Meetings in France

Over at Tim Worstall’s gaff, reader Andrew M alerts me to this piece in the New York Times on the subject of French, English, and American conversations.  This bit had me nodding along vigorously:

But many modern-day conversations [in France] make more sense once you realize that everyone around you is in a competition not to look ridiculous. When my daughter complained that a boy had insulted her during recess, I counseled her to forget about it. She said that just wouldn’t do: To save face, she had to humiliate him.

This is probably worse in Paris, and among the professional classes. But a lot of French TV involves round-table discussions in which well-dressed people attempt to land zingers on one another. Practically every time I speak up at a school conference, a political event or my apartment building association’s annual meeting, I’m met with a display of someone else’s superior intelligence.  Jean-Benoît Nadeau, a Canadian who co-wrote a forthcoming book on French conversation, told me that the penchant for saying “no” or “it’s not possible” is often a cover for the potential humiliation of seeming not to know something. Only once you trust someone can you turn down the wit and reveal your weaknesses, he said.

Meetings in France are perhaps the greatest single source of puzzlement in the working lives of expats.  Anyone from the Anglo-Saxon world will sit through a meeting with no agenda that started late and concludes (also late) with no substantial decisions being made and wonder what the purpose of it was other than to offer workers an opportunity to demonstrate how wonderfully clever they are in front of their peers.  The way in which meetings are conducted in France was a major subject covered in my intercultural awareness training when I first arrived, and remains a frequent topic of conversation among the expats.  Apparently, according to the article, this sort of behaviour has a long history:

Life at Versailles was apparently a protracted battle of wits. You gained status if you showed “esprit” — clever, erudite and often caustic wit, aimed at making rivals look ridiculous. The king himself kept abreast of the sharpest remarks, and granted audiences to those who made them. “Wit opens every door,” one courtier explained.

Indeed it does.  An inability to answer a random, irrelevant, and often daft question in a French meeting will demonstrate that a speaker is “unprepared”, and thus possibly unsuitable for promotion.  Hence he or she must “prepare” by stuffing their presentation with dozens of slides containing table after table of raw data in Font 8 or smaller, which are preceded by five or more slides of “context” containing sentences such as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” and “When viewed in an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.”  Given French presentations normally consist of the speaker reading the contents of a slide line by line, one after another, it’s no surprise to learn that meetings can run on for hours.

Whether these practices are fit for a modern business operating in an increasingly competitive and globalised world is a matter for debate.  A glance at the French economy and unemployment rate would suggest not.  Us Anglos could learn a lot from the French in many fields, but conducting meetings and delivering presentations are not among them.


12 thoughts on “Meetings in France

  1. A French friend of ours likes British meetings. People turn up on time pretty much, there’s an agenda, the chairman leads people through it, decisions are usually made, jokes are always made, and if you’re on your toes you may pick up the many allusions normal to a British conversation. She says she thinks Americans toil a little because they miss some of the jokes and almost all the allusions. I suspect the latter might be a problem for many expats, wherever they are, unless they’ve been there a long time.

  2. I found in British meetings all the decisions had already been made by networking prior to the meeting. The British spend most of their time speaking in double entendre and innuendo with many class references which are impenetrable to outsiders. Even as a native English speaker, but from a former Colony, I was often aware there was an undercurrent but couldn’t quite pin it.
    I was working for a German company in England and the German staff were completely perplexed, ie: “Wolfgang, would you share with the group the amazing proposal you detailed earlier”.
    The not so thinly veiled war references, ie; when the German delegation entered the conference room “The invasion begins”.
    The barely concealed smut, ie; when unveiling a new policy “it needs to be quite rigid, but palatable”.
    When receiving an award “Here’s one for the loo”.

  3. Bearbait,

    Indeed, and the article covers the habit of the British to spend meetings making quips and jokes and otherwise doing anything to avoid committing the cardinal sin of being too earnest. I concede that the practice can be annoying at times, and must be very annoying to foreigners who are not “in” on the jokes, even though I am an enthuiastic and consistent practitioner of the same – which was pointed out to me in the aforementioned intercultural training. But that said, I find British meetings do actually achieve something, i.e. people leave better informed than before, and decisions get made. In France, the decisions are made after the meeting by the elite few congregating for lunch or around the coffee machine. If the underlings happen to find out what these decisions were, it is a happy coincidence.

