A Consultant and Coach in Organizational Transformation, Philippe Cartallier goes back over three preconceived ideas about French people in meetings: the French « quarter of an hour », the lack of humility and the length of interventions. With more than ten years’ experience in project management in Africa, the Near and Middle East, he agreed to share his views on the conduct of international meetings.
The text is adapted from his contribution to the book « Booster votre influence en réunion ».
Long lasting prejudices
1 – The French « quarter of an hour »
In the many international meetings I have attended, I have strongly felt on many occasions this prejudice that sticks to us: the French are always late!
Because I had arrived three minutes after the start of a meeting in the United States, one of the participants asked me if I had had a problem finding the room… The legendary delay of the French annoys people.
How is this delay interpreted?
This delay can be interpreted by our colleagues, our customers, our foreign suppliers in different ways. Do the French want to show that their agenda is busy, that there are always good reasons to keep others waiting (a plane delay, a cab problem, an urgent phone call…) and that they will be forgiven because they are important?!
How to over-ride this prejudice?
For French people, one way to get around this prejudice (one of many about the French) is by being on time. It can be a remarkable asset during a negotiation; it is also a way to show consideration for others
2 – A certain lack of humility
To relax the atmosphere and get around this prejudice, I have sometimes played with this perception by starting my presentation with this sentence: « I am snobish, selfish and arrogant, as you’ve already guessed, on top of my accent, In a word, I’m French ! »
The French, without necessarily realizing it or considering the disastrous effect it can have, like to wrap themselves in a certain superiority. Thinking that they are arriving in conquered territory, they do not always try to understand what others expect; yet in some communities, it is important to show consideration for others.
How to start a meeting?
When they are the organizers, they do not always think of naming the participants or recapping everyone’s contribution; for these French people, it is normal, we started late… we are trying try not to waste time.
In some African and Middle Eastern contexts, this is the exact opposite of what should be done. On the contrary, one should take the time to greet each person, to recall their contribution to the common project by insisting on their qualities and their contributions. The organizer of the meeting presents the role of each participant, even if everyone knows each other. It is also through this kind of formality that one shows consideration and respect.
“What is not named, does not exist,” is often heard in African and Middle Eastern cultural contexts. Engaging in a meeting without this prerequisite is then perceived as a clear lack of humility (and courtesy!).
Aware of this need for attention, when preparing my interventions in multicultural meetings, I have gotten used to inquiring about news concerning each of the participants. Asking a Japanese partner about the typhoon crossing the north of his country, thanking the Algerian manager who travelled hundreds of kilometers in the heat to be present, thanking a colleague from Dubai for connecting to the call even though it was a holiday for him… This may seem anecdotal but for the pople I was speaking to, I know that it counted in our subsequent exchanges.
3 – A propensity to underestimate the “long time”.
The French are often accused of long-winded interventions, discussion of detail and an overly analytical approach. Of course, these are preconceived ideas. However, these prejudices persist. It is up to us to surprise our partners by showing them that we know how to adapt.
Perceived as professional and committed partners, respectful of business ethics, the French are ranked at the top in European standards; nevertheless, they do not always control their impatience in the approach phase and in negotiations.
Time scales according to cultures
The time scale varies considerably depending on whether one is in a government-run or private economy. Companies must integrate this scale into their processes and expectations. Orange’s international division, for example, has modeled time-scales for projects by country, particularly in Africa and the Near and Middle East.
At Orange Consulting, I was put in charge of a project in Algeria. I carried out this mission in 6 months, more than double the time I estimated necessary with the French standard. I was congratulated!
This impression of diluted time, infinitely elastic, can be found in work meetings. Certain customs that consist in superloading delegations represented in a meeting may seem unbearable to us. However, it can have advantages…
While on assignment in Iran, to avoid being caught up in the “iranesque” (discussions that seem to be part of refined loops of non-decision making), we sometimes used the following tactic: faced with exchanges that were getting bogged down, I would suspend the session to give our hosts 48 hours to reflect. This meant telling them, “Are you ready to take a stand? This “stop and go” had the virtue of stimulating the rhythm of our meetings and allowing decisions to be made by regaining control of the framework.
And you, what do you do to make your international meetings more dynamic?
Philippe Cartallier, Akteos consultant, leader of intercultural training courses