French business etiquette can often be difficult to understand for those who aren’t familiar with France and French customs. Whether you’re travelling to France for a business trip, a new job or an interview to land your dream job, here are some common French business etiquette tips that will have your international clients or future employers melting like putty in your hands.
French Business Etiquette And Work Culture In France
Good business etiquette and manners are essential for many things in the business world, including giving a good first impression, landing a new job, getting a promotion, and building great relationships with others.
However, the attitudes and values of a country have a significant impact on how business is conducted. What’s considered good business etiquette in your country may not be so in another country. For example, simply not saying “hello” in France before beginning a conversation could be considered rude. Where is in other cultures, launching into a conversation is perfectly fine.
The last thing you want to do is accidentally offend someone or embarrass yourself because you don’t understand local French business etiquette.
Here’s what to expect in France and some simple but powerful French business etiquette tips that will have your international clients or future employers melting like putty in your hands.
Keep in mind that rules are not set in stone. These are general guidelines for good practices in France.
French Business Greetings
A proper greeting is a must in French business etiquette.
The most important thing to remember is that French people are naturally more formal than you may be used to. Even small children speak more formally than their American counterparts.
To make a great first impression in France or maintain a good working rapport with colleagues at work or business meetings, it’s important to keep a high level of politeness.
ALWAYS Say Bonjour and Bonsoir
In some cultures, it’s okay to walk into the office and head straight to your desk, head down without saying a word to the people you pass, but not so in France.
- At the start of the day, you should generally say bonjour to the coworkers you pass on the way to your desk.
- At the end of the day, on your way out the door to go home, you should say Bonne soirée (good night), taking care not to disturb a busy person.
It doesn’t need to be loud or accompanied by a big toothy grin, just a short bonjour or bonne soirée with a pleasant smile.
If you’re attending a meeting or interview and walk into a room full of people, you should say one single bonjour to the room of people. It’s considered rude not to.
Saying bonjour is actually important everywhere in France. Even at the boulangerie ordering a baguette, it’s important to say “Bonjour” before you ask for your baguette. Even at the grocery checkout, you should say bonjour to the cashier as she begins to scan your items. At the bank, when you walk up to the bank teller says bonjour before you start your transaction. As you step on the bus, say bonjour to the driver.
This may seem like overkill to some people, but it’s just how it is in France. It’s considered basic good manners.
I can’t stress this enough.
Always say Monsieur or Madame
Unless you know someone’s name and have been invited to use it, you should address people in business situations using by Monsieur or Madame (never Mademoiselle).
- Bonjour Monsieur (you don’t know the person’s name)
- Bonjour Madame (you don’t know the person’s name)
- Bonjour Jean (you know this person’s name)
- Bonjour Madame Beaudry (you might say this to the person interviewing you or to someone you are meeting in a business meeting)
- Bonjour Monsieur Lalonde
Introduce yourself using your full name
After you’ve said “bonjour,” if you need to introduce yourself, do first, then the last name.
For example, here are some acceptable ways to introduce yourself and say your name.
- Bonjour, moi c’est Annie
- Bonjour, Je m’appelle Annie Andre
- Bonjour, mon prenom est Annie
In more formal situations or when dealing with administration documents, it’s usually a family name followed by a given name, for instance, on a French CV, on documents for enrolling your children in school, opening a bank account, etc.
Don’t give a death grip handshake.
You should always shake hands when meeting someone and maybe even when leaving in a meeting and for interviews but don’t give a vigorous jolting handshake. This is just too aggressive. French handshakes are more of a light handshake, a loose grip with only one hand and brief.
Don’t forget to make eye contact with your handshake.
Don’t even think about giving a business associate a
French kiss (La Bise)
You’ve seen it in the movies, and it’s true:
French people DO greet one another with cheek kisses. It’s called “La Bise,” which simply means “the
La bise is confusing enough for French people, and it’s strictly reserved for friends and friends of friends.
That doesn’t mean that cheek-kissing in the work environment doesn’t happen. Sometimes, co-workers who work with each other day in and day out and are friendly will greet one another with a cheek
If you’re ever in this situation, and you’re a man, men don’t initiate; it’s more polite to let the woman transition from just saying bonjour in the morning to la bise.
So unless you are familiar with the fine art of greeting a French person with La Bise, do not initiate. If someone leans in with their cheek, then go for it.
Don’t hug anyone.
Even if you’re on good terms with your French co-workers, some people might find it off-putting to receive a hug.
Example business situation: Interview, business meeting or other work-related situation at a French company
Here’s an example pulling in all the French business etiquette I mentioned above.
