Building Business Relationships in the Francophone Diaspora
By Angelika Blendstrup, Ph.D, Ale Gicqueau, and Pierre-Jean Charra
1. What to know when building relationships with and among the French
Forget everything you have heard or read about the French as you get ready for a French networking event. Much of it is based on cultural stereotypes which don’t apply to an entire population anyway, and even less so for those French who have come to the US and particularly to Silicon Valley to work and live. We all have preconceived ideas – the French about the Americans and the Americans about the French – but in order to get the most out of the networking experience, ideas like these need to be checked at the door. Above all, most of these ideas are based on past behavior, but French networking behavior is now undergoing a revolution.
We will begin by giving you some general advice on how to be efficient in a French networking session, and then we will tell you what has changed recently.
The important thing, and that which will bring value to meeting French professionals, is to be very aware of the cultural differences and make them work for, not against you.
The French, as other Europeans do, work to live, whereas it is said that the Americans live to work. This difference in itself is significant, as relationships for the French supersede the task at hand. By paying attention to building these relationships, and showing how much you enjoy being with their groups, you start to make inroads to becoming a part of a French networking community. Many French belong to groups established through family, political, or school ties, which began long before they came to the US. As a result, the best way to approach people at French events is to have someone take you around and introduce
you. That way you will be able to pick up quickly who’s who and people will be able to know who you are as well.
Before coming to a meeting, it is ideal to have some background on France’s historical and cultural past, as many discussions will make some reference to things in the past and you will be expected to understand them. The French also have an extremely selective school and university system and it is good to know which are the Grandes Ecoles (the elite universities), since many people working in the US have gone to one of the elite schools and want you to recognize the importance of having gone through this difficult system. Within France, an engineering degree from a Grande Ecole is widely considered more prestigious than a Ph.D. , and even more so than a JD or a MD. The whole school system is different. Without getting into the 4-year maitrise and the Classes Preparatoires, you can hardly understand how it works. On top of it, the early schooling,(elementary and secondary) with its long day, is more comprehensive than the US program. Latin, Greek, classics, history of civilizations: French people are major candidates to winning most Jeopardy shows.
If you studied French in high school or have traveled to France and learned some words and phrases, now is the time to dust off your old French verbs and get back to the language as actively as you can. You will have a distinct advantage if you can communicate with them in French, not in English (however, only if they understand you ;-).
French men and women are schooled to approach problems and issues from a theoretical point of view. They typically go through the classic process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis and weigh all the options before making commitments. By comparison, Americans typically reach their decisions fast and count on optimizing them along the way to arriving at a solution. When listening to people debate issues, understand where they are coming from if the discussion goes on for quite a while. Realize as well that the French like to have a discussion for discussion’s sake, because it is here that they can demonstrate and enjoy eloquence and logical thinking processes (assuming the participants possess those desirable attributes).
The French will also make references in conversations that are hidden within other meanings, and they will not spell out everything (sous-entendus). The French are typically a more implicit culture, whereas the Americans are used to thinking and acting more explicitly. It is possible to decode much of what the French are saying if you are versed in the current and past history, and the politics of France and also its position in the European Union and the rest of the world. The French like to speak of their rich past, which for them explains the present, while Americans are more interested in the future.
Count on the form of communication being different from what you are used to in a group of Americans. Expect lots of interruptions and everyone talking at once in a seemingly heated argument (which in fact is just a normal discussion), much gesticulation, and possibly, when they are talking to you, they might be talking to others at the same time while attending to a third thing. This is not a sign of disrespect; the French like to multitask and will do it wherever they feel they can.
Don’t expect everyone to come on time. Time is often relative, especially when it comes to attending events which are more social than business. You will also notice people stand closer to each other in groups than you would see in an all American gathering and lots of touching, hugging and kissing will go on between the opposite as well as the same sexes. Enjoy it and go with the flow.
The French will have good food and drink at networking events because food is important; sharing it and a good glass of wine makes building rapport enjoyable. That’s what networking with the French is all about. Enjoy the camaraderie, enjoy getting to know people, work on getting to know them – the business part will follow, all in good time.
Even if the French seem carefree and open to discussing everything, certain conversational taboos do exist. They will talk about politics, religion, sex or even death. However, do not bring up problems within their families or refer to or inquire about money, unless you know someone really well and are considered an insider and real friend (even then, asking about their salary makes you an outcast. It’s a “gaffe”). Most importantly, if you leave a group with
a comment such as “let’s have lunch or coffee”, or, “I’ll call you”, you should follow up and really carry out what you suggested, or you will lose any credibility you have previously gained.
