French system of improvement fails if employees and colleagues do not pass on such information perhaps because they are afraid, they are selfish, or due to insufficient commitment.
 
The advantages of always being able to include the context are being able to see beyond one’s own nose, being able to give priority to the topics, less pronounced stereotyped thinking, and target-orientated actions by coupling the topics to the strategy. For a team made up only of French people, motivation will also be increased.

Relationship Orientation

In addition to the context reference, relationship orientation characterises communication in France. The aim is to influence the quality of a relationship through the conscious use of communication. The type of communication determines the position of each person within the interaction with the others. Greeting each other, as described further up in this chapter, is a good example of this. Courtesy demands that each participant is greeted personally. After shaking hands, however, it is up to the individual to add a further personal touch if he or she wishes.
 
The famous words by Watzlawick (1969) ›you cannot not communicate‹, could be paraphrased in France with ›you cannot be neutral in communication‹. If you are just polite and business-like because you do not know your French partners very well yet or because you prefer to concentrate on the business at hand for the moment, it could be misunderstood. It is therefore always worth being a little more personal when communicating with French business partners, as this reduces the amount which is left to interpretation or at least you can control the interaction better. And that generates trust.

Indirect Communication

Verbal statements in French are usually fairly implicit. We speak of an indirect style of communication which is made possible by the considerable context reference. Exact explanations are often felt to be irritating and superfluous or at worst the person is considered to be a know-all. The definition of the word ›implicit‹ may have a negative touch in other languages. In France this is different. Here it is a sign that the other person is being given space for their own opinions and interpretations. Ideally, the content of discussions is set up together. That in turn strengthens the relationship.

Irony And Humour

Another characteristic of communication in France, which feeds on both context reference and relationship orientation, is the love of irony and humour. The French like a play on words and double meanings on most occasions. They often tell proper jokes. However, this should not be forced, but fit the context. Sometimes political correctness is temporarily abandoned for a bon mot and you enter what the French call ›le deuxième niveau‹, the ›second level‹. That means that nothing should be taken at face value, everything should be viewed with a certain distance. Humorous, witty or clever comments are very much appreciated in France and provide not only light relief but are also the source of considerable admiration!

Small Talk

Small talk is a good way of giving business contact with the French a more personal touch! In a telephone conversation, they value someone who does not come straight to the point but who first asks about the business partner’s well-being, how things are in the office or what the weather is like.
 
It is important to remember the answers. If for example, you have found out that your French project partner likes to go to the cinema, the next time you speak to her, ask her about the last film she saw instead of chatting about general subjects. ›How am I supposed to remember all that?‹, is a question I am often asked at intercultural coaching sessions. Good sales representatives make notes about their customers‘ preferences. You should do the same for your French partners and colleagues. It goes down well if you can draw on personal topics of conversation and you will have fewer obstacles to overcome in order to cultivate your small talk.
 
Take a look at how your French counterparts progress elegantly from small talk to the actual topic of discussion. The art of transition is part of the French style of communication. If you think you cannot do that, then just announce that you will now be talking about X.
 
On the other hand, it would really be worth having a little patience and observing how the small talk experts gradually move from talking about their last holiday to solving the programming problems!

Inappropriate Subjects

Of course, you talk about money when negotiating prices. But questions like ›how high is your rent?‹ or comments on the price of something you have just bought should be avoided at all costs. If you mention a price in order to emphasise that something was a bargain, it gives the impression of being finicky. If, however, you want to stress its value, you might be accused of having the airs and graces of the nouveau riches.
 
When making small talk with business partners and colleagues e.g. in the evening with an after-dinner drink, when the atmosphere becomes more relaxed, you should only mention problematic subjects, if at all, and never dwell on them.
 
Since the French address people by their first name, there is a danger that business partners who are not used to this start to feel as if they are with their friends and start talking about difficult situations and private or health problems.
 
In France, business partners are embarrassed because their counterparts are getting too close. They are out of their depth. Depending on the subject, it could be seen as brazenness. This of course does not apply to people who have been friends for a long time. In that case, such confidences are entirely justified. However, in the business world you should remember: personal details yes, private details not immediately!

Voicing Criticism, Solving Conflicts

If negative criticism has to be expressed during communication in France, it is wise to remember that the French often identify strongly with the contents of their work: ›if my paper is criticised then I am being personally criticised.‹ How you say something and in what tone of voice are important allies of criticism.

It is better to speak to someone in person and in private, or at least in a telephone call, rather than using written communication. This can be initiated by asking whether the report sent is the final version, or how the person himself views the document. Then the critical points can be carefully addressed, e.g. ›in paragraph … I find it difficult to understand that comment‹ or ›why does the analysis of … come after the description…?‹

Your French partner will then either acknowledge his mistake and make new suggestions or he will defend his point of view. After he has spoken critically himself, it is possible to talk about the negative points more directly. This should then lead to fruitful discussions.