Let’s say you have an interview at a French company in Paris. When you walk into the office to announce yourself to the front desk secretary, you would greet her by saying “Bonjour Madame” or “Bonjour Monsieur” before telling him or her that you have an interview.
As you wait in the lobby, someone shows up to take you to the place where the interview will take place. They will most likely introduce themselves first and may reach out to shake your hand. Once this happens, you respond with “Bonjour (the name they said)” and introduce yourself by simply saying you’re name. You have many choices, such as:
Bonjour (their name) +
- Moi, c’est Nicolas.
- Je m’appelle Nicolas.
Conversations do’s and don’ts “L’art de la conversation.”
Small Talk (Petites discussions)
Be careful not to get overly personal with co-workers. Personal privacy is important in France, and there is a line drawn between personal life and work, which is much harder to cross than in some other cultures.
Also, don’t talk about politics, religious beliefs or your financial situation. Especially how much you make or spend on anything, which could be misconstrued as showing off your wealth. Very tacky.
No complaining about your husband to co-workers or complaining about the president.
Keep your small talk friendly but professional.
So, what can you talk about with co-workers or at business meetings?
If you’re in a situation where you’re able to strike up a conversation, you can talk about your culture, music, food, sports, fashion, etc. Other subjects might be what you did over the weekend, hobbies, or books you just read.
Keep it light, fun and professional.
Interrupting and debating is the norm:
It’s not uncommon for conversations to turn into animated debates with people interrupting and interjecting while someone else is talking.
Whereas some cultures might see this as a form of “aggression,” in France, a good debate or a heated discussion is not a problem. Some French people like to tease each other or have repartee quick, witty comments or replies.
There is a certain art to this, and it takes practice if you’re not accustomed to this type of banter.
So don’t lecture when conversing or take it personally if things get heated.
Don’t change the subject abruptly.
In France, there is an expression called “Passer du coq à l’âne,” French for “Going from rooster to donkey.” As you might have guessed, there is nothing in common between a rooster and a donkey. When you suddenly change the subject to something completely unrelated mid-conversation, it could be interpreted as a sign of disinterest.
Use “VOUS,” not “TU.”
When addressing someone in French in a business environment in France, always address them with the formal “Vous,” not the informal “Tu” unless they specifically say you can “tutoyer” (to use “Tu”). Especially when talking to someone at a more senior level or in an interview.
Please don’t talk loud:
Some cultures speak at a much loud volume than what is considered polite in France, which can be offensive to everyone in a restaurant, meeting, or on the street with their loud voices and loud laughter.
For example, Americans have a reputation for speaking loudly. In fact, most anglophone countries tend to speak at a louder volume.
So please be sensitive to the volume of your voice.
How to behave in business situations in France
The last thing you want to do is unknowingly come off as rude or vulgar without even knowing it. It can happen, especially if you don’t understand the local customs.
Here are some basic French business etiquette rules on how to behave at work in France.
In a professional setting in France, punctuality is a mark of politeness. If you have a business appointment or interview at 1:00 p.m., you should be there on time, maybe even five minutes early.
However, in social situations, it’s the exact opposite.
Don’t ever show up to a social situation early. There is an unsaid rule in France called “the 15 minutes of politeness “Le quart d’heure de politesse“. Meaning it’s perfectly acceptable to arrive 15 minutes late and, in some cases, as much as 30 minutes late. This is considered polite because it gives your host the extra time they need to finish last-minute preparations before the guests arrive.
The exception is weddings, baptisms and events. You should show up on time, even a little early, so you can be seated when the event begins.
The personal space bubble is smaller in France.
There’s a paradox in French culture regarding personal space boundaries. On the one hand, the French are very private and draw a line in the sand between work and personal home life.
On the other hand, the personal space around a person is less important. In general, French people tend to stand much closer to one another when speaking to one another and standing in line.
The proximity may be a little unnerving for some people from other cultures.
Touching in the workplace
Don’t freak out if a coworker touches your arm or shoulder. It’s perfectly acceptable French business etiquette. It’s not a sexual advance.
Breaks: Smoking or Coffee Breaks
In France, workers must get a 20-minute break per day for every six hours worked. It’s the law. How they spend that time depends.
There was a time in France when employees could smoke in the office. That all changed in 2016 when a law was enacted that banned smoking at work and all enclosed places.
Employees who smoked started using their breaks to smoke outside, usually once in the morning and then another in the afternoon.
Voila, that was the beginning of “la pause cigarette,” the cigarette break. It’s really a thing.
