It’s widely recognised that English is the language of business across the world. Here in rural France, I help people promote their small businesses, and although most of my encounters have been with English business women, I’m lucky enough to have joined a great group, Les Dames de FER, which I spoke about in my last blog, which help and support English and French women in business. Through this group I’ve gained so much knowledge about business life in France and find their training sessions and support invaluable. But what support is there available for French people who need to join a business meeting in the UK and what are the differences between English and French business meetings?
Back in the UK, business meetings are mainly fairly formal and the British are known for their ‘stiff upper lip’ and the ‘grin and bear it’ attitude. Diplomacy is just something the British naturally do. For example, if I was in a business meeting in the UK, and didn’t agree with what someone was saying, I wouldn’t have dreamed of directly disagreeing with them. I would have said something like ‘Yes, that’s really good and it could work – alternatively we could look at it this way’. But, whether in a business meeting in France or just in general conversation, the French are much more direct and will say exactly what they mean – if they say no, they mean no! There’s no misunderstanding.
When I first came here, I wasn’t used to the direct approach and thought the people were a bit abrupt, but I’ve come to realise that I was wrong – this is the French way and no offence is meant – it’s just that they state facts. But the British worry about causing offence or hurting someone’s feelings by disagreeing, so will say things such as ‘I see your point, but….’ which as a British person, I know this means they don’t necessarily agree with me. However, to a non-native English speaker, ‘I see your point….’ means it’s agreeable. The business English language barrier can cause confusion for non-native English speakers. And it’s not just in business that there are cultural differences.
Since moving to France I’ve noticed many cultural differences; in some ways it’s like stepping back a few decades. Most shops close on a Sunday and often Mondays too. Banks don’t open on a Monday either. And of course, there is the French lunch hour (or two!)
In the UK, lunch is a very informal affair, especially if like me, you work in an office. It’s accepted that meetings can be conducted over lunch – people will grab a sandwich and take it to a meeting. I nearly always ate my lunch at my desk, whilst carrying on working. However, in France, this is unheard of… here, lunch is an occasion. Except for the big towns and cities, most shops close between 12 – 12.30 and don’t open again until 2 – 2.30pm. In my village, the church bells go mad announcing that it’s lunchtime. The French take their time over lunch, eating a three course meal with wine. And in rural areas, the timing of lunch is very flexible! If you’re trying to get a renovation project completed by tradesmen, you have to be prepared for the great French lunch – they down tools and disappear for a few hours. However, that’s not to say they’re lazy – they start work earlier, usually at around 7am and often work until it gets dark.
Time is something that is very loosely followed in France too – if a meeting is to start at 10am, it rarely starts on time – people will mill around chatting with a coffee. Everything is very laid back and informal. However, once a meeting starts, things are done in a methodical and direct way with conclusions and any action to take all very clear and concise….…and of course, if a meeting is conducted in the morning, it finishes dead on 12…..time for lunch!
Just as I continue to learn about cross-cultural communication in France, with the help of Les Dames de FER, it’s important for non-native English speakers who conduct their business globally, to not only learn the English language in order to compete in the English business market place, they also need to learn the complexities of cross cultural communications – including all the foibles of business English and diplomacy.
There are several companies that help non-native English speakers compete in the business marketplace. Executive Language Tutors is one such company. Based in London, their courses give men and women in business the confidence to perform and communicate in the professional workplace. Their courses range from elocution and accent reduction, to learn business English and cross-cultural communication.