The flexible French

Jun 14, 2021  · by

A used postage stamp for 300 francs

Topics: Cultural change, CultureConnector, France

A generation has passed since Kathryn Libioulle-Clutz arrived in France as a young American business consultant. We asked for her perspective on what’s changed in French culture.

More entrepreneurs

“France has become really supportive of entrepreneurial culture. They are really trying to foster small businesses and help startups to flourish. The French State has simplified accounting rules. It has been pushing lots of different kinds of funds and pépinières, the little groups and incubators helping new businesses to get started administratively, get funding, find mentors et cetera.”

Télétravail gradually replacing presence in some workplaces

By comparison with other European countries, employers in France traditionally seemed reticent about allowing employees to work from home. Presence at work is important here. But even before the coronavirus hit France, télétravail was increasing and France was catching up fast. “This is not just because of covid. The change was in the air already before that.”

“It’s becoming a much more flexible work environment,” says Kathryn. “There are large numbers of places where entrepreneurs can go, have working spaces, where they can exchange with each other, have mentoring networks. These are mini-communities for entrepreneurs. It’s happening. It’s a very dynamic environment.”

What young people want

“In France, young people want to do their own thing, not get stuck in a big corporate structure. They have very strong ideals. A lot of business schools run courses to help young people set themselves up as entrepreneurs.”

In 2017 Emmanuel Macron campaigned for the presidency with the slogan ‘La France doit être une chance pour tous’ (everyone in France deserves a chance). Young people in particular felt blocked by a bureaucratic system designed to regulate big business but the same regulation was falling heavily on the grassroots startup community. “Macron campaigned on a ‘startup nation’ platform, in response to young people. The regulations on business life are hard to change in France, but he has invested in the business side of things”.

More myths to bust

“Today, France is much more open to foreigners,” continues Kathryn. “The French now understand that, in terms of business, France must think more internationally. There is still a ‘stay-in-France, buy-local’ mentality, but at the same time, young people are going and doing internships in the UK or China, for example. Everyone wants international experience.”

“French people are more used to having foreigners in their workplaces and are becoming more receptive to their foreign colleagues’ perspective. When I arrived in France, 20 years ago, the attitude was very much ‘when in France, do as the French do’. That’s still true, but it is shifting. Everyone’s slowly adapting to the wider world.”

The keys to French culture

Kathryn has advice for a newcomer into French culture.

Recognise common values and different styles

“Observe. Understand what your own cultural perspective is. Recognise that while you share the deeper values with your French colleagues such as fairness and honesty and so on, the way those values are expressed in France may be very different from the way you would express them.”

Go for lunch

One stable part of French culture which Kathryn reports is well preserved in today’s workplace is the lunch break.

“Nowadays it is not the end of the world if you take a rushed 15-minute lunch break in France. Lunch is less of a big deal than it used to be. But a good lunch is still something that everyone feels entitled to. It’s a good way to get to know your co-workers and to build informal relationships. Lunch can be the crucial time-out which unblocks difficult negotiations. No-one is going to want to work with you until they really get to know you. Lunch helps to build some of that trust.”

Learn French

“And yet your most important key for unlocking French culture is this: learn French. Even if your French colleagues are fluent in English, learn French.

But here is something that has also changed a lot. When I came to France, I met the attitude ‘nice try with your French’ when foreigners fumbled with less-than-perfect French language skills. But now the French are trying to learn English and they are sensitive about how bad their English is, so they are much more sympathetic when foreigners try to speak French.”

A little less conservative at work

Kathryn led the review and updating of CultureConnector’s profile of France in 2020 and her re-write included a newer perspective on risk-taking in French culture.

“There is a little bit more taste for risk-taking these days, especially among young people, but in general French employees are still conservative in comparison to many countries outside Europe. They want steady employment with good retirement benefits.”

Hearing Kathryn’s insights as a professionally-objective observer of French culture, it quickly becomes clear that she’s also very much a participant who identifies ever more closely with her adopted nation.

“Moving to Nantes in the West of France put me in a situation where everyone around me is French – and traditional French. It has given me a deeper appreciation of the aspects of French culture which I thought were not so great: the sense of entitlement to State benefits, the willingness to go on strike, the education system. Now I understand the logic behind these cultural phenomena.”

“The French don’t care what others think of them.” Not true!

“The French are more curious than they used to be about what foreigners think of them. The emergence of low-cost airlines and globalisation of business have led to French people having more experience of being in other cultures, of leaving France. The desire to connect and compare is stronger in Paris and in the French border- and port-cities.”

“Meanwhile, like many countries, France also has a strong geographic centre where people are more satisfied to continue doing things the local way, without much interest in ideas from outside.” Vive la différence!

Walking the talk as an interculturalist

Executive coaching and team development programmes fill Kathryn’s calendar for most of her work week, as well as leadership development for high potentials which are becoming more common in French corporations. Writing pieces on French culture was a step outside her normal work in 2020.

As well as updating and expanding CultureConnector’s resources on France, Kathryn is continually enhancing her own skills as coach, and applying intercultural techniques in new scenarios.

“Culture is often a good starting point with international clients when I am trying to create team cohesion or even when I get called in to resolve a tension between co-workers or with a boss – tensions that are often labelled as a cultural difference.”

“You can start out with culture and then other factors come into play. Understanding international differences has been very important.”

“When I am coaching, I need to use intercultural techniques myself.” Kathryn lists a few items in her approach:

  • understand how direct the culture is, how they express their thoughts, how comfortable they are disagreeing
  • recognise how they deal with hierarchy: in some cases initially they will see you, the coach, as a “higher-up”
  • know how to build trust: should you achieve that in the professional context of the coaching session? or should you go to lunch with them?
  • read everything you can find about the culture, talk with people who have experience of the culture, and like I tell my clients too: observe and learn from the people you’re sharing these working moments with.

New perspectives on French culture

“It was great fun thinking about cultural change in France and being part of the review in CultureConnector. We had to recognise that some things had not changed. The French are still bureaucratic (take for example of the filling-in of forms during the corona crisis). They still like a good argument. They will still punish you for making mistakes or for sloppy-thinking in debates.”

“On the other hand we could recognise a great many things which had changed. There is more acceptance of trial and error. The French spend less time spent testing ideas at the concept stage. They expect faster innovation.”

“They want to take more ownership of their own careers. Sometimes they even allow a little optimism to creep into conversation.”

“More and more workplaces are rejecting the traditional command-and-enforce model and instead embracing personal responsibility at work, though still small in number.

“In some sectors, teamwork has become less competitive and there is talk of trendy concepts such as ‘co-creation’.”

“And shock of shocks: you may even see lunch being served during a business meeting in a conference room!”

Kathryn Libioulle-Clutz is an independent executive coach and consultant and for CultureConnector is Cultural Correspondent for France. The updated profile of 2020s France is available now in CultureConnector.

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