    Finally, I must point out this obvious oxymoron:

    as a native English speaker, but from a former Colony


  4. dearieme,

    A French friend of ours likes British meetings.

    Several of my French colleagues do too, for the reasons you state.

    I suspect the latter might be a problem for many expats, wherever they are, unless they’ve been there a long time.

    Very true. Although I knew one French guy who used to like drinking with us occasionally in Lagos because he liked listening to the banter between the Brits, which was a refreshing change from the carefully guarded social chat at the French gatherings, where one eye was always on the hierarchy present.

  5. Tim, I’m curious about something and have been for many years: I have never been to France, but had known several French expats (most of them Jewish, but not all), and my experience had been that French women possess significantly less of those attributes which typically earn the French a “bad” (from a non-French perspective) name. Having read your post and the comments here, I now wonder if that may be due to the predominantly male nature of the French business world? Or am I totally off the mark? And, apologies to any French men reading this who feel that such generalizations do not apply to them.

  6. A former colleague described a certain client – neither an Anglo nor a Gaul – as a sadist who would ask random questions hoping you’d get the answers wrong. To people like that, one of the joys of being served is showing the service provider his proper place. Still it’s only a zesty side dish: the man does not schedule meetings just to see how someone would handle a putdown.

  7. Alisa,

    That’s a very interesting question, and I’m not sure I can answer it. Being an oil company which has been on-board with the diversity lark for years, we probably have more women in management roles than is perhaps typical in France. And at my level (non-managerial) we have quite a few. I think my observations of French women vs French men professionally are probably the same as they are for women vs men in general:

    1. I’ve yet to see any noticeable difference between professional men and professional women as general groups. This is the case in France, too.
    2. I have seen nothing to suggest women are any less competent than men professionally: for every useless woman I can show you a useless man. I’ve met very good women and awful women, and very good men and awful men, and everything in between. If there is a pattern, I’ve never spotted it.
    3. I have noticed that some female managers have a tendency to try too hard to be “managerial” or tough. At a guess, they’re overcompensating for a perception that they may not be up to the task. But these are vastly outnumbered by those of both sexes who are just plain hopeless.

    So in terms of behaviour, I’ve not seen any difference between the French men and French women vis-a-vis their characteristics in meetings, or any other aspect of professional life. I don’t know if this is because women adapt to the men’s way of doing things or the behaviour is cultural and hence gender-neutral, but I’d be hard pushed to notice any difference between the two sexes. It is always a toss-up whether the person I am interfacing with on any particular task will be a man or woman, and it has never bothered me in the least which it is. Having graduated in 2000, I haven’t really known anything else.

  8. Long ago when I was a young academic I was Warden of a small Hall of Residence. I decided to “take it mixed” in hopes of civilising my amiable, but occasionally crass, male charges. I was accused inside the university of being “radical”. My friends hooted.

    Later in my career I was accused of being “sexist” – not about any action I’d taken, of course, but because I had written a piece of workmanlike and grammatical English that failed to honour the contemporary taboos. I waggishly replied “fuck off”.

  9. Thanks, Tim. FWIW, what “evidence” I have, is anecdotal at best, and dated at that (at least 20 years, possibly more). But my past experience was such that, while in general my getting on well with people never depended much on their sex, I found it much easier to become friends with French women than with French men. But like I said, hardly anything “scientific” to that.

  10. Alisa,

    I found it much easier to become friends with French women than with French men.

    That’s interesting, although I can’t say I’ve found any difference between the sexes in this regard: France is a very difficult place to make local friends, as they are fiercely protective of their private lives. Unlike in Russia where meeting somebody at a bus stop often results in you being dragged back to their apartment, complete with suckling kids and babushka, for “a little drink”. 🙂

    Another thing I found interesting on the same subject. Of all the foreign men I knew who spent time in the UK, almost all agree that the British men are very welcoming and receptive, and getting a social life off the ground in the UK takes only as long as Friday after work drinks down the pub comes around. However, of all the foreign women I knew who spent time in the UK, almost all agree that befriending British women is extremely difficult. “Judgemental” and “bitchy” are two words I hear a lot. Make of that what you will!

  11. That’s fascinating, Tim, and all I can say, is ‘yes!’ about Russians 😀

    There is yet another possible aspect to this, and that is that people behave differently when they are on their “home turf” and when traveling/living abroad. Like I said, I have never been to France outside of a brief stopover at the De Gaulle airport, and all French people I ever met were living outside of France.

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