If you’re traveling abroad for business, you can take an eight-hour flight from New York to Paris and feel like you’ve just landed on a different planet.
Why are people lingering over dessert in the middle of the workday? And why was your new French colleague so taken aback when you asked about his kids?
Seppala moved to the US from France when she was admitted to Yale University for college; today she teaches at Yale and Stanford University. She’s also the author of the book “The Happiness Track.” Meyer moved to France from the US 17 years ago; today she’s a professor at INSEAD and the author of “The Culture Map.”
We asked Seppala and Meyer to tell us about the biggest differences between work in France and the US, that they’ve studied and experienced firsthand. Below, we’ve collected some of their insights.
As you’re reading, remember that there’s no universal right or wrong way to go about work – it depends on where you live and what the people around you expect. Remember, too, that not every French or American person will fit the descriptions below. These are simply general observations that can help you prepare to do business in another country.
Many American workers define themselves by their profession; most French workers don’t
People living in the US have a hard time detaching from work, Seppala said. It’s not just that they’re constantly checking their work email – it’s that work underlies their entire identity.
“Anybody coming to the US will notice just how here, people are what they do,” Seppala said. If someone asks, “Who are you?” another person might respond, “I’m a lawyer.”
“We’re perceived by what we do and we take pride in what we do,” Seppala added.
In France, things are different. It’s considered socially inappropriate to ask someone what they do for work right off the bat.
Seppala said that’s because “in France, work is seen as a thing you have to do. But when I’m not working, I’m not working. It’s very clear.”
French coworkers don’t share personal information with coworkers right off the bat; Americans open up to new colleagues more quickly
Meyer uses the images of a coconut and a peach to describe the difference between French and American workers.
French workers are coconuts – they’re hard on the outside, but get softer as you drill deeper. American workers are peaches – they’re soft on the outside, but eventually you hit a hard pit.
Here’s what that means. French people “don’t talk about personal information with strangers,” Meyer said. They don’t place family photos on their desk at the office.
“They’re very formal with people that they haven’t built a relationship with, and they’re unlikely to smile a lot or do a lot of personal talk with people that they don’t know well.”
But as you get to know them, Meyer added, “they become more and more warm, more and more friendly. They open up more about their personal lives and usually, once you’ve developed that level of closeness, the relationship sticks. You’ll probably have that relationship for the rest of your career.”
Americans, on the other hand, “tend to be very friendly with strangers and talk very easily about their personal lives with people that they don’t have close relationships with. They smile a lot at people that they barely know at all.”
Yet “after a point of friendliness, [Americans] don’t share more. [They] kind of close up. That’s how [they’re] experienced by Europeans: They’re really friendly, but they don’t show you who they really are.”
This coconut-peach disparity can lead to stereotypes about French people being standoffish and Americans being superficial.
French workers take longer lunch breaks than American workers
If you’re reading this article during your “lunch break,” sandwich crumbs dropping onto your keyboard, you’re not alone. Seppala has noticed that many American workers grab a bite and eat hastily, hunched over their computers.
French people, on the other hand, “really really prize leisure. They really prize enjoying life,” Seppala said. “That’s called ‘joie de vivre,'” she added, using the French term for “joy of living.”
“No matter where you work, at lunchtime people take one hour off. They go off; they have a full meal at a restaurant with multiple courses and wine. That is normal.”
French workers see confrontation and debate as healthy; American workers generally shy away from conflict
Meyer still remembers one of her first dinner parties after she moved to France. The guests got into a debate about whether a certain golf tournament should continue; people were shouting and waving fingers in each other’s faces. “Ten minutes later, the topic changed, and there seemed to be no hard feelings.”
It’s much the same situation in the French workplace, Meyer said.
“It’s very common to have a very strong, open debate or confrontation, and it doesn’t lead to a break in the relationship. Whereas, if Americans are involved in that same meeting, they would feel that it’s arrogant; it’s aggressive; it’s inappropriate; and they would try to shut down the conversation as quickly as possible.”
French workers take more vacation time than American workers
According to the OECD, the average French worker gets 30 days of paid vacation every year. The US is the only industrialized country where companies don’t have to offer paid vacation – but a study by Project: Time Off found that Americans received about 23 vacation days in 2016.
Yet French workers are much more likely to take full advantage of their time off. Seppala mentioned a 2010 survey that found 89% of French workers use all their vacation days, compared to just 57% of American workers.
It’s common among French workers to take a full month off during the summer and take the family to the beach, Seppala said. “It’s kind of shocking for a European to come to the US and just be like, ‘Oh my gosh. You don’t take time off. You don’t even want to take time off.'”
French workers are more inclined to give direct negative feedback; American workers tend to sugarcoat it
“In the US,” Meyer said, “we give more positive feedback and more extreme positive feedback than any other culture in the world. And that’s definitely true in comparison to France.”
For example, American managers will give three positive pieces of feedback with every negative one. They’ll use words like “fantastic” and “awesome.”
In France, on the other hand, “if you’re doing well, it’s kind of a given; you don’t really need to say it. So positive feedback is given less frequently, and when it’s given it’s given much less strongly.”
That can lead to some miscommunications when an American is managing a French worker and vice versa.
For example, an American manager might tell a French employee that he needs to make some changes, but give him some positive feedback too to soften the blow. The French employee might walk away thinking it was a great meeting because he received so much praise.
Meanwhile, the American manager might wonder why the French employee hasn’t made the changes he requested because he thought he was very clear.
On the other hand, American workers might feel their French managers are demotivating and unappreciative because they always focus on the negative.
American workers drink coffee primarily to feel alert; French workers enjoy the taste and experience
Good luck squeezing into a US Starbucks at 8 a.m. on a weekday. Everyone’s there trying to get their caffeine buzz.
Coffee’s popular in France, too, but for a different reason. Seppala said: “In the US, people drink coffee for caffeine, to wake up and to get more energy. In France, that’s not how you view coffee. Coffee is an enjoyable thing” – you might order a cafe au lait at a cafe – “but it’s never talked about as a wake-me-up.”
In fact, Seppala said she grew up “never even knowing that coffee had caffeine.”
Meetings in France last longer and involve more discussion than meetings in the US
When Meyer first started giving presentations in France, she did so the American way: She kicked things off with her main point and then explained why it was important.
Right away, her French audience started raising their hands: “What methodology did you use?” “Is this really the right principle to even be talking about?”
She soon realized that French people start by outlining their principle, building up their argument, and only then discussing its applications. In other words, they take longer than Americans to get to the point.
“There’s this very strong focus in the French person’s mind that, before you come to a conclusion, you have to talk about all of this theory, all of these concepts, all of this philosophy. And then you can figure out how to move forward.”
She added: “French meetings tend to be a lot longer, with a lot more conceptual debate. So American meetings are all, ‘You’re going to do this,’ ‘You’re going to do this,’ and ‘You’re going to do this,’ and then we get started.”