Communication is one of the hardest skills to sharpen, yet it is a critical skill required for success, especially in Business. Understanding your business partners’ culture helps you impress, and succeed in building mutual understandings, respect and trust better, hence improving your chance of doing business. In this article, we will share some of the cultural business etiquette and tips for Vietnamese companies to work with counterparts in the country of France.
1. Making Appointment
Because you are traveling from Vietnam to a foreign country as France, it is essential that you recognize the value of planning for a meeting, according to the principles of proper etiquette. It is advisable to plan for your meeting 1-2 weeks in advance and if it is your first visit to the counterpart’s office, try to call in to confirm for the meeting 1-2 days prior the meeting day.
Appointments may be made in writing or by telephone and, depending upon the position of the person you are meeting, are often handled by a secretary. While you should strive to be punctual, you won’t be considered late if you arrive ten minutes after the scheduled time. Be careful and don’t take unnecessary risks! If you expect to be delayed further, telephone immediately and offer an explanation.
It is important to note that in France, meetings are held to discuss issues, not to make decisions. The French view formal surroundings as appropriate for meetings and don’t hold meetings in bars or cafes. Lunch/Dinner meetings however are growing in France, particularly during the initial phase of the business relationship.
When the meeting includes female business personnel, they will be treated with special respect by men, both in business and social situations, and this is meant to be perceived as an honor.
In case you arrange to meet at the partner’s office, once you arrive at their office, it is important to hand in your business card to the secretary and the card should be printed in both English and French. Attention to such detail is generally much appreciated in France and having a dual language business card is a great opportunity for you to show your attention to detail too.
When exchanging business cards with your French counterparts, you should take a few seconds to examine their cards carefully, before putting it away.
2. Prepare for the meeting
Besides the fact that you should pay attention to your outfit before the meeting, it is recommendable that you send your partner an agenda to reaffirm the purpose of the meeting and to deal with any questions before the main meeting commences.
The French have a habit of asking direct questions, so don’t be offended and prepare your proposal in detail. Because they prefer to concentrate on the long-term objectives, so make sure you consider this fact and prepare your proposal well enough.
The French will judge you on your ability to demonstrate your intellectual faculties and this would usually mean discussing polar views and placing you in the middle of a rigorous debate. If you are able to reason and make yourself clear you will earn respect from your business partners. If you have differences don’t let it worry you, since as long as you can justify your views this will help your counterparts to see that you are well briefed and prepared as well as serious about your intentions. Although the French are happy to be convinced of new ideas as a consequence of debate, they are not likely to accept anything that deviates from their cultural norms.
As mentioned in other sections of this guide, it is strongly recommended that you learn basic French phrases and use them whenever possible in your meetings. Your French language efforts will be much appreciated and remembered however, if you can’t speak French it is advisable to confirm if your counterparts are fluent in your language or in English to facilitate your communications and if necessary consider using an interpreter.
3. Making contact
The French in general are typically conservative when it comes to body language. However, despite the formality of French business culture, people tend to have smaller personal space and are happy to stand within arm’s length when speaking to one another. The personal space also varies between those living in the country (preferring more distance) to those in larger cities (happy with smaller distances) who tend to use the Metro and crowded places more often. Moreover, do not be alarmed if your counterpart touches your shoulder or pats you on the arm, since this is commonplace and usually within the bounds of French business etiquette.
In France men tend to stand up, or at least indicate a move to do so, whenever a superior in terms of rank makes an entrance. This is a sign of respect and an opportunity to show your good posture, which is used as a sign of good upbringing and education.
Handshakes are expected as a form of greeting, however a more friendly greeting practice is kissing on the cheeks. When “air kissing” your cheeks can touch but not your lips – one kiss on each cheek – (across genders) starting with a kiss to your left first and then one to your right. The practice of kissing is also used as a greeting by colleagues at work on a daily basis. The kissing practice is not extended to unfamiliar people and if you are meeting for the first time, you should wait until your female counterparts have initiated the move – this is just a warm greeting and should not be interpreted as anything more than that.
Eye contact is important to show your trustworthiness and interest in the meeting, however, constant eye contact such as staring is considered inappropriate, especially during a first business meeting. Smiling has no impact in communicating a greeting or as a sign of agreement. Expressive use of hands to communicate should be kept to a minimum in most conversations.
As business people tend to be formal and conservative, business relationships are orderly and professional. Keep the hierarchy in mind and this will help you maintain proper distance and contact.
4. Negotiation Process
This importance of tradition is evident in French business protocol, which adheres to persistent formality in the negotiation stages. You cannot change the serious approach that your French counterparts will take and you are advised not to attempt to. In your negotiations, you have to focus on the subject matter of the deal you are discussing and at no point should you bring in other matters such as family as this will, if anything, reduce your chances of getting what you want and also possibly offend your negotiation partners.
During business negotiations, be prepared to answer direct and detailed questions. Your persistence and tenacity are likely to be rewarded since the longer the negotiations continue the higher are your chances of success since agreements usually take a long time to reach. Because your negotiation partners will want to be comfortable that all risks have been identified and managed or mitigated, it might appear to you that they are making things more complicated than necessary.
A common sign that you have reached a point where your counterparts will not change their position is when they begin repeating their viewpoints. The main way to persuade your counterparts to change that viewpoint is through the use of logical reasoning. Any hard sell techniques or hard bargaining are likely to cause offense and reduce your chances of getting a deal altogether.
Because of the hierarchical structure of organizations in France, once a decision has been reached between those in the negotiation process, there is a high likelihood that your partners will have to go through a similar internal process, and therefore even if you have signed a contract, there is a chance that they will come back to renegotiate it as a result of internal negotiations. This is another reason why you should always try and seek out the top decision-maker in the organization to speed up your negotiations and reduce discussions with intermediaries. However, if you are facing intermediaries treat them with the same respect, even though you might be aware that they are not able to finalize the decision on their own. They can help you to reach a positive outcome, but if you offend them this will also be reported and your chances of successful negotiations will be reduced.
When negotiating, be upfront about your deadlines and make sure that your counterparts are reminded of them if they are critical for you, otherwise these will generally be regarded as flexible dates.
5. Business meeting tips
When meeting and discussing business with your French counterparts try to lower your voice and generally behave in a more formal way. Traditions, formality and attention to detail are highly valued and if in doubt take clues from your counterparts on how to behave.
Business meetings and interactions should stay focused on business and any discussions which are off topic that could infringe on personal privacy can be offensive. Common topics which you should therefore avoid unless invited to discuss these by your counterparts are: salary, age, their children and family. On the other hand, topics that show your appreciation of French culture are welcome including: language, food, wine, politics and French history.
Compliments are welcomed, however, unlike in other European countries such as the UK where they are acknowledged with a “thank you”, the French tend to deny them to show their humility.
Humor can easily be misinterpreted depending on the situation and the French tend to be amused by intellectual jokes, irony and situations from real life.