Why, when an American calls a Frenchman by his first name, does the Frenchman get irritated? Why, when a Spanish woman proposes meeting for dinner at 11 pm to a Frenchman, he immediatly thinks there is more to it than "just business"? etc..So many cultural differences to unravel, to make life easier for us!Cultural habits are like foreign languages: they have a vocabulary, a grammar, an unspoken context, and exceptions, and above all, they can teach us. that is the goal of this "serious book that doesn't take itself seriuously". Through anecdotes and descriptions of ordinary situations in family or society, in the professional or administrative world, it illustrates and then decodes the cultural chasms that can lead to so many misunderstandings. The author, Michel Loubry, has worked in Holland, Germany, Italy and Spain. He has committed the blunders, known the disappointments, merely through unfamiliarity with certain traditions. To prevent his contemporaries from experiencing these upsets, Michel Loubry describes the keys for better understanding other cultures, and creating more harmony in cultural exchanges. With those keys, cosmopolitans of all countries will be able to open doors for themselves.The author, Michel Loubry, French, 52, enginer and business manager, returned to France after an international carreer to set up his own consulting business, Emelsy (www.emelsy.com). He primarily counsels business owners and directors wanting to open foreign affiliates or take steps toward international recruiting. "Le Manuel du cosmopolite": Ce cas a été écrit en collaboration avec Maureen Rabotin de Effective Global Leadership.
But They Didn’t Get Married and Live Happily Ever After
Once upon a time there was a French entrepreneur – we’ll call him Jean-Louis Dupont – who was the head (PDG) of a blooming little business. One fine day he got a phone call from one of his American acquaintances – we’ll call him Bob Smith – who held the same post (CEO), in a business of about the same size, with whom his company had worked for several years. Smith wanted to meet Dupont "to talk some business."
"Talk business ?" Yes, in the form of a total or partial buy-out, or maybe even a joint-venture. The appointment was set but at the end of the meeting, they didn’t get married and live happily ever after.
What happened ?
Dupont and Smith
The meeting had started with an exposition by Bob Smith ("Americans, shoot first…"). He had prepared a presentation of his company with numbers, tables, graphics to represent sales, market projections and marketing propositions. A very complete presentation, American style. After which, Bob Smith turned to his French equal, and as he started to rock back and forth on his chair, he said, "Okay, Jean, now why don’t you tell us a bit about your company ?"
A local on his home ground, he waded in without even a lifebuoy.
"My father founded the business after the war, starting with a single electronics store. At first he bought radio tubes from American surplus supplies, then in 1956, after having opened two stores in Paris, he…"
An oral presentation, without the support of visuals, recounting history back to the Flood, French style. The first false note was the waning attention of the group. No one was listening to Jean-Louis. The American felt obliged to interrupt.
"Okay, Jean, but where are you at today ?"
"You asked me to speak of my business, yes or no ?" Already irritated, he bristled at hearing his name pronounced cheekily as "John," and being interrupted mid-phrase, when he was just doing what they had asked him to do, that is, to talk about his business, made the pressure mount another notch.
To avoid a rupture in diplomatic relations a break was announced and everyone headed to the buffet the Americans had set up in an adjoining room. Rolls, cold meats, potato chips and sodas. The participants conversed enthusiastically, taking care not to tip over their paper plates or cans. Then they returned to the meeting room. The lunch had not helped relax Jean-Louis ; the meeting ended shortly.
Let us replay that scenario, with all the details of the decor and the sub-titles…
Americans are essentially oriented toward the future ; they accord it far more importance than they give to the present and especially to the past. For the French it is the opposite. The past counts enormously, the present counts but not to the same extent and the future counts for even less. This explains why the French culture is so rooted in the past. Plus, it is a culture rich with context, where the largest amount of information resides in what remains unsaid – in the person speaking more than in the things he says. Inversely, Americans have a communication with weak context, where you find all the information in the explicit part of the message. So it becomes easier to understand why when Bob spoke, he gave priority to the prospects of his company and to its projects of collaboration with Jean-Louis’s business. It was a classic American presentation, clear, formal and factual, prepared with PowerPoint. Plus, Bob is completely open and ready to share, being already very committed to his business relationship with Jean-Louis. Remember that characteristic of having an easily-accessed private sphere smaller than their large public sphere ? That is part of American culture.
At the end of his presentation, Bob very naturally questioned Jean-Louis, calling him by his first name (actually, half of his first name), about his company. "Okay, Jean, but where are you at today ?"
Who does he take me for ? The Frenchman asked himself. We didn’t grow up together ! And he can’t even remember my full first name ?
Contrary to Bob, Jean-Louis’s private sphere is large and his public accessibility by others is very limited. This "attack" by using his Christian name, this lack of formality for a first encounter seems a quasi-invasion of his private sphere.
