Intercultural management (#3)
 Working with the French....   Underlying explanations : the consultants' views

For an American, working with the French has some good sides and some bad sides, with many differences. Among them, many Americans cite :

  • The French do not organize meetings to reach a decision : they meet to exchange information, then the person in charge takes the decision... If you need to have a serious and/or difficult discusion with someone, you'll invite him/her for lunch and business lunches are still an important part of corporate communication ; of course, be ready to drink wine...

  • regarding meetings : French global companies are not very different from their American counterparts but some " traditions " may resist (particularly outside Paris). Among them :

    • Beginning a meeting 15 minutes later than scheduled so as to wait for those who are late and who expected it to be (it is called the "quart d'heure marseillais" or "parisien" or "wherever") : most participants are surprised when the meeting starts just on time.
    • Interrupting the speaker or speaking about a topic which is not on the agenda (when there is an agenda)
    • Forgetting to summarize the conclusion and/or to circulate a memo about the conclusion after the meeting...
    • French meetings are often more creative : take advantage of it!
    • more about French meetings!
  • The French are more flexible and creative and they do not feel bound to a previous decision ... Surprisingly enough for most Americans, the productivity of the French (when they work) is higher than the productivity of the Americans !

  • The French do not like clear procedures : they want to maintain some form of " grey zone " and do not believe that it is right to use always the same and only way to do the same things ; organizational charts and objectives are not clear... Michael Johnson writes "One quality the Mediterranean peoples have brought to the world is the ability to live comfortably with inconsistency. The Greeks have it, the Italians have it and certainly the French do. To northern Europeans, this ability sometimes looks more like confusion, self-doubt or possibly mental illness. But it is not"


Three well-known analyses of intercultural management by Edward Hall, Geert Hofstede and Philippe d'Iribarne illustrate the differences between American and French management styles :

  • According to Edward T.Hall, intercultural differences in communication are based on the context, on time and on space :
    • Understanding between people results from the combination of information and its context. Some cultures have a rich context (close links between people, high level of the unspoken/unsaid) : these cultures are highly " implicit " ; other cultures valuing communication only when it is very clear in itself are said to be " explicit ".
    •  For " monochronic " cultures, time is seen as a tangible resource coming from the past and going to the future : it has value and can be measured in itself ; for " polychronic " cultures, time is seen as an element of several tasks which can take place at the same time and which are linked more by relation than by time.
    • Interpersonal distance is limited by a sort of protective bubble around each person : entering it is an intrusion ; in some cultures, the bubble is very small, in others, very large.

USEFUL TIP.... There are always exceptions but many French people do not like to be blunt and say things outright in order to leave an escape route open to the other person. In this respect, they're almost Japanese. When in France, it's important to understand what ISN'T being said (le non-dit).... This is why, very often, the French are considered imprecise by Americans when they sincerely think that they have been very clear.

A view of labor relations in France: how do employees see their job?
Philippe d'Iribarne, a French sociologist who wrote several penetrating books about intercultural differences and the French specificity, has an interesting view (see reference) on how the French are different from other Western countries :

  • in the USA, and more generally in Anglo-Saxon countries, the employee sells his/her work to the employer in the framework of a contract, protected like any other commercial contract
  • in Germany, the employee and the employer belong to the same community and have to decide together how to solve their conflicts
  • in France, the employee considers he/she has been granted an office (in the medieval meaning : "une charge" i.e. an office granted by the King) to work for his employer under the protection of the State (i.e. the King). With this vision of the job, being laid off is an attack against his/her dignity and it is normal to call on the King for justice.

Although a little extreme, this vision may contribute to explain many labor disputes in France. Read more about the French and the State.



DID YOU KNOW THAT.... ? Don't take it for granted that everyone speaks English : it is not natural to speak another language and when you have to, you are making a big effort (don't you notice that when you try your French ?) : therefore, you must realize that whenever you work with people who speak English with you, they would rather be speaking their own language : they are speaking English for your convenience ! In addition to that, you must remember (an US companies do not always do....) that in France or in a French company, it is NORMAL to speak French ! It is also legal and there are laws to abide by (Loi Toubon).

  • The French do not believe a win-win situation can exist ("if you win, it means I lose") and negotiations are always difficult when people do not try to reach a consensus...

  • Only written commitments are serious : nothing oral is really binding and lying is no big deal ... (same thing in politics).

