How foreigners see the French - Intercultural Insights
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How foreigners see the French
June 25, 2017

French behaviour which often surprises “incomers”


Being aware of the image others have of us is important, because through our behaviour foreigners will subconsciously seek confirmation of the stereotypes they have of us. Below, we have prepared a selection of comments expressed by foreign participants in our “Working with the French”, training sessions, beginning with those concerning professional behaviour.

This is in no way an exhaustive overview, as it reflects only the opinions of those people we spoke to (who are of course, not representative of the global population).

As you will see, these opinions are sometimes contradictory, revealing differences from one culture to another, but nevertheless a number of common denominators allow us to draw up a photofit picture of the French as generally perceived in our collective imagination.

All of these comments show us to what extent it’s important to look beyond the first impressions and to understand the reasons behind people’s behaviour.

Situations which foreigners find surprising

Procedures and efficiency in France

Topping the list of factors which generally surprise foreigners we find the negative mindset of the French. “Why do people who live in a country where everything’s fine in comparison with my home country have to complain so much?”. Indeed, many participants find that things are going well in France: the infrastructure is in their view of a very high quality, they find the country quite well organised and particularly admire the care taken here to protect and maintain France’s historical and cultural heritage.

At the same time, they are surprised by the amount of paperwork and the highly bureaucratic nature of many organisations, with all the related complications and delays. They see many rules which in their eyes serve no useful purpose. This is particularly true for the administrative authorities but also in companies, where this phenomenon isn’t helped by the lack of clarity of certain procedures: they sometimes feel as though they need to fish around for information because they’re not always supplied with a clear organisation chart or written procedures. Sometimes, they don’t even know which information they need and where to find it. This is generally sorted out after a few weeks, but nevertheless creates an initial impression of inefficiency.

Sometimes, they have the impression that the procedures are applied differently according to the circumstances and the people concerned. These are the famous “exceptions that prove the rule”.

Some participants from northern Europe also criticised the French for their lack of anticipation: “Rather than introduce preventive measures, it seems that they prefer to do nothing and allow a crisis to occur, hoping that this will be a source of change or that they can improvise when the time comes”, explained a Dutchman.

Relationship to others and communication

The people interviewed generally agreed that the French are polite, likeable and relationship-focused: “they smile, shake each other’s hands and kiss one another”, a German told us, “and when you get to know them, working together becomes much easier“. At the same time, foreigners are often surprised at the fact that French people generally don’t see their colleagues outside work. Unlike what goes on in other countries, you will not be readily invited out by your colleagues in the evening, which may leave foreigners feeling isolated.

Language-related difficulties in communication were also raised, due to insufficient skills in English and a tendency to speak French, even if non-French speakers are present (at the coffee machine, in the canteen and in meetings, etc). “Sometimes, the French refuse to speak English even if they can speak it well”. The result is that if someone doesn’t speak French sufficiently well, they may be excluded.

Another difficulty is the implicit communication style in France. You need to know how to decipher their messages. “The implicit communication style used by the French certainly makes understanding them more difficult”, stressed a Dutchman.

Business relations

Viewed from Africa, the French don’t have the same customer-centric approach as that found elsewhere: at closing time, customers are not welcome in France! Some incomers are also surprised by the need to make an appointment, even when going to the barber. Where is the spontaneity and flexibility?

Conversely, from a German viewpoint, what can be quite surprising is that French companies seem unable to say “no” to their business clients, sometimes even going beyond what is stated in their sales terms. Simply being a customer appears to give client companies the right to do what they like.

Another topic for discussion: the waiting times in shops, banks, post offices and public authorities. Why is it sometimes so long? The staff are committed to serving the person whose turn it is properly, even if that means making other customers wait. This can be surprising for those coming from countries where service quality is not measured in terms of the time devoted to each client, but in terms of how short the waiting times are.

Commitment to work

“French people work hard”, incomers from several countries told us. They possess undeniable expertise and are generally fully skilled in their particular field. In the German view, the French throw themselves wholeheartedly into their work, and are ready to perform tasks which are not in their job descriptions. They think in terms of what’s best for the group, and don’t remain hamstrung by their job description and their market. Where they come in for criticism, however, is sometimes seeking to be brilliant rather than efficient.

What are the main headaches for foreigners?

