You’re soon to be working in France, one of the countries that you dreamed of for holidays but less for work.
Once the honeymoon phase is behind you, you’re now settling into work. You go to your first lab meeting. The e-mail invite said 10:00 so you arrive at 10:00 - in an empty room. Your manager walks in 10 minutes later, apologizes briefly and suggests you both grab a coffee… since no one has arrived yet. 15 minutes later, colleagues roll in, discussions strike up: the meeting has apparently started. You try to put in your contribution, but someone cuts in. You feel bewildered by fast-paced, resounding conversation (Are they arguing about something?) and you finally give up, thinking that maybe they don’t want you here.
Culture is not just something peripheral, about art museums or rules of etiquette. It touches on our identity make-up. All those little things we don’t realize we know about the way we relate to others and what makes us feel we belong. Working in another cultural environment, where normal is different, can make you feel uncomfortable, even angry, all the more when you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong.
Understanding what might be normal in France compared to what might be normal in your culture can help you navigate your new environment. It can sharpen your eye to notice behaviours that might be due to cultural differences and not just the personality or work style of your colleague. Once you identify the cultural gap, it is easier to find solutions to be comfortable in your work environment.
Here are three areas to look out for when working with the French
In France, meetings can start on time, but not necessarily. It is not terribly impolite to be a few minutes late for a meeting with colleagues or friends (but be careful to be on time for administrative appointments.) The French have a polychronic relationship to time: time is flexible. Scheduling a meeting time is giving a guideline, not to be taken literally. Interruptions, changes in plan are OK. Relationships are important. This is different from monochronic cultures where time is a measurable line. Tasks are taken sequentially. They’re all about getting things done in a particular timeframe.
What can you do? Share your perception of time. Make sure everyone agrees on why the deadline is important (is it only important for you?), why being on time at the lab meeting is useful for the team. Think of including moments and ways to socialise in your meeting. In fact, agreeing on team meeting rules can make life easier.
To know more about polychrony-monochrony have a look at this video.
In certain cultures people are explicit, or low-context, in their communication style: all the information can be put into words, even in writing. Information is reliable, complete, exhaustive. In other cultures people are more implicit, or high-context: words are to be interpreted, not taken literally. To understand what is being said, you need to take into account the context: who’s talking to who (Am I talking to the boss or a peer?), is this being said in a formal meeting or at the coffee-machine, body language and other shared references. Compared with other western countries, the French can appear very implicit. (although Asians might find them more explicit). This means that you might need to ask more questions to get the information you need. Try not to feel hurt by the abruptness with which the French might answer. In the French implicit style, they tend to take for granted that you understand. This shouldn’t stop you from asking for more explanations. A question is easier to deal with than a mistake.
To learn more about high context-low context.
What can you do about this? Think of working on your network: if people know you, they will volunteer more information to you. Implicit cultures are less at ease with e-mail communication. If you want an answer quickly or the question is important, give the person a call. Send an email to confirm the content of your conversation afterwards, or if written proof is necessary. If you send an email, your counterpart might think “If this is really important, s/he will give me a call. I don’t have to answer now.” Debating is part of their communication style, even if might appear vociferous. They expect you to insist, or make another offer, or contradict. Don’t hesitate to do so!
Although most organisations are less hierarchical than they used to be, the French still tend to have a certain deference to people in power. Equality has been an obsession in French society since the French Revolution. However, Napoleon, a “son of the revolution”, is at the origin of an elite system, the “Grandes écoles”. These schools tie in well with egalitarianism: on paper, anyone can get in, whatever their family background or financial situation, thanks to a system of contests (concours). It is considered normal for a manager to come from a “grande école”. To know more about the “grandes écoles”.
The French public school system, “gratuite, laïque et obligatoire” (free of charge, secular and compulsory), is one of the cornerstones of French egalitarianism and dates back to the 1880s. Teaching methods are changing fast, but certain old-fashioned practices still linger. Many of your colleagues were used to a judgmental evaluation style from their teacher: perfection is sought after and learning by “trial and error” is not always considered as a powerful pedagogical method. This might explain the reluctancy of certain managers concerning feedback. Either they avoid giving feedback altogether (so as not humiliate others as they were themselves humiliated in school) or they give global unspecific feedback (positive but uninformative, or blunt and even hurtful), such as they got.
What can I do to get feedback on my mistakes? Giving and receiving constructive feedback, which is so important in work situations, is a sensitive intercultural area because it involves the question of face. In France, you might need to chase down your manager to get precise feedback to know if you’re doing well in your new environment. So, ask for a meeting, explain what your need is and ask closed questions to get information that you can use.
Going beyond cultural differences
Obviously, people are diverse and singular. It’s scary to box them into their culture. Talking about cultural differences is about talking about a trend, a behaviour that is statistically common, no more. Your workplace survival kit is to work from your feelings of discomfort: identify what your own preferences are (cultural or not), voice your feeling, unravel the misunderstanding and negotiate a modus operandi that works for everyone involved. High-performing international teams are all about creating their own culture.