French culture

Living in Europe | Access to the culture of the host country/language courses | France

 

Think you know a thing or two about French culture? Test your knowledge with this fun and unique quiz!

 

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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

 

 

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.

 

 

To learn more about French culture and the intercultural topics

This non-exhaustive list of works is given for informational purposes only. The authors and works cited do not reflect the opinions of the association Euraxess France.

 

  • Asselin, G. and Mastron, R. Au Contraire! Figuring Out the French. Intercultural Press. 2nd edition, 2010 - A lively book to understand the French and their paradoxes
  • Baudry Pascal, French Americans: the other shore 2005 - How understanding another culture helps to understand one's own; all about French and American cultural differences.
  • Brame, G. "Chez vous en France" Living and working in France, Kogan Page, 2008 - Essential information about the culture and practical information to settle down in France
  • Cailliau H., L'esprit des religions : Connaître les religions pour mieux comprendre les hommes, Milan, 2012 - A very accessible book to understand how religion can have an impact on work situations. In French.
  • Clarke S. A year in the Merde, Black Swan, 2005 - Very funny tale of an Englishman adapting to France. Doesn't explain much about why the French do those strange things though...
  • Gopnik A., From Paris to the Moon: A family in France , Vintage, 2001 - One of the many books relating life in France, by an American reporter living with his family in Paris for 5 years.
  • Hall E.T. The Silent Language, Doubleday, 1959 - Essential reading to understand the non-verbal side of communication.
  • Hall E.T. The Hidden Dimension, Doubleday 1966
  • Hall E T, Beyond Culture, Doubleday,1976 - All about how culture influences behaviour. Presents the notion of high and low context cultures
  • Hall ET, Reed Hall M, Understanding cultural differences : Germans, French, Americans - A clear synthesis of Hall’s theory in the first part and reliable presentations of the 3 cultures. Designed for the working world.
  • Hampshire D. Living and Working in France: A Survival Handbook, Survival books, 2017 - An extremely detailed practical book to living in France written by a Briton; for those looking for exhaustive information about everyday life.
  • Hofstede G., Minkov, M. Cultures and Organizations: Software for the Mind, Intercultural Cooperation and Its Importance for Survival MacGraw Hill, 2010 - A classic reference.
  • d’Iribarne P., La logique de l’Honneur, Seuil 1989 - Fascinating model to understand French business culture. Based on a study carried out in France, the USA and the Netherlands. In French
  • Johnson Diane, Le Divorce, Plume Books, 2003 - A good story about how a young Californian student adjusts to French culture, and begins to understand it from the inside.
  • Nadeau J-B et Barlow J., Sixty million Frenchmen can't be wrong : why we love France but not the French, Sourcebooks, 2003 - Two Canadians come to live in France, study the French, and explain what makes the French tick! Very interesting, with reliable information.
  • Trompenaars F. Riding the waves of culture : Understanding cultural diversity in business Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2012 - Another model of cultural differences. Good reading, practical, with many examples

 

 

 

To discover more about French culture, the news channel France 24 offers a lively programme, full of good ideas and commentaries to better understand French culture.