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French Business Etiquette For Your Internship Abroad

View of Paris

If you're thinking about doing an internship in France, you may be worried about getting along with the French.In the Anglophone world, at least, they do have a reputation for being snotty and difficult to get along with.

View of Paris

If you're thinking about doing an internship in France, you may be worried about getting along with the French.In the Anglophone world, at least, they do have a reputation for being snotty and difficult to get along with.

But in many cases, this reputation arises from cultural misunderstandings. It's not that the French don't like us. It's that they don't understand us.

The golden rule of traveling, though, is that when in Paris, do as the Parisians do. And that means understanding business culture and customs before you leave for your internship.

Of course, not all French people are the same, and some will be more open and understanding than others. If you want to succeed, though, you should make a good effort to understand French customs and to be as polite and friendly (but not too personal - we'll get to that) as you can.

Here are seven golden rules for getting along and making a good impression while you're interning in France:

1. Know how to use the formal "vous" and speak properly in French.

The French are known for being sticklers on "politesse," and the more you know about how to interact with people, the fewer problems you have. Even if you mean well, accidentally being impolite can cause you a lot of problems in France. If you disregard - even unintentionally - the basic tenents of politesse, you risk your reputation and your ability to be taken seriously. Needless to say, it's important to study up on how to be polite.

The most important rule of being polite in France is to always use the "vous" form of speech when speaking French, never the "tu" unless you are invited to do so. While it's common for colleagues of the same level to use the informal "tu" with each other, make sure to feel out the company culture and listen to what other people are doing before you presume to be informal.

In some companies, even bosses and subordinates in close contact will tutoyer, but if you meet someone you don't know, answer the phone, or talk to an executive, always use the formal "vous". The best thing to do is to feel around for a sympathetic low-level employee who takes an interest in you and ask him or her what to do. Another option is to ask a French intern, who will pick it up faster than you by virtue of being French.

Finally, make sure you know the difference between formal, businesslike speech and informal speech or slang. It can be hard to know words' connotations and proper usage in your second language, but you'll have a hard time being taken seriously if you constantly use words that aren't appropriate to the context.

2. Wear muted colors and dress conservatively.
Busy Office

Paris may be the fashion capital of the world, but you'd never know it by going into a French office.In fact, if you've lived in Paris, you know that Parisians are famous for wearing black and shades of gray. Occasionally they'll branch out into brown, beige, and navy blue.This means that you should dress conservatively and get a feel for your office's dress code before you branch out into other colors and styles.

If you're in a large company, you'll quickly get the feel for how casually or formally people dress. Legally, French companies can't institute a dress code unless you're in contact with the public or your dress would "be detrimental" to the company's business. So even if you work in a bank, you may see people wearing jeans, which are not considered "blue-collar" and "inappropriate for the office" in France like they can be in the US.

Still, if you start going to work in bright colors, you'll likely stick out like a sore thumb. So for the first couple weeks, observe your colleagues and the other interns to see what they wear before transitioning into business casual. And never, ever wear shorts.

3. Always greet everyone in the morning.

The second golden rule of being polite is to always greet people by making eye contact, nodding, and saying either, "Bonjour, Monsieur," or "Bonjour, Madame." It's extremely rude to not say hello to someone when you see them, although you don't necessarily have to repeat your greetings if you see them several times during the day. Saying "Rebonjour" when you see someone again is a bit insulting - it implies that you're not happy to see the person.

Never use "Mademoiselle" in a business context, as it's now considered a derogatory term that is being eliminated from official usage in France. All women should be addressed as "Madame," whether they're married or not. In fact, since the French don't talk about their personal lives in the office, you may not know if some of your colleagues are married. Unless you're on friendly terms, don't use informal greetings like "Salut" or ask how people are doing. And if you walk by a colleague and he's eating, say, "Bon appétit."

Eifle Tower
4. Defer to your superiors.

French businesses - like French schools - are very hierarchical. Your boss doesn't care what you think. She just wants you to do the work.

And unfortunately, even though laws technically prohibit companies from profiting off of underpaid interns, that doesn't stop companies from using you as replacements for people on vacation and maternity leave. So you'll often be doing the work of a regular employee for a fraction of the pay.

5. Avoid inquiring about personal topics.

The French like to separate their business and personal lives, so it's considered inappropriate to inquire about family or anything personal at work.

It's not totally impossible to make friends in the office, and most French people meet their significant other at work, but it takes more time for the French to open up about themselves and share information on their family life.

So take it slow. Be polite and friendly. Smile. And don't overshare your own personal life. And after a few weeks, depending on your colleagues, they'll start including you in the water cooler talk about the dates they went on last weekend or the vacations they're taking later in the summer. Let your colleagues take the lead on when to open up.

6. Be patient.

The French don't respond to emails and phone calls in a way Americans consider “prompt”. Make sure you begin contacting people at least a few weeks in advance of when you actually need a reply from them, and wait at least a week before following up. In many cases, they haven't forgotten about you, they just have other things to do.

You and your needs are not a priority, and the French are quite good at setting those boundaries.Avoid using words like “urgent” or “immediately” in emails or conversation, as it will turn them off and make them less likely to help you. Being pushy may help you get what you want in the present –the French are good-willed and will help you out if you need something - but your reputation will be harmed and you'll be branded annoying.

7. Respect breaks and vacations.

Although officially, the French have a 35 hour work week, they generally spread their working hours out during the day. In the morning, wait at least a half hour after someone arrives to bombard them with questions, and don't interrupt someone's morning coffee break to discuss work. Lunch can be long, and employees generally leave the office late. It's not uncommon for employees to be in the office from 9:30 - 7 with several extended breaks throughout the day.

Plus, virtually everyone goes on vacation in July and August, and most leave for several weeks. With 35 vacation days a year, it's common for offices to be half empty during the summer – hence, the need for interns to do the work!

The point is, accept that things will not get done quickly, and make sure to give people plenty of notice if you need something from them. Nobody is going to answer his email during a vacation, and nobody will appreciate you springing questions on them during a break.

The most important thing to remember during your internship abroad is to always err on the side of being polite, open, and friendly to your coworkers. Ask questions, and don't be afraid of making a mistake, and above all, have a good attitude. Trying to respect the company's work culture and your coworkers will go a long way towards making your international work experience a positive one.

Photo Credits: George McKnight, Albert Takacs, BD_stuff

Photo of Allison Lounes

Allison Lounes writes about living and studying abroad in France on her website Paris Unraveled. Keep up with her on Twitter @parisunraveled or on Google+.