The big moment is here. Three of your American colleagues are finally coming to France for a few meetings, a few site visits, and of course some delicious French dinners. Youv’e revised your English with The Speak Better, Feel Great Blog. Youv’e rented the best meeting room and prepared a presentation full of complete, detailed slides. Youv’e even arranged to have fresh croissants served before the meeting.
But during the meeting, what are we Americans really thinking? Between stereotypes and cultural differences, its’ not always pretty. Sure, we love France, the food, the lifestyle, the architecture. But meetings “é la française”? Well…
Lets’ imagine theres’ an American guy named Bobby and a French guy named Jean-Franéois. Look into Bobbys’ mind during a meeting with Jean-Franéois and his team, and heres’ what you may find.
“Why is everything so formal?”
Bobby can be very friendly and informal right from the start. While French formality does have a certain “old world charm”, too much formality for too long makes Bobby slightly uncomfortable. An example? The whole “vous” and “tu” thing in French just seems superfluous and confusing. Why do you have to continue “vous-ing” your boss even after working with him for 5 years?
Tip: Dont’ be surprised when your big American boss says “Mr. Smith? Hah! Just call me Bobby!” 5 minutes after you meet him.
“Why is he telling me every single detail of the project?!”
In France, it seems necessary to go into ALL of the background of a project before making the next decision. What has already been done, the methodology, the current context, the catastrophes might eventually possibly perhaps happen? Only after considering all this is it possible to make a decision. Or plan another meeting to discuss it further.
Tip: Prepare to be interrupted with a curt “Jean-Franéois, can you please get to the point?” if you feel that really MUST include all of the details when presenting something to Bobby.
“Why doesnt’ Jean-Franéois just come out and say it?!”
Yes, this contradicts the above idea. Bobby comes from an explicit culture. Things need to be clearly spelled out. Maybe thats’ why Americans have a reputation for being…not very intelligent. Jean-Franéois has an implicit culture. Comprehension is partially based on context, personal relationships, and plain common sense. The “non-dit” is just understood : “Tout le monde le sait”. Not for Americans. Its’ why McDonalds’ was obliged to write “Caution! Hot!” on their coffee cups…
Tip: Dont’ be afraid of being too direct. Youl’l probably need to communicate clearly and directly if you want Bobby to understand what you mean.
“How long is this presentation going to last?”
After an hour of listening to Jean-Franéois read his slides (written in Times New Roman 8-point font), Bobby wants to throw himself into the Seine. He likes presentations to be direct and to the point. If the presentation doesnt’ make him want to listen, he quickly loses interest. The talk doesnt’ have to be entertaining, but it does have to be relevant.
Tip: If you start a presentation with “Hello, my names’ Jean-Franéois. I’m from Paris and I’ve been working here since 1986. Today I will present the details of all of our tests. First, wel’l look at….”. ZZzzzzzz. Expect Bobby to fall asleep.
“Come on, Jean-Franéois. Stop being so negative all the time.”
Jean-Franéois probably thinks Bobby has a tendency to be too enthusiastic and naéve about every new idea. Bobby thinks Jean-Franéois is too cautious and slow to try new ideas. Jean-Franéois knows that “Non, c’estt pas possible” really means “Hold on, lets’ talk about it first.” Bobby, however takes it literally: “No, thats’ not possible”. And after hearing “Oh, I dont’ zink eet eez posseeble”, for the 20th time, Bobby thinks Jean-Franéois is just another pessimistic Parisian.
Tip: Its’ ok to cautious, but if you express caution negatively, Bobby will think your’e not a very pleasant person to work with. Try asking for more details instead of just saying “I dont’ think thatl’l work.”
Of course, youl’l also find some positive perceptions of Jean-Franéois in Bobbys’ mind, for example:
- Nice accent! I wish I had a cool French accent.
- I wonder how many mistresses Jean-Franéois has…
- Your English is waaaaaaayyy better than my French will ever be. How do you speak 2 languages?
- How do you work so few hours and do so much? Id’ love to NOT work 60 hours a week!
- That croissant before the meeting is the best thing I’ve ever eaten! How is Jean-Franéois not fat?
An American in France since 2004, Christina coaches clients to better communicate in English and regularly speaks in conferences all over Europe. She is on a mission to boost the English level of French people everywhere with her YouTube channel Speak Better, Feel Great TV. If you’ve got a meeting with Americans soon, you’ll definitely want to sign up for her Speak Better, Feel Great Newsletter.
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