Thus it is a Jean-Louis a bit on edge, a bit tense, who undertakes a presentation of his company. He is proud to describe the work of his family, the creation of an enterprise, and expects great respect from Bob, to whom he is doing the honour of portraying this remarkable exploit. But his listeners are totally insensitive to this honour and to the charm of the past. And Bob interrupts the exposé.
He interrupts me ? Jean-Louis thinks. He asked me to give a talk, I give a talk and he is bored ! He hasn’t got the guts to appreciate a real success story ! He must be jealous. You’d have to be a yokel of an American to want to do business the second you walk in the door !
For the French, the purpose of the first encounter is rarely to talk business. It is more a chance to get to know each other, to judge each other, and evaluate the strength and confidence that each can accord the other. No wonder that Jean-Louis and Bob’s performances differed so very much ; the objectives were contradictory. Jean-Louis was feeling out the territory, beating around the bush, but Bob, who went straight at the goal, got bored and showed it and in doing so, made Jean-Louis dig his heels in.
The lunch, meant to clear the atmosphere, had the opposite effect, aggravating the hurt to Jean-Louis’s self-esteem. Americans eat to survive, but the French live to eat. A meal, in France, is full of significance – once again, the culture of context. An American-style buffet is not a meal appropriate to Jean-Louis' status. He took its pragmatism for a lack of respect. The American had ordered a quick meal, in the hopes of not losing time, but he ended up losing the deal, for what Jean-Louis saw was, at best, a lack of consideration, at the worst, a deliberate affront.
A Critical Analysis
Let’s roll back the film again and set the clock at zero. What would be the most effective strategic approach ?
Well, Bob Smith, as a global leader having already integrated cultural differences in his management of international affairs, would know that the French are attached to human relationships, that they accord confidence only with difficulty and that they do not strike out into a joint-venture project before having extensively considered and weighed the pros and cons. He knows that the French are not in the habit of being direct in business dealings. They must first go through a period of preparation, necessary to get acquainted with the other party, to know who they are, what they do now and what their career paths have been.
He also knows that the French are attached to their social status and to their position as leader of a company, the famous PDG, or President-Director General. He will call Monsieur Dupont to say, "Hello, Monsieur Dupont, this is Bob Smith. We met a few years ago. My company has become your American agent and ever since, our two businesses have transacted some profitable business. I have the opportunity to travel to Paris three months from now, and if you agree, our secretaries could arrange a meeting. I would like to invite you to a good Parisian restaurant to celebrate the anniversary of our association."
During a business meal, one can, at need, talk about business, but certainly not before the cheese course or dessert. Above all, you must leave the initiative to the French ; they will orient the discussion towards business at the right moment with dexterity, charm and elegance.
Thus Bob will have prevailed and accomplished the better part of his task if at the end of the meal, Jean-Louis Dupont asks him how it would be possible to strengthen their association, already so rewarding.
Bob knows that with the French, long-term planning is a long shot. They are too fixated on everything that could turn out wrong, on everything that could prevent them from fulfilling their commitments. (A French saying : A promise only applies to the person who believes it.) Conditions and people can change ; who can predict the future ? The French have difficulty visualizing the following month’s agenda, so the following year’s agenda is effectively light-years off. This inconvenience is counter-balanced by the fact that they are prepared for frequent changes to the program.
So Bob Smith should propose a second meeting with his French equal, to discuss their common points and their differences and their respective companies' activities, at Jean-Louis' convenience of course, to allay his extreme sensitivity and reassure him that he will have time to make an unhurried decision. But when will it be ? When the French are ready !
The French place a lot of importance on knowing how to enjoy life, which in their eyes means with style and elegance, "life" being far more important than letting oneself get trapped by time restraints and the abstract idea of a calendar and rigid datelines. Timelines for the French take on a flexible quality that permits one to manage the uncertainties of life. But planning something three months ahead without, however, fixing an exact date, is raisonnable.
The French distrust rapidity (another French saying goes : You mustn’t confuse speed with hurrying), and prefer what makes them feel secure, as what is unknown is associated with danger. That explains the resistance to change among the French and their esteem for precaution : You know what you lose, but you don’t know what you may find.
You can bet that if electricity were discovered today, it would be prohibited in France in the name of this sacrosanct principle. The French confuse (potential) danger with risk (the probability that the danger is real).
They like what is predictable.
That is why Bob Smith would propose orienting the second meeting toward American development of Jean-Louis Dupont’s company activities.
The allure of taking part in a big mutual deal, with a few months to mull it over, will help him win Jean-Louis’s confidence and permit him to bring up, at the opportune moment, the idea of a joint-venture… where, of course, Jean-Louis Dupont will have an extremely important role to play.
It’s no use running, you have to leave on time is the moral of a fable by La Fontaine to which the French often refer.
Bob Smith learned, to his expense, that you must set aside enough time and be patient ; otherwise there is not much chance to conclude a deal in the land of the bons vivants and of "the good old days."