Business in France – Culture, Food, and Formality

Business in France – Culture, Food, and Formality

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Memories of France for most of us are irretrievably linked to the high quality meals and the fine produce we see in shops and markets. As can be expected, food plays an important role in all aspects of French life, including business. The French talk about food, new restaurants and reviews just as Americans discuss the latest ball game or the league position of their favorite team. The latest editions of the Michelin or the Gault et Millau food guides provoke as much press coverage in France as the Superbowl does in the USA. Capable of long discussion on the merits or demerits of produce or dishes from a particular region, French conversations often sound convoluted to foreigners. How something is said often is as important as the content. This is alien to many foreigners for whom conversation is a staccato means of expressing a point of view.


The French generally do not travel outside the French-speaking zones and as a result are not very experienced in foreign cultures. This poses a problem in dealing with foreigners, in particular the average American, who is very informal and, by French standards, very direct. A French person would never greet you with “What’s up?” or “What’s new?” (although Quoi de neuf? is becoming more common with students); instead they politely inquire as to the state of your well-being — and they have a genuine interest. Perhaps because they also are passionate about the nation’s health, it is perfectly acceptable to say that you are suffering from an ailment. Nothing general like the ‘flu, of course, but something more specific. The French never are unwell, they suffer from “crises” and these frequently are usually centered on the digestive process. A “crise de foie,” (crisis of the liver) the most common, is enough to send in a doctor’s cert. and be absent from work. Cures at a spa or health resort are covered by the French HMOs. Table water is never ordered casually, it always is selected for the curative powers attributed to it. This care of the digestion explains French abhorrence at eating in the street and the horror they have of the American habits of “grazing” and TV dinners. French expatriates living in the US are highly amused by the car salesmen who explain at length the merits of a model with two cup-holders for beverages — a “feature” unknown in Europe, thankfully, given the higher traffic speeds.


All French employers with more than 50 employees must by law provide a canteen and those with less must give luncheon vouchers to staff. Schools also provide lunch to the pupils. Because the quality of the food served at work/school generally is quite good, most families have their main daily meal outside the home. However, weekend meals are still sacrosanct and the extended family often will gather for a Sunday lunch – and it will last all afternoon. Increasing affluence and US influence have led to a rapid growth of fast food chains and the high number of working mothers has increased the number of frozen food centers. Fearing the loss of recipes handed down from generation to generation, the Culture Ministry (yes, France has one) some years ago embarked on an ambitious program to collect regional recipes and a senior civil servant, a graduate from the elite Ecole Normale d’Administration, was appointed to oversee the project. These cookery books cover each of the Departements (regional counties) and are a mine of culinary information.


French formality should not be mistaken for rudeness, it is the opposite, the reserved demeanor is a sign of considerable respect for others and this is expected to be returned. The French take a pride in what they do – a waiter is proud to be a waiter because he knows he is a good waiter and understands how to serve properly. Serve from the left, pour from the right. Never stack the dishes, place them along the arms. He is proud of his training and the fact that he has graduated from the trainee’s blue apron to the white of the serveur. Unlike his American counterpart, a French waiter would never dream of removing your plate should you finish ahead of your dining companion, the table is cleared of all dishes at the same time. In the US service is tip-driven, whereas in France the service charge is included in the price of the meal and good service is expected by the diners.


French formality is particularly obvious in business life, where one is on first-name terms only with one’s close peers. Even then, it is quite common to use the forename with vous rather than the more intimate tu. Although a manager might call a secretary by her forename, it would be unheard of for her to reply similarly and frequently she would not be capable of doing so, even if asked. For businesspeople, eating in a social surrounding is an important and frequently used means of relaxing these barriers and while vous and monsieur/madame are still used, the atmosphere is noticeably less formal.


Business meals in the USA invariably are hurried events, the purpose frequently being to finalize a deal. Quality is usually equated with snobbery, location, and price. For this reason many of the “top” restaurants in NYC are either a gastronomic disaster or extremely bad value. Not so in France, where food is taken seriously. A typical French executive uses a business lunch in a manner totally different to an American counterpart. Typically, meals are used as a means of “breaking the ice” (briser la glace) with a business contact to preparer le terrain for further contact. The choice of restaurant, number of courses and wines ordered are signals of the importance given to the event and one’s own position in the company’s hierarchy i.e. how much one is allowed spend on expenses. A meeting at a little-known restaurant serving good food is an indication that you care enough about your guest to invite him/her to share a “new” place. Familiarity with food dishes, wine and good restaurants is also read as an indicator of education and habit, hence prowess and seniority in the company.


Table manners are equally important – not just using the correct knife and fork, but also the way the food is treated. The American custom of sprinkling Parmesan cheese upon any pasta dish, often before it is tasted, is considered barbarous. Similarly, the French (and most Europeans) find the American custom of a waiter arriving with a king-size pepper mill asking “Pepper?” as very strange, particularly when one has yet to taste the dish. In the better French restaurants salt and pepper do not even appear on the table, it is considered an insult to the chef and a sign that he has not done his job properly. The American habit of filling a glass to the top and drinking it dry is considered bad manners in France – it is insulting to fill a glass because it might be construed that the recipient is a drunk; draining it is a sign that you are one. Reasons: cooled wine will heat up and champagne will go flat should they remain too long in a glass. Correct observance of these customs is an important “power” signal and, like body language, often interpreted subliminally to learn about the prospective business partner. Foreigners, of course, escape.


In French traditional business sectors — such as insurance and banking — work often revolves around lunches, and this can be compared to the “game of golf” in the States. This often causes difficulties due to the number of lunches one must attend. As a result, it is common to have a meeting delayed for weeks until both parties have a date free to lunch together, and the business must wait. The first lunch is just that — no serious business is talked and it would be rude as host to do otherwise, though generalities may be discussed. At the end the diaries are produced and a business meeting arranged. If the relationship already has been established one can introduce business entre le fromage et la poire (between the cheese and the pear) i.e. at dessert, without giving offence, though the guest may introduce it earlier. When the relationship is of long-standing the meal is a “thank you” or means of strengthening business links and it is permissible to talk shop.


A major client/potential client would merit a dinner and whether one is invited or invites somebody to lunch or dinner is often a serious consideration as it is indicative of the relationship and the value placed on it. Returning to the office at 3:00 and because it would be unheard of to forgo wines, the effect on the figure and on the afternoon’s work is obvious! For that reason the finishing time of the average French manager is 7 P.M. at the earliest whether one goes to a lunch or not. An interesting follow-on is that the main evening news program on TV starts at 8:00, much later than in other countries.


Just as the English language has slang expressions particular to business, (often clichés such as “window of opportunity”, “run it up the flagpole,” etc.), French has culinary expressions and aphorisms which are very confusing, and often amusing, to the learner. Some of these are listed below and they give an idea of the important role played by food in doing business in France.


Les grosses légumes / The big vegetables =senior management
Le gratin / The topping =senior management
Un citron pressé / A squeezed lemon =burnt-out manager
Des choux gras / fat cabbages =big profits