French business etiquette

Mariana Holostenco  January 30, 2022

businessman standing in front of the Eiffel Towre

French business etiquette is characterized by an emphasis on protocol. Business relations are conducted according to specific standards that are also noticeable in the organizational structure of companies.

What is French business etiquette?

French business etiquette is a well-balanced mix of diplomacy and eloquence, complemented by elegance, courtesy, and charm.

To better understand French business etiquette, it is important to accept, from the very beginning, the premise that certain cultural traits influence business relationships.

For example, it is well-known that the notion of fairness stands out for American companies and dominates the way professional collaborations are carried out. At the same time, in a very similar way, the notion of honor prevails for French companies.

When business partners come from different cultures, everyone must accept that “A management tool that has been proven to work in one cultural context isn’t always successful in another.” (Philippe d’Iribarne)

The influence of cultural context on business relations

Depending on the cultural context we come from, we perceive things in a certain way and react as such. People in one culture consider certain things to be valuable; at the same time, the same things may seem less important to others. This also applies to the attention we pay to certain situations.

Because it represents the perspective from which we perceive the world around us and the factor that guides us in how we act, the cultural context also influences the entire field of business relations.

Let's consider, for example, the perception that people from different cultures have of a company. A study made by Fons Trompenaars on 30,000 participants shows that 40% of French managers see the company as a working system and not a social group. At the same time, almost 60% of American managers have the same perception.

American managers French managers
Conceive of a company as a system 56% 40%
Conceive of a company as a social group 44% 60%

General norms of conduct in French business etiquette

It is essential to consider cultural diversity when approaching business in another country. This can often mean the difference between success and failure. We will achieve success much more quickly when we know and understand the norms by which our external collaborators approach business relationships.

Cultural contexts create different perceptions. What seems normal and natural to you may upset your French partners.

American culture tends to focus on the future and what can be accomplished in it, starting from the present. Meanwhile, other cultures, such as French culture, focus on past experiences when planning their current or future actions.

Of course, this can lead to various inconsistencies in implementing development plans or strategies.

Americans tend to plan each move in the short term to achieve the desired result as soon as possible. For them, schedules must be strictly adhered to so that everything will be completed on time.

However, the French are more interested in analyzing and planning long-term actions, aiming to build a long-term business relationship.
The goals are what is most important, and the more paths you can devise to their realization, the better you fare against unforeseen events that block one path or another., Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner, Riding the Waves of Culture, pg. 135


Any situation in French business etiquette involves respecting social status and complying with the vertical hierarchy from the business environment.

Consequently, business discussions or communications will occur in a formal and conservative atmosphere under these auspices.
It is preferable to say things politely and diplomatically, but also directly. Likewise, disagreements or controversies that may arise will be dealt with through a discreet and controlled debate.

Remember that it may take longer for your French collaborators to get to the point. On the one hand, before entering into advanced business discussions, they will prefer to get to know you better and devote the necessary time to this.

On the other hand, they will ensure that you don’t take things too personally. A French manager will prefer to make suggestions and even present them positively. Why this approach? Precisely because they also take things "personally."

Written business correspondence will also be approached in a very polite and formal manner, using the appropriate professional language.

One way to do this is to start your letters or emails with the proper addressing formula, followed by the title of the person targeted, such as Monsieur le Directeur général.
Also, in the letter closing formula, you should use the second person plural "vous" as in the entire letter. You can consider an expression similar to:
Je vous prie d’agréer, Monsieur le Directeur général, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués (approximate translation: Please accept, Mr. Director General, the expression of my highest consideration).

In terms of written communication, differences in culture and values are also obvious. You will notice that your French partners will not try to present negative things positively in their letters, nor will they try to minimize their importance.

Protocol and good manners

One of the basics of business meetings is planning and confirming them in advance. This also applies to French business etiquette. In some situations, especially when business partners want to have more informal and relaxed discussions, business meetings can be scheduled or extended during lunch.

However, regardless of the situation, you must keep discussions between business partners out of the family sphere. It is not advisable to broach the subjects of family, children, or religion at office or restaurant meetings.

