By Ludmila (Mila) Rusakova Golovine
When one thinks of the French language, a series of recognizable images come to mind: the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Champs-Élysées. All of these places are in France, specifically Paris. The idea of French and France being one and inseparable is a common one in today’s world. Nevertheless, French is a widespread language due primarily to France’s colonial past and the language’s literary and philosophical legacy. It is spoken as a mother tongue on almost every continent including its mother country in Europe, French Guyana in South America, Quebec in North America, Vietnam in Asia, and numerous countries in North and West Africa. Currently, there are over 220 million French speakers in the world. This situation promises much opportunity to those with knowledge of the French language; however linguistic knowledge alone will not be enough to be successful in the francophone world. You must be aware of the subtle differences between francophone cultures.
The first francophone culture you must be familiar with is, of course, France. Business interaction in France is fairly straightforward. However, there are some aspects of which one must be cognizant. Typically, business attire in France will be formal with dark suits. Similarly, women will usually dress in dark or neutral colors. Greetings are formal as well. Handshakes are usually done between men. Sometimes women will give the double kiss on the cheek called the “bise.” This is not done as often with foreigners but you should be prepared if it happens. Also, business cards are traditionally exchanged. Please be sure to have your card translated on one side in French to show respect. Communication with the French is fairly direct and straightforward. There is always maneuvering in negotiations but, for the most part, the answers to your questions will mean exactly what they say.
Business in Quebec is very similar to the French style although it is still somewhat different culturally. It is similar in that the communication is still fairly direct even though the business attitude will be somewhat more relaxed than in France. This is due to the English influence over time. Also, the “bise” is still utilized by the Quebecois except it is referred to as the “bec” or beak. Moreover, it is usually only one kiss on the cheek instead of two as in France. There is one crucial difference which you must take into consideration. The usage of French is heavily enforced in Quebec. Consequently, if you want to do business there, you will most likely need an interpreter. If so, please ensure that your interpreter knows French Canadian and not just French. Although the two languages are quite similar, there are many subtle differences which have arisen due to the geographical distance from France and the influence of the English language. A French Canadian interpreter should be employed to avoid any miscommunication.
Business in North and West Africa is a little more complicated than in France or Quebec. These countries adopted the French language during France’s colonial era but have retained much of their original culture. In North African Morocco, business may be conducted in French but the people have kept their original Arabic customs. For example, Moroccans prefer to deal with people who they know. Therefore, business ventures are typically slower to start as they take more time to develop since the Moroccans will wait until they are comfortable with their counterparts. Another aspect of North African culture that is different from the other francophone countries is the concept of “hshuma” or shame. A person’s honor is very important to the Moroccans. If they are shamed, they could be ostracized from their society. Consequently, they will say or do anything to avoid it. Due to this situation, very often they may exaggerate what they will do in a business venture or be overly optimistic in their dealings with others. If you want to be sure that they intend to do what they say they are going to do, you should have them say it in front of a third party. In this way, they will be sure to state only what they will do in order to avoid “hshuma.”
West African countries, while still francophone, have retained their original cultural aspects as well. In Senegal, for example, the communication style is much less direct than in France. Usually, the Senegalese will employ proverbs and metaphors instead of direct speech. This is done to avoid negative subjects or to explain something unpleasant. It is crucial that you display understanding and flexibility when confronted with such a different way of communication.
The francophone world is both vast and promising. The economy of almost every francophone country is growing and giving rise to greater business opportunities. Nevertheless, knowledge of the French language will not be enough to succeed in such a multicultural area. With a modicum of research and cultural flexibility, you should be able to thrive in the francophone world.
As a graduate of the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Houston, Ludmila (Mila) Rusakova Golovine, Founder, CEO, and President of MasterWord Services, Inc., started her company with a vision of seamlessly connecting people across any language, any time, and any culture. Mila can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 281-589-0810, or visit her website at www.masterword.com.