Do not forget a business lunch in France lasts often more than 2 hours, and this is where and when business is done; this is the way the French build their business rapport. Without this kind of relationship, it is unlikely that you will develop a solid business relationship with them.
Most French, besides the younger generation, do not like to network online. Culturally speaking, the French build trust by meeting a few times around a table or when they are introduced by a close contact. Unlike in the USA, where trust is granted automatically when the parties agree on a win-win task, in France, it has to be earned by building a personal relationship. As trust is earned mostly through non-verbal communication, the French rely on online networking only when it is an extension of an existing relationship or when they assume they share the same values by being part of the same network or community.
In other words, online networking is more effective for maintaining a relationship than for starting or building a relationship. That said, the younger generation is much more Internet-friendly (and certainly the French are very heavy users of text-messaging), however, we can expect online networking to grow in importance over time.
2. Main French networking organizations
There are only a few large French networking organizations and many very small groups in the United States. This situation can be explained as much by the individualist nature of the culture as by the desire of the French to create deeper or more meaningful business or social relationships within a smaller group. Most French groups in the United States will have a social, cultural or outdoor dimension; however, there are a few professional organizations worth noting. One international French social and cultural organization is worth noting in particular because of its great popularity: l’Alliance Française.
Name: L’Alliance Française
Focus: Promotion of the French language and culture
Number of Members/attendees:
CEO/Organizer: His Excellency Jean-David Levitte, French ambassador
Fees: most Alliance Françaises are self-financed by teaching French classes to the Francophile community. In addition, the French government sponsors the largest Alliance Françaises in the USA like New-York or San Francisco by sending them an executive director.
Description: L’Alliance Française is the world’s largest French teaching association, with over 1000 schools in 129 countries. Their aim is to widen access to French language and culture, to encourage education, cultural exchange and a friendly dialogue among France and other countries. They are a social and cultural club, and do not offer general, professional networking events. They are ideal for Francophiles who want to get a taste of the French culture and/or learn French. Many of them have a French CineClub where films are shown in French. Most Alliance Française are independent and self-sustained; however, there are a few which are sponsored by the French government and are more prominent in their community, e.g., the Alliance Française of New-York.
French professional organizations are more an exception than a standard. In large cities, there are a few you can contact.
Name: The French-American Chamber of Commerce
Focus: French traditional networking, particularly for purposes of promoting French-US trade
President: Jean-Pierre Bernard
Fees: 1/3 from membership, 1/3 from events, 1/3 from sponsors.Founded: 1896
The French American Chamber of Commerce (FACC) has been opening borders between the United States and France. A private non-profit, commercial service organization, the FACC offers 20 US chapters and liaison chapters in Paris, all dedicated to the promotion of French-American trade and investment.
They have the following goals:
- Encourage the sale of goods and services between both countries and promote better international understanding
- Provide information to businesses on the economies and business environments of both nations and help promote the investments of each country in the other.
- Work with the French and U.S. governmental and economic agencies, diplomatic and consular agents and all other associations in France and the U.S. that pursue similar goals.
Facilitate the interaction among our membership to foster continuing good economic, commercial and financial relationships between France and the United States.
Because the French-American Chamber is an older institution, it has established some strong ties with the French government and other institutional agencies. From time to time, the Chamber organizes honorary dinners with the French consul, ambassador or senators in the same way that similar events would be facilitated in France. Recently, on the west coast, the French-American Chamber of Commerce puts on events with another French group, DBF.
Name: DBF (Doing business in France)
Focus: a successful French entrepreneur/businessperson
talks about his successes every first Monday of the month (in French)
Number of Attendees: 40 – 50 each meeting
Founder: Jean-Louis Gassée
Fees: typically $30/event
Description: French business networking group.
Because of the cultural differences we have described earlier, the networking experience in French groups could be somewhat intimidating. For this reason, a new non-profit organization called InterFrench, more integrated with the local community and with a networking focus, has emerged over the last few years to fill this gap.
InterFrench is a not-for-profit networking organization whose aims are to unite the French-speaking and Francophile community in North America and foster a new spirit of solidarity by bringing together the best of French and American cultures. It was originally created in the Silicon Valley in 2001, and most of its operations are in that region. InterFrench keeps its French flavor but, although French is the most spoken language in the gatherings, the doors are wide open to non French-speakers.