1. The kissing and handshaking ritual

How many times do people shake hands each day? In many African countries, you shake hands whenever you meet one another.

How many times should you kiss someone? And who should you kiss? Which cheek do you begin with? And how do you make people understand that this makes you feel uncomfortable, especially if you come from a country in which male-female relations are much more formal?

2. Meetings

Meetings can be disconcerting both for the way they are held (starting and ending later, meeting agendas not always observed, lengthy debates, the absence of a clear conclusion, etc.) and by the occasionally noisy nature of the discussions. Foreigners also find that the attitude of their French colleagues is different in a meeting, according to whether or not their superior is present, illustrating their sense of hierarchy.

3. The application of rules

The rules imposed on foreign subsidiaries are not always observed by the head office itself, leading to a loss of credibility.

4. Strikes

People generally have trouble understanding strikes: how can you go on strike when this harms people and companies who have nothing to do with the conflict.

“In my home country, my freedom ends where that of other people begins. In France on the other hand, you get the impression that there is no limit to individual freedom, regardless of the impact this has on others”. Even more so than the French themselves, foreigners who are not sufficiently familiar with the country to be able to organise a plan B, or to come up with a resourceful solution, may feel like “hostages” in industrial disputes which don’t concern them.


Despite everything, the image most foreigners have of France is far more balanced than that which the French have of themselves. It’s surprising to see to what extent the French are negative about themselves. However, this is not a universal human reflex: when asked about their perceived image abroad, the Germans, British, Americans and Dutch are far more positive. They feel that overall, their image is a good one.

With this in mind, we shouldn’t accuse other nationalities of French bashing, because the world leaders in this field are the French themselves. To quote Cyrano de Bergerac:

‘You would not have been let to utter one–

Nay, not the half or quarter of such jest!

I take them from myself all in good part,

But not from any other man that breathes!’

Laurence Petit, Akteos‘ Consultant

About author

Laurence Petit

Laurence Petit

A graduate of the HEC business school, Laurence Petit has lived and worked for several years in Germany, the United States, the Netherlands and France. This experience has enabled her to explore differences in management and business styles in the countries concerned. It also raised her awareness of the way other cultures view our specific French characteristics. Today working as an intercultural consultant, Laurence helps multicultural teams to work more effectively and efficiently together. She also regularly assists "incomers" of all origins with their integration in France.

There are 5 comments

  • Avatar Charlie Spencer says:

    Interesting. I’d enjoy seeing a series of these type of articles, especially one on how foreigners see us here in the U.S.

  • Avatar Mouhammad Zaki Mheish says:

    The article is really informative but it lacks varied citations. It included 2 comments by Dutchmen and 3 German views. With an important topic like this one “How foreigners see the French”; more representative comments from other nationalities would have added more significance to this well-crafted article

  • Avatar Jurij DOERR says:

    Congratulations, Laurence. This is a very sympathic approach to dive into a Magic Eye of a non-French observer. This duality can only be conducted in a credible manner when someone used to live in and with different cultures. I wish some of global team leaders would have your maturity of cultural experience or at minimum read your article :-).

  • Avatar Teresa Bojorquez says:

    Very interesting, this article is very useful to try to understand to French people and be empathic with them, but I wonder if the authors have some advices to manage our frustration because as it mentioned, they are like that!!

  • Avatar Jade says:

    “Sometimes, the French refuse to speak English even if they can speak it well”.

    Indeed. I’ve known a couple of French people who visited the USA for a very short time and avoided speaking English as much as possible, such as only when they had to interact in public. For me, this is very bizarre, because people of other nationalities I’ve met were enthusiastic to use languages they had knowledge of, including English.

    “The result is that if someone doesn’t speak French sufficiently well, they may be excluded.”

    Also agree. I work and live in France and apparently my French is not “sufficiently” (I don’t actually know that the means). After so much money and time spent on learning French, I would not call myself fluent, but I understand 85% of conversations and can interact in discussion, although slower than native-speakers. I would call that sufficient, but apparently most French people would not. As such, while speaking French, I’ve been ignored while in groups and even ignored when I am sitting directly in front of the person I am speaking to.

    Word to the wise: if you aren’t fluent in French before living in France, have a network of non-French people to interact with. It will help with the isolation.

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