Most of the time, employers tolerate these cigarette pauses provided they don’t disrupt the workday with additional breaks. Sometimes, companies have internal company rules that dictate the number of cigarette breaks a person can take.
People smoke openly in France, and you’ll often see employees huddled in front of their office building, taking a cigarette break in little groups, rain or shine.
The exception to the no-smoking at work rule is if someone works outdoors in an area not covered. It’s not banned by law.
And if you’re out to lunch with co-workers or for a business meeting in France, it’s not all that unusual to see someone light up at the end of a meal, but only on the terrace. Smoking inside restaurants is banned, too.
Employees who don’t smoke will typically take a break in the morning and the afternoon to enjoy a coffee break (pause café) together. Think of it as the water cooler area, where people congregate and socialize for a few minutes during their break.
It’s part of the work culture to socialize during these little pauses, and you should do the same if you can rather than return to your desk with your cup of coffee or tea. It’s a little anti-social.
Show your respect to the boss.
In some companies, as a sign of respect, men will get up or make the gesture of standing up when the boss enters the room.
Knock and wait before entering a room:
The French have great respect for privacy. Knock and wait before entering into a room. Additionally, do not “drop in” unannounced. Always give notice before your arrival.
Food And Drink
Don’t eat lunch at your desk.
Not many people know this, but eating at your workplace in an area designated for working is illegal in France. So no, you shouldn’t eat in front of your computer.
Employees must eat in a designated area if the company has one.
- For companies with fifty or more employees, an employer must set up a break room or eating area where employees can store, refrigerate, reheat and eat their food.
- For companies with less than fifty employees, employers are only required to provide a designated area to eat.
If the company doesn’t have a break room or dedicated room to eat, employers can legally prevent workers from eating on work premises. And you’ll have to leave.
Some French employers give employees “les ticket restos,” restaurant tickets. These are basically meal vouchers that employees can use to eat out at restaurants. They are accepted virtually everywhere in France.
For COVID safety measures and social distancing, a new decree relaxed regulations for eating meal breaks at the office. Since Sunday, the 14th of February, all employees are allowed to have their lunch on the same premises where they work. The law will stay in effect until six months following the end of the state of health emergency (1st of décember 2021).
Drinking on the job
In France, employers can legally allow employees to drink at their place of employment in certain circumstances.
Some common situations where employees can drink might be at an annual end-of-year office party, end-of-year or holiday party, at lunch with colleagues or during business meetings at a restaurant. When in doubt, watch what everyone else is doing in your group.
But be careful; you can’t chug down a couple of tequila or vodka shots or other hard liquor on the work premises. In fact, there is a French work law, article R.4228-20, that states employers can only allow their employees to drink the following alcoholic beverages.
- poiré (pear cider)
Even though it’s legal to drink at work, employers have the right to ban all alcohol.
The law comes with some other restrictions. Employers can and should ban alcohol if it poses a risk. This would apply to certain industries, such as drivers, medical personnel, operators of heavy machinery, etc. If employers don’t, they’ll be faced with a hefty fine of a few thousand Euros.
Toast and make eye contact
A little tip: When clinking glasses and saying cheers in France with someone over drinks, always make eye contact as you clink glasses. It’s brief, like when shaking hands.
Paid Vacations In France
Since the 1920s, employees in France are entitled, by law, to up to five weeks of paid vacation per year, yes, 35 days. The amount of paid vacation days a worker receives is based on how much they’ve worked. Typically, 2.5 working days of vacation are accrued for every 26 days of work.
So, an employee who worked 48 weeks out of the 52 in a year would be eligible to receive his or her full five weeks of paid vacation leave. (source)
Holidays In France
There are exactly 11 national holidays and a few regional celebrations and festivals.
Most French workers use their paid vacation in the summer months.
Workers with children will often plan their paid vacation leave around school holidays. There are four long school breaks where students get around two weeks off of school.
- Toussaint, All Saints vacation (15 days leading up to November 1)
- Spring vacation (usually around February)
- Winter vacation (usually around April)
- Christmas vacation (Starting the second half of December, ending on the first Monday in January)
Something to keep in mind is that sometimes businesses close or work on modified schedules. So, if you have to plan a meeting, your co-workers may be gone enjoying part of their five-week vacation somewhere.
Business Attire: How to dress for business situations in France
In general, business attire in France for both French men and women is relatively conservative.
Choosing the perfect business outfit for a business meeting or interview can vary from industry to industry or profession to profession. If you do not know the dress codes of the industry for which you’re applying, don’t go crazy and choose an outfit that makes you look like you walked out of a Vogue Catalogue photoshoot.