Differences in cultural background make people perceive public and private spaces differently. Americans have a much larger public space than the French, but it is divided into several sections; access to one does not guarantee access to all the others. Those in French culture, on the other hand, maintain a large and seemingly inaccessible personal space. A very good example is the situation described by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner in Riding the Waves of Culture:
If you are invited to dinner in a French home, that invitation extends to the rooms in which that hospitality occurs. If you start wandering around the house you may offend. If your hostess goes into her study to find a book you are discussing, and you follow her, that may be considered a trespass into her private domain.

Greetings and introductions

As formality is very appreciated in France, when we meet in the vineyard, especially for the first time, we will use "Monsieur" or "Madame." You will notice that in France, people usually address their superiors this way.

In the addressing formula, we use the person's last name. We will use the first name only if we are invited to do so.

Remember, the invitation to use someone's first name does not mean that we will automatically use the second person of singular (tu – you). To respect the formality of French business etiquette, we will continue using the second person of plural in addressing (vous – the formal you).

Invitations and receptions

Apart from offices where formal business meetings take place, it is common to go out to restaurants in France, especially for less formal meetings. Such situations are encountered especially in the early stages of collaborations.

In this regard, there are two things to keep in mind when considering French business etiquette:

  • Do not attend a business lunch with your spouse or life partner;
  • Whoever extended the invitation will pay the bill for everyone present.

Another important thing to remember is that during a business lunch you should not discuss serious issues until dessert has been served. It would be unpleasant to interrupt the enjoyment of a delicious meal with business matters.

Business meetings

In terms of meetings, French business etiquette emphasizes protocol, formalization, conventions, and politeness.
Accordingly, for everything to go perfectly, you must:

  • clearly set the objectives to be achieved in that meeting;
  • recognize the importance that your French partners attach to argumentation and be prepared with detailed data and arguments;
  • be flexible both in thinking and in approaching and resolving any differences that may arise;
  • never forget good manners.

In France, as elsewhere in the world, you must always be punctual in your professional life. French business etiquette does not allow otherwise.

However, if you are invited to someone's home, it is recommended that you arrive 15 minutes after the scheduled time.

Dress code

The first impression counts anywhere and anytime, not only in French business etiquette. Classic, discreet, and elegant outfits are recommended, suitable for the business environment.

French business card etiquette

Concerning French business card etiquette, the general rules of conduct in the field of international affairs apply. Out of respect for our French business partners, we provide them with business cards containing information in their native language. This will also be to our advantage, as we are directly interested in our collaborators knowing the contact details we have just provided.

A particularity of French business card etiquette is that, in France, it is customary for the last name to be written entirely in capital letters, precisely to emphasize it.

And, again with no particular connection to French business card etiquette, but only as a general rule in international affairs, it is recommended to exchange the cards at the beginning or end of the first meeting, without any special formality.

Decision-making process

In French business etiquette, decision-making does not happen in meetings or during negotiations. The hierarchical structure of companies requires that the items established in the discussion be presented to the company's managers.

Looking at things in terms of cultural context, the French emphasize the group they belong to more than the Americans do.
The same study mentioned earlier found that 59% of French people believe that a person can develop better as part of a group than as an individual. In comparison, 39% of Americans agree with this idea.

American people French people
Improving as part of a group 31% 59%
Opting for individual freedom 69% 41%

The same applies to people's opinions about working and receiving credit individually or as a team. Fifty-one percent of the French prefer the team over individuals, both for work and recognition. At the same time, 72% of Americans prefer working and receiving credit individually.

American people French people
Work as a team in an organization, do not get individual credit 28% 51%
Work individually in an organization, get individual credit 72% 49%

The influences of the cultural context are also felt in the decision-making process.

While the French experience individualism more negatively, …. The USA, with its vast acreage available to migrating individuals, is often seen as the world’s major exponent of individualism.

Fons Trompenaars & Charles Hampden-Turner, Riding the Waves of Culture, pg. 56

Things to keep in mind when dealing with French business etiquette


Trompenaars, Fons & Hampden-Turner, Charles. (1998) Riding the Waves of Culture

d’Iribarne, Philippe. (1989) engl. edition The Logic of Honour – National Traditions and Corporate Management

Mariana Holostenco

Contributor at PlanArty

Economist with a degree in Marketing and International Economic Affairs. Mariana is passionate about efficient time management in business. Therefore, she shares with our readers and our team members her knowledge and experience in this domain.