Language and Business with French clients

So you have an important meeting in France… What about the language? English or French? both?

In today’s article, “Language and business when working with French clients”, I will reveal two observations I often come across when I am involved in French/English meetings

Did you learn French at School? If so, use it with caution

In a business context, speaking French to impress your French client may seem like a good idea. In my experience, this is not entirely true.

In fact, it could be a serious plus to get what you expect from the meeting, but it could also be a slippery path.

Hear me out here: one of the keys to the success of most meetings and negotiations is to remain confident and more importantly, to convey this confidence to the person or the group of people with whom you are dealing.

It is true that French are generally very proud of their language and would really appreciate if someone making the effort to speak French, regardless of how well they speak it.

That said, it’s doesn’t make it a good enough reason to practice your French in a professional context:  

Growing up in a bilingual environment, I have met many people trying to speak French to me.

Although I always appreciate the effort, the first word that comes to mind is “nice”; It’s nice; experienced negotiators would argue that being seen as “nice” in negotiations or meetings could work against your interests.

The French language also has subtleties that can be difficult for non-native speakers to understand. In the business world, they are quite important and can lead to disaster if not properly used.

As an example, the use of the “tu” or “vous” can lead to confusion and frustration if used inappropriately.

Calling a high executive “tu” would most likely offend, even if it is clearly understood that French isn’t your first language.

To summarise, understanding French is a good advantage if you are dealing with a French company. However, if you don’t speak it at native level, I’d recommend only using your skills to understand what is being said in the background and try to capture any concerns or key information but stick to English when it is your turn to speak.

Knowing how to speak English is seen as important in France

In France, English is mainly taught at school and unlike other countries, the language is not used for anything other than work. As a result, their English is generally understandable but just not practiced enough.

If you are developing a business relationship with a French company, know that French can feel ashamed of their English, even if it is perfectly practical. I suspect this comes mainly the education system which puts a lot of pressure on students until they enter the business world. Complimenting them on their English would most likely make you earn a few points in their esteem. Based on my past experience with friends and colleagues, I’d recommend avoiding comments such as “don’t worry, your English is better than my French” that would generally provide the opposite effect.

If you need advice or support, please do not hesitate to contact us.

You can also find another interesting article from businessculture.org/ here

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