  • Within the company, the French are less constrained by social codes such as "you must play golf with your boss", or "each of us must give $5 for this charity" etc... and they do not like to mix corporate life and personal life ; being invited to one's boss' home is the worst possible thing that may happen ! (read a funny anecdote about it)

  • The French are much more sentimentally attached and faithful to their company : they like to put corporate relations on a personal basis...

  • Top-down management : for the French, the Boss is the Boss and management is very autoritarian ("lick up and kick down") ; to understand this, learn about the " Grandes Ecoles " and the importance of diplomas...

  • The French are highly polychronic : they love to do several things at the same time and they are good at that...

  • Within the company, the French keep the doors closed (open floor offices are not popular), are reluctant to work in a team and information is often distributed selectively...

  • They often consider reporting a sign of weakness and a risk : read about accountability

  • In a nutshell it is a different world: for an American and it is hard to conceive that a country operating in the above way can be the fourth or the fifth world economic power ! To understand better,

  • More to come
   As compared to the USA, France is a highly contextual, polychronic and small-bubble culture.

 Americans think that the French are...

 The French think that the Americans are...

low context :

like Germany

everything must be clear

everything is in the contract



not disciplined

high context

like Japan

a place must be left for adaptation and interpretation

eveything is in the relationship



not creative


"mono chronic"


time is money

exactitude is essential

not focused


"poly chronic"


schedule independent

you can be late if you get a better achievement

too much into details



personal distance

"big bubble"

avoid physical contact

touch you too much

"small bubble"

security is being part of a group

arrogant and dominating

(© Philippe Rochefort)

According to Geert Hofstede, there are five dimensions to assess cultural differences :

  • Individualism (as opposed to collectivism), meaning more responsibility and a low level of affectivity
  • A large hierarchical distance, meaning more centralization and less participation
  • High control on uncertainty meaning low acceptance of the unknown of the future, leading to strict rules and little delegation
  • Masculinity (as opposed to femininity) as the sign of a high level of competitiveness and a value given to performance
  • Long term (as opposed to short term), emphasizing the relationship more than immediate results

However, French international groups are still French ! Ezra Suleiman (Princeton) in a study published in 2017 and based on a survey of 2 485 non-French managers working for French international firms showed that :

  • even within the general framework of the management of international firms, there is "a French touch" which has been maintained and most non-French managers appreciate it positively
  • under construction ......

 Intercultural management differences

Giant mergers across borders create major intercultural shocks. According to two French academics (Philippe d'Iribarne and Emmanuel Todd in Les Enjeux-Les Echos, Jan. 2001), this is how you can analyze some examples of trans-cultural mergers :



As compared to the USA, France is a much more hierarchical culture with, again, a strong emphasis on the relationship, more "feminine", valuing long term.

  • Franco-Japanese (ex. Renault-Nissan) : the Japanese see the hierarchical side of French management but do not imagine how flexible the implementation of decisions can be. The French underestimate the sincerity of the consultation of the workers about management decisions. It can be difficult for the Japanese to accept authority from a smaller economic power but the French (like the British) can be much more successful in " colonial " situations (because of their flexibility) than the Germans (or the Japanese), much more rigid. The very successful French CEO, Carlos Ghosn, was an icon in Japan when he saved Nissan. Read our page ParisJapan and a column about how difficult it is for Japanese businessmen to adjust.

  • Franco-American (ex. Vivendi Universal) : the French are considered both arrogant and weak. Arrogant because, in a meeting, they love to ask destabilizing questions, show they know a lot and have understood better. Weak because in the French culture, if you give too specific and clear directions, it means that you do not acknowledge the professionalism of the staff. In a French company, after a meeting, an American can never tell if a decision has been reached or not : for the French, " deciding " is giving the broad lines without getting into implementation " details ". In addition to that, contrary to the British, Americans do not respect French culture. Read about US firms in France and Jean-Marie Messier.

    See a funny table about how US and French managers see each other.

  • Franco-British (ex. Orange) : for the French, the British culture is very mysterious. The British can take the most brutal decisions with extreme courtesy and are therefore considered very hypocritical. But both cultures admit differences, as long as the French forget their obsession about the universal man (man is the same everywhere) and the British overcome the strong francophobia of their working class.

  • Read my column "A quintessential Frenchman"
  • A French disaster : read about Executive Life
  • Visit a website guide for managers
  • More about working with the French

USEFUL TIPS.... about writing a memo or a report : the French hate the way Americans write their memos and reports ; they think they are much too long with too many details, they do not put things in perspective and do not contain general ideas ("pas assez synthétique") ; the table of contents does not illustrate a clear and meaningful plan : it is more like a list of themes, with no visible structure. The French often think it is a vicious strategy to hide important things among piles of uninteresting details. Conversely, Americans probably hate French memos (too many ideas, not enough facts), pompous and not precise. If you write for a French boss, make it much shorter, with a very clear structure and a few general concepts to start with....