Here are a few tips to help you blend in and not call unnecessary attention to your attire.
When in doubt, stick with the classics:
- For men, a white shirt, jacket, dark chinos.
- For women, a blouse, jacket, slim black pants. A pantsuit or skirt suit.
Women: Keep it tasteful and elegant:
Women should avoid bright or gaudy colours and anything glitzy, such as flashy jewellery.
Good shoes are a must! Here are some examples.
- Pumps: Recommended in the banking, insurance, finance and legal sectors.
- Loafers: A discreet and comfortable alternative to pumps.
- Boots: These might go over well in the winter
- Sandals: During the hot summer, it may be acceptable to wear dressy sandals with well-groomed feet.
- Sneakers: For start-ups or in the creative sector, it might be okay.
Men should keep it solid and dark:
Men should invest in well-tailored clothing. Patterned fabrics and dark colours are most acceptable.
Keep your tie and jacket on:
It’s rare for French business people to loosen their ties or take off their jackets in the office.
Muslim Women’s business attire
Due to its large geographic area, regional differences and a large number of immigrants, France is a diverse country.
Despite France’s ethnic and cultural diversity, the French attitude towards “certain” foreign customs can vary widely. In particular, Muslim women and what they wear to work.
Without getting too much into it, It may surprise you (or not) to learn that there is quite a bit of prejudice against women who wear hijabs in the workplace. Not by everyone, but enough so that it’s noticeable.
In case you didn’t know, wearing a veil that covers your entire head in public is punishable by law.
Hijabs, however, are not banned in France except in public schools; all religious symbols, including the hijab, are banned.
Even so, many Muslim women who wear a hijab during job interviews in France have shared their experiences, stating that it’s harder for them to get a job than their non-Muslim counterparts due to the prejudices that many French employers have.
No one will ask you to remove your hijab, but I think it’s important to underline this issue, especially if you come from a more tolerant culture.
How to give a gift to business associates in France
Giving a gift to business associates is not common practice in France. If you would like to express appreciation to a French business contact, you may be better off hosting a special event or dinner than giving a business gift. If you can’t host a special event, then here are some basic tips to follow.
Give a good quality gift or none at all:
An excellent gift might include esoteric books or music since they demonstrate an interest in intellectual pursuits. (Gift giving at social events, especially to thank the host or hostess of a private dinner party, is expected.)
Don’t give gaudy company logo swag:
Don’t offer gifts with your company logo on them. No one wants a gift with a huge logo on it. It’s considered a little vulgar in France.
Don’t attach your business card to the gift:
French business etiquette dictates that you do not include your business card with a gift.
Please don’t send gifts to their house:
Never send a French colleague a gift to their home unless related to a social event. It’s kind of creepy.
Send them a New Year’s card:
Instead of a gift, consider sending a card during the New Year’s holiday thanking your business partners for the previous year’s business and wishing them a prosperous year to come.
Your card and sentiment will be much appreciated.
In France, the practice of sending a New Year’s card is quite common, and you can send one the entire month of January but not later.
Christmas cards are not really a thing in France.
If you’re planning to do business in France, learn some French!
You probably already know that French is the official language in France and that the French have a great appreciation for the art of conversation.
So if you don’t speak French or speak very little French, you should know that many (not all) French people in business speak some English.
Here are some general guidelines on how to communicate with French colleagues and business people.
- If you don’t speak French, It’s important that you “DO” apologize for your inability to speak French.
French Business hours
General business hours in France are most likely the same as where you are from.
Working hours generally run from Monday to Friday, between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m.
The length of time employees get for lunch depends on their location, organization and industry.
Most business lunch times start around 12:00 p.m. to 12:30 p.m. until 2:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Except for a power lunch or business lunch, most people don’t schedule appointments during “l’heure du midi,” which roughly translates to “the hour of lunch.
Many things are closed during lunch hour and on Mondays, such as the bank or post office in France. It just depends on where your office is located.
So, if you plan on running to the bank or post office, make sure you check their office hours first.
The French CV (aka résumé)
If you’re going to an interview, it’s important to remember that the French CV format may differ from where you are from. In fact, most countries have slightly different variations of what is considered best practices.
Although there is no single magic formula for the perfect CV, there are standard rules, guidelines, and best practices you can use that will satisfy the expectations of most employers and industries at French companies in France.
You just need to know when and how to use them to your advantage.
Here is a more detailed look at the components of a French CV.
Related to international business etiquette in France: 7 strange table manners in France and around the world.