11 cultural differences between France and the US

You could argue that two nations couldn’t be further apart in culture – the fast food, fast paced United States versus the formal, old-school French. It’s true that there are many potential clashes but on the other hand, there are many successful business relationships between America and France, too. Here are a few cultural factors for both sides to consider.

1. Joie de vivre

In France, quality of life is important. The French don’t walk around carrying a takeaway Starbucks. They’ll sit in their local café with an espresso instead. People will take a lunch break and it’s perfectly normal to go to a restaurant and even drink a glass of wine.

In the USA, eating at your desk is more likely. Eyebrows are raised at Americans who take long lunch breaks, let alone drink wine during the day. The same attitude applies to holidays. Many Americans fail to use their full allowance of vacation, short as it is, relative to Europe. The French, on the other hand, will usually take their full vacation allowance, often including a long break in August, the grandes vacances, when everything shuts down.

In France, there’s a firm division between work and home life. Outside working hours, emails are rarely checked and responded to, whereas Americans feel pressurized to be on call 24 hours a day, especially in a global environment. Understanding this on both parts will make expectations more manageable.

2. Formality

Forms of address are much more formal in France than in the USA, face to face, in email correspondence and on the phone. In offices, superiors are referred to as Monsieur or Madame by low-ranking workers. In any new business relationship, the formal ‘vous’ form of address is used before moving on to the familiar ‘tu’ form, although younger people may launch straight into ‘tu’, especially in social situations. Americans are accustomed to starting a relationship on first name terms and may find this formality disconcerting. Dress in France is more formal, too, even in dress-down offices. You will be judged on your personal style and presentation, whereas Americans tend to be more accepting of diversity.

3. Identity

Americans often define themselves by their profession and will put people in context according to their job and where they come from. Seeking common ground is important; profession and self-identity are inextricably linked. French people, on the other hand, do not talk about work outside the office; business and personal life are kept very much separate. Asking a French person what they do for a living (in a social situation) is seen as rude and intrusive. Small talk with strangers in France can seem like a minefield of etiquette to an American.

4. Building relationships

Building a relationship in France is important but can take time. It is not common to discuss your personal life and family with a stranger in France. French people may appear stand-offish to Americans at first, but friendships, once established, will last. In the USA, the opposite often applies. People will be open and friendly at first, often sharing more personal information than a French person might be comfortable with, but the friendship will remain superficial.

5. Security

In France, people are more likely to aspire to working for a large company or the family business. Being an entrepreneur is not seen as prestigious, unless you are incredibly successful. Job security is valued, as are the perks that come with long-term service like a decent pension. In the USA, there’s more of a focus on instant profit and creativity in achieving this. Mavericks and entrepreneurs are admired. Being self-employed, and making a living from it, is seen as a success, rather than a last resort.

6. Confrontation, feedback and firing

In France, confrontation and open debate are seen as positives and perfectly normal. Conversations can appear heated as views are exchanged. Feedback can appear harsh; a French superior is more likely to talk about an individual’s failings than their successes.

Americans tend to be non-confrontational and may feel uncomfortable in noisy meetings; many would struggle to separate a combative conversational style from aggression. American managers tend to sugar-coat feedback to save an individual’s feelings. When giving feedback from either perspective, it’s important to ensure that the message has been understood.

7. Fitting in

France is very conformist. Visitors and expatriates are expected to speak French and adopt French habits and customs. In the workplace and in daily life, solidarité – sharing a viewpoint – is important. Americans are different. Standing out in a crowd, making the most noise and individualism are all valued. Understandably, this can lead to culture clash. Americans in France may need to tone themselves down, while French executives in the USA may have to work at being more extrovert than they are used to.

8. Love of process

French executives tend to question everything and go into detail over theory, concepts and methodology, while Americans are more likely to make a statement, have their audience accept it and move on to the next point. Meetings in France may go round in circles as concepts are debated, whereas in the USA, a meeting is more likely to follow a series of agenda items with a view to creating a to-do list by the end.

9. Authority

People at all levels of society tend to be politically engaged in France. Lives at every economic level are affected by the government, as education and healthcare are free and the state pension relatively generous. If the government does not conform, the French will readily strike. In the USA, people tend to prefer as little state intervention in their lives as possible. Voter turnout is low – just 58% in the 2016 election. Having said that, Americans have been roused out of their political apathy to an extent thanks to the many controversies surrounding the current administration.

10. Smoking

Smoking is much more prevalent in France than in the USA. Although it’s banned in restaurants and cafes, a lot of French people smoke outside, or on outdoor terraces of restaurants, which visiting Americans can find surprising and offensive. French workers will take smoking breaks together and use them as brief social interludes to the day, while Americans will sneak out and hide with their guilty cigarette for fear of judgment from colleagues.

11. Service

In the USA, restaurant waiters are generally low paid and depend on tips to make up their income. They’re usually attentive and chatty, sometimes overly so, and in some instances, will take offence if you don’t tip generously. In France, attitudes are different. Waiters can be snooty, famously so; being a restaurant waiter is considered an honorable profession, worthy of respect, not something to be looked down on by ignorant foreigners. The solution? Tip thoughtfully in the USA and learn to order respectfully, in French, when in France.

Have you ever experienced one of these cultural differences? To stay up to date with our cross cultural tips and subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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