The 4 biggest differences when working with the French (and Francophones)

French is the official language in nearly 30 countries around the world. France was busy colonizing many parts of the New World and Africa…the remaining effects of which are the spreading of France’s language, culture and mentality to many nations around the world.

It is my pleasure and honour to have discovered several Francophone (meaning French-speaking) countries and regions while pursuing diverse personal and professional projects. Today, I continue this discovery while living and working in Dakar, Senegal. You could call me a true francophile (meaning one who loves French and French culture).

I started learning French in school when I was about 12 years old. The first time I actually found it useful was when I was 15 years old, on holiday in the Caribbean, and able to converse in French with a cute boy from Switzerland! Perfecting and fine-tuning the language began in my early 20s when in 2008 I spent a semester abroad in Bordeaux, France. Since then I’ve worked alongside both Quebec and French nationals in work, volunteer and personal projects in Canada, France, Haiti and Senegal. While these countries and regions are unique they all share a common ground, that is they are francophone – French-speaking – and thus influenced by France (and colonization) not only through language but also through culture, mentality and approach.

Indeed, there are many aspects of French culture that I adore. The obsession with good food, for one (reaches for café and croissant…) and an emphasis on participation in social and political movements, as a second. The Frenchies also have a love of culture and the arts which I find inspirational.

Nevertheless, I’m in more of a complaining mood myself now and in the need to point out what is different, and in my opinion, outdated and bothersome, in the French.

Arguably, complaining is also a French quality ;-)

In any case, I’ve highlighted 4 points below in the ways of thinking and doing that are quite different from Anglo-saxon English-speaking Canada where I grew up (yeehaw, Calgary!!). Here, my observations. These are centered around work since my main experience with Francophones has, up to now, been in my studies and in the workplace.

If you also have experience shifting between Anglo-saxon and French work cultures – I’d love to hear your opinion.

1. Looks matter more than your results

In general, I find that my francophone colleagues pay more attention to the presentation of their work (fonts, colours, pretty folders) than they do to the real content of their work. Not to say that the quality of the content is necessarily poor…rather that when given the choice between a polished idea and a polished binder…they go for the binder. My Anglo-saxon reared self is more wired for efficiency and a get-things-done-right-at-the-core-no-matter-the-potential-messiness. As a manager, I’d much prefer to receive great content with some formatting to fix up.. rather than the opposite! Like cutting into a bright, red shiny apple which you later find to be a bit rotten at the centre… I prefer the slightly-bruised-on-the-outside, perfectly tasty and whole apple on the inside.

This adherence to image is also reflected in length of writing. On the one hand French, a language of diplomacy, is much more wordy than English, a language of science and efficiency. Then, also, there is a general fondness among Francophones for being long-winded and roundabout in their writing (or speaking, presenting, recording) approach. I was taught in my Anglo-saxon upbringing that the capacity to be succinct and express complex ideas in short, simple phrases is golden – and to that I hold. I find that some Francophones disagree.

It is easy to see other manifestation of the How over the What, the Form being more important than the Result in other aspects of life – for example, in fashion. I like to dress well, as much as the next woman, but I don’t swear by it. If I’m in the mood to step out in my pajamas to buy some staples at the shop on my street, I do it! I can understand and sympathize with the hypothetical American millionaire that goes out for a coffee in L.A. in their sweatpants. I think it’s OK and even commendable – a sign of being sure and confident in oneself without requiring outside approval every minute of the day. But this hypothetical billionaire would never do this were they of true French or francophone culture. In Francophone culture, image must reflect your quality and your social status, always.

This is the single, biggest cultural and professional difference for me coming from an Anglo-saxon approach into a francophone environment.

As Professor Higgins once rudely sang in “My Fair Lady” about the French and their obsession with proper French pronunciation “It doesn’t matter what you say…as long as you say it properly”.

Well, as in every cultural jibe…there’s some truth in this one too.

2. Being “diplomatic” tops being direct

In English-speaking Canada as in the USA good communication is understood to be direct and clear communication. We pay attention to verbalizing comfortable as well as uncomfortable truths so that everyone involved can have a clear understanding of the situation. We can be tactful – yes – while remaining direct. We think that good management and leadership includes these qualities of clarity, brevity and direction.

Here in the French-speaking world, yet again, form outweighs result and being diplomatic is often seen as more important than being direct. To be diplomatic though can be both helpful and harmful. It can mean the kind of diplomacy that helps to handle a delicate situation where many points of view and beliefs have to be respected, and it can also mean evasiveness, false flattery or outright lying. In Senegal, where people are conflict-evasive, this means that people will tell you exactly what you want to hear, while looking you straight in the eye…while never once having the intention to follow through on their words. Needless to say, this is tiring, confusing and undermines trustworthiness. The weight of our words is not viewed equally.

3. Reprimanding over rewarding

Perhaps I’m mistaken here… but I find the French management style singularly different from the American or Canadian model. The first places emphasis on highlighting mistakes and potential improvements while the former takes time to emphasize work well done and right attitudes. (Sarcastically) I have the distinct feeling that all the studies surrounding positive reinforcement, reward systems and motivations are made by the English-speaking and American community and remain there. Personally, I find it way too discouraging to continuously plod along in a cloud of could-have-been-better (of course things can always be better!)…I prefer to choose positivism, encouragement and reinforce in myself and others what has been done right.

 

4. Titles, diplomas and hierarchy

Here is another biggie – the idea of institutions and certificates firmly defining the personal or professional trajectory. Studies, titles and a properly planned career are fine… and so is the self-made man (or woman). The American dream lives on and its key component is the belief that time and energy invested towards an objective, any objective regardless its perceived outlandishness, reap the greatest harvests, always. My own journey of wildly changing career paths and interests in my 20s confirms that I really can do anything I put my mind too, whether or not it’s a field I’ve previously worked or studied in. In short, schooling, titles and career-climbing are OK, but just one among many models for success and not the one true path. Here, Francophones are more rigid in their approach and prefer a traditional model. Titles are scrutinized and years of study and experience praised.

So, voilà. Feel free to agree and disagree, this is certainly a very personal list, nor is it necessarily complete.

If you too have had experience with working on the one hand in Anglo-saxon or English speaking cultures and also in a Francophone ones… would you agree with the above observations? Is there anything that you would add here? What do you find to be the biggest difference for you, the native anglophone, when working alongside the francophone?

Thanks for sharing – au revoir et au plaisir de vous lire!

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