france

What the “Land of a Thousand Wines” has Taught Me about Life, Stereotypes, and Business

I never thought I would have the unparalleled experience of actually living in Paris: world-renowned cheese and wine, shopping on the infamous Champs Elysées, and all the chic French fashion I could ever dream of.

I must say, some of my childhood aspirations held true, while others have been an utter disappointment. With six years of Parisien-living under my belt, I am now able to share my experience with you... in case you ever decide to take the leap to the French side!

Allons-y!

I've been a Francophile or a person who is fond of or greatly admires France/the French since my father named me ‘Monique’. I began my first French lessons at 6 years old and you can bet your bottom dollar that every bedroom I’ve ever occupied (yes, up until adulthood) has been flanked in Parisien paraphernalia. I was completing a French literature degree at Hunter College in Manhattan when I came across the opportunity to study abroad in Paris for a year. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity and never returned back home (with the exception of the holidays!)


My time here has been bittersweet. My Amelie Poulain fantasy was far from the truth. Tourism seeps through every part of the city and the ‘old Paris’ I had always put up on a pedestal simply did not exist anymore. I had forgotten that Paris is a living, breathing, evolving city. With that said, let’s go over some completely inaccurate French clichés that, at least from my perspective, have proven anything but true.

  • French people are not out here wearing berets and chomping on baguettes in striped shirts.

I believe we should replace this stereotype with the quintessential Parisian restaurant “terrasse”. During the warmer months--and the colder months if there’s a heater!--French people prefer to sit outside of the restaurant or café in question, people watching and/or enjoying a cigarette. At first, I was surprised at first to find the majority of restaurants empty inside!

  • A lot of French people can speak English, and more and more French people WANT to speak English.

As an American seeking to improve her French skills, it used to be extremely difficult to find someone to speak French with me! My first year here I had to make a conscious decision to seek out francophone friends and isolate myself from my fellow exchange-program colleagues. However, you should definitely make an effort to learn some French expressions, hello, thank you, etc. There is nothing worse than the American tourist ASSUMING everybody can and wants to speak their language!

  • Paris is NOT the fashion capital of the world (sorry).

This is 100% subjective, of course, but I had to put this in here. Before switching to a degree in French Literature I was a fashion design major...studying in New York City. I came to Paris CONVINCED I would be served runway looks daily whether I am at the supermarket, the metro, or at university. I can definitively dismiss this cliché. While the French do have a certain “je-ne-sais-quoi” I wouldn’t go as far as to call the country a Fashion mecca, with the exception of luxury brands and Fashion Week. Daily French fashion is sensible, chic, and subdued. My time here has served to calm my style wayyyyy down and to be honest, I’m not sure that was a good thing. In my humble opinion, the residents of New York City steal the daily-fashion-cake.

Naturally, I have a cornucopia of clichés I’d love to dispel about France, but let’s bring the focus back to something more pertinent: business. I am no longer a college student but a young working professional. Although I work in a very specific niche (an art gallery) I have accrued a decent amount of French work experience. You may use the following information to strengthen a business relationship with a French client or even apply certain aspects to your current business approach, French or otherwise. The most important lesson I’ve learned overseas is the advantage of an open mind and open-minded practices. Use this list to enhance your business with le French touch!

  • Punctuality optional.

By far the most shocking aspect to the professional realm in France is the lack of punctuality. With that said, I’m not saying I come to work an hour late every day but in most situations, up to 15 minutes will most likely be excused. This approach can be attributed to the general French attitude: relaxed. This principle also applies to restaurants--don’t expect your order to be rushed out. It’s just the French way of life.  Conducting a meeting here could mean waiting for your French colleague just to show up, but don’t take it personally, c’est comme ça!

  • Get it right: be polite!

With the French language comprised of the informal (tu) and the formal (vous), being polite is fundamental. You should always address someone you are unfamiliar with as Madame or Monsieur, and if you happen to dabble in a bit of French, ALWAYS use the “vous” form of “you”. This is not intuitive for an English speaker but that’s exactly what will set you apart from your fellow compatriots. Besides, who doesn’t appreciate politeness?

  • No pressure!

If you’re in sales, an aggressive sales approach will not work. This harkens back to the French way of life: relaxed. I recommend patience above all else and allowing the customer to make their way to you. Stay approachable and offer your help, if solicited.

  • Don’t show up with empty hands.

Let’s say your French boss invites you to a dinner party. You must bring something. A bottle of wine is standard practice but feel free to bring along some cheese or a yummy dessert. Beware, normally the host prepares their dinner with a certain bottle of wine in mind, so professionally speaking, it could be advantageous to stick to a dessert wine. This rule applies to social situations as well--I’ve never shown up to anyone’s home in France without offering the host a token of appreciation.

  • Take the time for lunch.

Reputed for their 35 hour work weeks (although that’s a cliché, I don’t know anyone who actually works only 35 hours, myself included) the French value personal time. The 35 hour work week may be a myth but lunchtime is no joke: some business will allow up to two hours for lunch! My experience in Paris is about an hour and the majority of employees will leave the office/boutique to eat. Of course from a client’s perspective, this can be frustrating as the bulk of businesses are closed, but this allows for the employees to recharge their mental batteries and take on the rest of the day. It could also be the perfect opportunity to take a client out or to impress your French boss with a new culinary discovery.

  • New year, new you.

This year, as a gallery manager, I was sent a whole bunch of New Year's cards. This is a completely new practice to me but apparently, it’s commonplace. I received cards from artists I represent, to my diligent framer, to hopeful artists. The idea is to thank business partners for their business from the year before all while wishing a Happy New Year. It’s a small but important gest that you can do all throughout January but no later.

  • LAST NAME, first.

Finally, a little technical tip for those hoping to conduct business in France. Last names are spelled in capital letters in nearly every circumstance and it’s also a common practice to place your last name first. If you have business cards you hope to hand out to French colleagues, be sure to adopt this practice. It will show a sign of adaptability and an effort to assimilate with their culture.

A lot of the aforementioned tips are uniquely applicable to France or French people, but who’s to dictate how you apply these tips to your life? Maybe you could start sending out ‘New Years Appreciation Cards’ or referring to every client or prospect as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madame’. You may decide to be the perfect guest every time, showing your host some appreciation with a bottle of Cognac. Whatever the case, I hope in reading this you feel a bit more enlightened about France and the way the French conduct their business. If you enjoyed this article sign up for our mailing list for more travel and business tidbits! A bientôt !