InterFrench is an attempt at merging the best features of American and French professional practices. InterFrench is about building long-term business or social relationships at a personal level with people open to the French. Many Francophiles attend InterFrench gatherings (Canadians, Belgium, Swiss, Moroccans, Indians, Russians and of course Americans). They bring their cultural diversity to a new Francophile professional melting pot.
Learning from their new adoptive country, the USA, the InterFrench founders wanted to create a network where anyone would feel welcome and could participate.
What foreigners often resent as arrogance is just the distance which the French put in their initial contacts. The InterFrench organizers decided to close the gap, and systematically break the ice between all participants. They think that although French and Americans are often antagonists, they either love or hate each other, but they seldomly ignore each other. Indeed they often complement each other as Americans are good in communication, sales, marketing, and management, whereas the French excel in culture, arts, mathematics, and engineering.
InterFrench members have multiple interests and they come from many different backgrounds. As a consequence, InterFrench in Silicon Valley is today composed of 4 complementary networking platforms:
- Siliconfrench for French-speaking professionals
- L’Executive Club: an exclusive club for French-speaking top-executives
- The French CineClub for all Cinephiles
- Frenchip: social gatherings of French and Francophiles in a relaxed atmosphere
Outside of Silicon Valley, InterFrench has only two platforms: InterFrench for small entrepreneurs and professionals, and the executive club for VIPs.
Overall, InterFrench has multiple goals:
- Merge the best of both the French and American cultures
- Act as a communication platform and promote a cultural & business bridge between North America and France
- Stimulate business opportunities between the French speaking community and North America
- Foster personal and professional development and offer business and job opportunities through casual exchange of knowledge, information and contacts
- Help French immigrants to integrate and prosper in the American society
- Provide an environment for innovation among entrepreneurs in a variety of industries. Coach younger professionals and entrepreneurs to reach their full potential by modeling top executives
The spirit and values of InterFrench are carried out by the board,the coordinators, the members and the volunteers. Each coordinator acts as a ‘node’ in the network. He/She frequently communicates,acts as an ambassador and catalyst, makes introductions and creates opportunities to InterFrench members by bringing people together.
InterFrench has a flexible structure that welcomes anyone who needs a support system to launch his/her projects, his/her ideas build a network and learn new skills. Team members are encouraged in their endeavors as long as their efforts give back to the community and they respect the integrity of our values.InterFrench has chapters in the USA, Canada and France.
All InterFrench Francophiles can easily connect through Internet mailing lists, forums and an Intranet allowing them to contact each other between gatherings or between chapters and across continents.
Contact: info@ siliconfrench.com
About the Authors
Angelika Blendstrup Ph.D., who is the Chair of L’Executive Club at InterFrench, is a business communications consultant who helps foreign-born executives and entrepreneurs with problems understanding the complexities of American business culture and the English language to communicate effectively. In particular, she helps them improve their written and oral communication skills, prepares them for media interviews and works on reducing their accents. Her clients include Fujitsu, A&D, DreamWorks/PDI, Tibco, Roche, Facebook and Google . Angelika has traveled extensively throughout Europe and Latin America and speaks Spanish and Portuguese as well as French and German. Angelika holds a Ph.D. in bilingual, bicultural Education from Stanford University, a Master’s in Comparative Literature from U C Berkeley and a B.A. in foreign languages and educational psychology from the University of Tübingen, Germany.
Ale Gicqueau : the founder of L’Executive Club, co-founder of SiliconFrench© and is now leading the overall Interfrench organization in the US. He has held different positions in the software industry, working successively in software development, engineering management and business development roles. He is today a recognized evangelist in XML/RDB, and his efforts to develop an effective networking business platform for French-Speaking professionals, has lead to the creation and development of SiliconFrench© and L’Executive Club. Ale Gicqueau holds an engineering degree from l’Ecole Centrale Paris and a Master’s of Science from UC Davis.
Pierre-Jean Charra: a born entrepreneur, was running his own company in France for 11 years. Tutorland was the leader in France of Computer Training Materials. He is the original Founder of the Interfrench organization and SiliconFrench© coFounder with Ale Gicqueau. The idea of L’Executive Club came from Pierre-Jean Charra years ago and he left its execution to his friend and partner Ale Gicqueau. Since he came back to France last August, he has been developing an organization of French professionals interested in doing business with North-America. Pierre-Jean Charra holds an Engineering degree from Ecole Centrale Paris and a Master’s of Science from UC Berkeley.
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