It would be unacceptable to write an e-mail saying something like ›Thank you for your report. There are a few discrepancies that need to be resolved …‹ followed by a list of the critical points. This would impair the working relationship and insult your counterpart! In some situations, you may well witness very direct criticism from a superior towards his staff. It can happen and is tolerated, mainly because the superior is a respected person but it is not appreciated.

Significant Body Language

Communication in France does not only occur by means of words but also through the specific and conscious use of para-verbal and not-verbal elements. The comparatively indirect French verbal system of communication often uses these elements. The French do not gesticulate to the same extent as the Italians but it is nevertheless quite pronounced. The further south we travel, the more the spoken word is accompanied by gesticulation.
 
Facial expressions, however, are used quite a lot: movement of the eyebrows, the forehead, or the lips, often accompanied by noises, are a part of communication in France. A ›prumm‹ sound made with the lips can mean different things depending on the context: ›who knows what the future will bring‹ or ›I have no idea!‹ or even ›I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of that‹. It is interesting that most French people are not aware of this. Although Louis de Funès used exaggerated human traits for comic effect, his sketches are a perfect example of French facial expressions and physical gestures.
 
Eye contact is fairly short, not only when greeting someone, as already mentioned.
 
The tone of voice also varies. You should pay particular attention to the fact that a yes is only a yes if body language shows interest and enthusiasm. Otherwise, you should check the context to see what the more likely meaning is: ›yes, we might be able to try that‹ or ›yes, but it would probably not work‹ or ›yes, we will certainly do that‹. In case of doubt, it is always better to ask for more precise information.

English As A Means Of Communication

In France, English is now generally used and accepted as the business language. However, language skills are not always as good as could be desired. The French often hesitate to use the foreign language even though their command is good. You will still find employees in small companies or in a position where, until now, no foreign language was necessary, who do not speak English – or who do not have the courage to use their school English.
 
As many French people know that their language level is not particularly high, they have a certain inferiority complex. The way they deal with this varies and ranges from ›I can’t speak the language well so I’ll just talk away‹ to ›I ought to say as little as possible‹.
 
Foreign people may find that English pronunciation in France takes a little getting used to and vice versa, just as different accents throughout the world enrich the English language!
 
If a group of French people is very reluctant to speak English, it is essential to create an atmosphere of trust and if necessary to allow ›an excursion impact into the mother tongue‹ in order to increase everyone’s participation. Nor will the French take offence if their foreign colleagues speak to each other in their mother tongue for a few moments. If meetings are presented professionally participants will not miss anything. It is also possible that a side comment is made or a joke is told in French, even though the French have a good command of English. The main intention behind this is to strengthen the bond with those taking part. There is nothing wrong with asking for a translation or explanation. Then you can enjoy the joke too!
 
Remember that it is usually only the non-French-speaking participants who consider such excursions into the mother tongue to be very discourteous and feel excluded. Without wanting to play down the insufficient knowledge of a foreign language the French sometimes have, I would like to emphasise that the French apartés are rarely intended as an exclusion tactic but are either a bon mot or are intended to make things clearer. It is usually not necessary to have an interpreter, at least not in large companies which operate internationally. Only if specialist negotiations e.g. legal talks have to take place or if partners have never had international dealings, is it advisable to employ an interpreter.

Telephone, E-mail And Business Correspondence

Generally in France, verbal communication is preferred rather than written. Written channels serve to transfer information but are less suitable for communication. If something is important or urgent it should be communicated in verbal form even if it is only a voice mail.
 
In one example which I use in my intercultural training sessions, I describe how the head of an international project sends a concept paper via e-mail requesting feedback. However, he does not receive an answer from the French project participants. All my training participants in France think this is not surprising. Comments may include: ›if the feedback was really urgent he would have rung me‹, ›since the concept was already written down, there is no need for me to add anything‹, ›I haven’t got time for long e-mails, I want to talk about such things‹ etc. The fact that the French did not reply does not mean that they have no interest, on the contrary, they have a deep need to be in touch, to be involved as individuals and to know what the other person feels is important regarding the subject in hand or the given situation. This again shows the correlation between person orientation and context reference.
 
If you need a written answer, ring your French partner and discuss the issue. Then you can explain why this written information is useful or necessary for you. A message on the answerphone can sometimes work wonders too. The recipient has an obligation towards you which increases your chances of receiving an answer.
 
Always use several means of communication in France: an e-mail followed by a telephone call, or the telephone call first and then the e-mail, further information or Instant Messages. The best recipe for not receiving an answer in France is: to send a purpose-orientated e-mail and then to wait. 95% of French business people see that as ›not important/can wait/does not need to be answered‹.
 
Isabelle Demangeat
 
Extract from Business Culture France, Courtesy of CONBOOK Verlag
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