 Click here for detailed figures

 American managers think that the French are...

 French managers think that the Americans are...



very high

like UK, Netherlands

responsibility of the manager

relying too much on the group (or the state)



like Germany, Italy

loyalty to the company


only bonus-oriented

do not listen to others

Power distance 


like UK, Germany

social mobility




like Belgium, Portugal


each one at his place



certainty avoidance


like UK, Sweden

it is good to take risks

the boss does not have to be an expert

not enough delegation


do not take risks


like Belgium, Spain

rules and structures must be respected

the boss must be an expert

too aggressive

take too many risks



like Germany, UK, Italy

individual performance



like Belgium, Spain

harmony of relations



 Long term orientation


profit oriented



market share oriented

not faithful to the company

(© Philippe Rochefort)

USEFUL TIP..... Responsible ? To better understand the French, always remember that in France, you rely on the King to protect you against any danger, including yourself, like parents do with children. A large part of the so-called bureaucracy is designed to force you to do things that are in your own interest. An example : in France, it is very complicated to create a company and to hire someone or hire yourself. Why ? Because you have to comply with many differents rules, including contributing to public health and retirement programs to ensure that, if you're sick you'll have the best medical care and when you retire, the maximum possible pension. It is unthinkable to say : "well, if people do not participate in these programs, they won't benefit from them : that's all ..." ; if someone took this risk and got caught, his compatriots would march in the streets " to defend his rights " : the collectivity (i.e. the State) should have forced him to be protected. This is why many things are forbidden (like opening a shop on Sunday or working after age 65) : to protect people would could be FORCED to do so by their employer.

 Read about Doing business in France  

Philippe d'Iribarne's analysis emphasizes the concept of "honour" which values unselfishness and grandeur. For instance, delegating responsibility and then controlling it is considered perfectly normal in the USA and absolutely insulting in Spain (and in France).This is another example of the logic of the contract as opposed to the logic of the relationship.


Useful links

  • Book international door-to-door shipping services with Eurosender and get an exclusive discount for all Shipping. Use now the 10% off with the code EUROFRANCE
  • Learn how to work with the French with Commisceo-Global

  • Communicaid is a global leader in the design and delivery of Intercultural Training Courses

  • More to come


Bibliography : for a look at cultural differences in corporate life with the French :

  • Luigi BARZINI, The Europeans, Penguin, 1983
  • Yves DEZALAY, Marchands de droit - la restructuration de l'ordre juridique international par les multinationales du droit, Fayard, 1992
  • Edward T.HALL, Guide du comportement dans les affaires internationales : Allemagne, Etats Unis, France, Paris, Le Seuil, 1990
  • Edward & Mildred HALL, Understanding Cultural Differences, Intercultural Press Inc., 1990, Yarmouth USA.
  • Richard HILL, Euromanagers and Martians, EP, 1994
  • Geert HOFSTEDE, Culture's Consequences : Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations, Sage, 2002
  • Philippe d'IRIBARNE, La logique de l'honneur, Paris, le Seuil, 1993
  • Philippe d'IRIBARNE, L'etrangete francaise, Seuil, 2006
  • Michael JOHNSON, French Resistance - Individuals vs the Company in French Corporate Life, Casell, 1996
  • Jacques LESOURNE, Le modèle Français : grandeur et décadence, Odile Jacob, 1998
  • Richard D.LEWIS, When cultures collide - leading across cultures, David Brealey, 2000
  • Salvador DE MADARIAGA, Englishmen, Frenchmen & Spaniards, Oxford University Press, 1929
  • Ezra SULEIMAN & al., La prouesse fran├žaise. Le management du CAC 40 vu d'ailleurs, Odile Jacob, Paris, 2017
  • More to come...
To related pages : more intercultural (#1), anti-Americanism (#2), the French vision (#4), intercultural misunderstandings (#5), the US press (#6) and favorite US artists (#8), America and the world (#10), French society, etc....


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For more on intercultural differences, order Harriet Welty Rochefort's books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

Philippe Rochefort speaks on inter-cultural differences in corporate life or gives person-to-person training sessions about how to adjust to French corporate life.

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To email me More on Harriet's books (excerpts, upcoming events, testimonials, etc..) and on speeches by Harriet and/or by Philippe Rochefort

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