How to survive cross-cultural meeting of minds
Cross-cultural consultant Guy Bondonneau (pictured below) tells Jane Hanks that negotiating the minefield of a French meeting is just a matter of understanding some key differences
Understanding cultural differences is vital to a successful professional relationship, as Brexit negotiators David Davis and Michel Barnier may understand only too well.
Research shows that people working in a multicultural environment tend to reinforce their usual learned behaviours, meaning Mr Davis is likely to come across as extra-British, while Mr Barnier will fall back on his French stereotypes during any talks.
Guy Bondonneau of WCT Cross-Cultural, a consultant who runs courses for individuals or teams posted abroad to work and divides his time between London and Paris, says an insight into cultural differences can help avoid misunderstandings and make life at work more pleasant and efficient. “France and Britain are very close physically, but there are enormous divergences in the way they operate in business,” he said.
“A lot of people think they can continue with their own culture but if you do not know the way things work and do not fully understand the message the person in front of you is trying to convey, you could end up with problems.”
Mr Bondonneau says meetings are a good way of illustrating some of the differences. “First there is the attitude towards time. In the UK a 10am meeting will start at 10am. In France meetings do not start on time because there will be chat beforehand and some people may arrive late.
“If you have to go to a meeting it is best to arrive on time, but do not be surprised or outraged if it does not get off to a prompt start.”
EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker failed to take this on board at a recent European summit in Sweden when French President Emmanuel Macron arrived late to a press conference. “I’ve waited for the France of En Marche! to take its place before starting my speech,” he told his audience, pointedly.
Greetings are important. “If there are not too many people, it is best to do as the French do and go round the table and shake hands with everyone.
“In the UK it is more acceptable to say a big all-round ‘hello’, but it is worth the effort to make contact with everyone individually.”
The way you address people is different. First names are rarely used in France and it is not uncommon to call someone by their job title (‘voulez-vous un café, Monsieur le directeur?'). “Hierarchy is more rigid and the boss is almost seen as God.
“The vous form is de rigeur. There is a story about a minister who was close to President Mitterrand. He asked if he could use the ‘tu’ form and Mitterrand replied, ‘si vous insistez’. “The vous form is a way of keeping distance and showing who is in power.”
Mr Bondonneau says the agenda is seen as a guide rather than a rigid list to get through so do not be surprised if there is deviation. “Meetings are seen as a place for discussion and debate and confrontation is acceptable in France. People can be quite aggressive when expressing views. To be frank and honest is good.
“However to persuade someone in France you must build up your argument carefully before you present a fact. There is an intellectual approach. In the UK we tend to produce a fact and then give a reason.”
He says it is not always easy to know what the outcome of a meeting is: “Communication is subtle and you need to read between the lines.
“You can get caught out. A decision may have been taken, but you may have missed it. A decision in the UK is likely to be more clear cut.
“However, in the UK, we must remember that people do tend to talk in code. For example a British person may say ‘I agree with you up to a point ...’ A British person will know that what he really means is ‘I don’t agree at all’, while anyone else would be forgiven for understanding that they were not far from agreement.”
As there is a great deal of talk, meetings tend to overrun. “They start late and finish late. They are a forum for discussion, which may or may not reach a conclusion.”
Mr Bondonneau says that another point to remember is that in general the French work to live, while in the UK there is a tendency to be nearer to the American model where you live to work. This means that after work people are far more likely to go home to their family and friends rather than go to the pub together and socialise.
However, relationships at work are seen as important and building relationships during the two-hour lunch break is a good way to make contacts in France.
Conversation, though, is not likely to be about business.
So what is the best way to work with cultural differences?
“You do not have to change everything about the way you work but you need to understand these differences and to incorporate the foreign culture into your own.”