Navigating Cultural Misunderstandings in Franco-American Alliances

With my home city of Washington DC abuzz last week with the first state visit of French President, Emmanuel Macron, I was reminded of the infatuation many Americans hold towards all things French. Despite the long-standing friendship between the two countries, however, there are also significant differences that cause challenges in Franco-American alliances in the workplace. Many clients, from both sides of the Atlantic, are shocked when they discover just how dissimilar we are. After all our bond has weathered so many ups and downs in its nearly 250-year relationship that we should have a better understanding of each other, n’est-ce pas?

Unsurprisingly, the mutual perplexity French and Americans hold towards each other is entrenched in deep historical foundations.

In the more than 30 years I have worked with the French in both France and the U.S., I frequently hear both American and French colleagues voicing the same frustrations from different perspectives. While the list of complaints is long, there are several that appear regularly across the wide sector of clients with which I work.

  • Decision-making
    The French often complain about the Americans pragmatic “just do it” mentality which is counter to their need to analyze all angles of a topic, discuss its pros and cons, assess the stakes, and ensure consensus prior to making a decision. The speed of American decision-making seems precarious to the risk-averse French who need to debate a topic in depth prior to making a decision. The cause of this originates in the respective educational systems. Counter to the American emphasis on experiential, fact-based education, the French system is heavily influenced by its Cartesian roots, seeped in theory, doubt and questioning. (After all, philosopher René Descartes is famous for saying “I think therefore I am”). While the French balk at what they consider to be Americans’ impulsiveness, Americans grimace at their French counterparts’ overly cautious and time-consuming approach.
  • Accountability
    American clients are often shocked when they learn that there is no word in the French language that accurately mirrors the American notion of personal accountability. In France, making a mistake does irreversible damage to one’s reputation. Consequently, admitting to an error is virtually unheard of and French colleagues will often either shirk responsibility, shifting the blame to an unknown entity, or the problem will suddenly disappear never to be discussed again. When Americans insist on the party at fault admitting to an error so it can be fixed and everyone can move on, the impact can be devastating from a French colleague’s perspective, causing loss of face and eroding trust.
  • Information sharing and transparency
    Because of the hierarchical nature of French leadership and an overall suspicion towards people with whom a trusting relationship has not yet been established, the French can be notoriously parsimonious when it comes to sharing information. This can be a source of frustration for Americans who view team collaboration as being transparent with data and resources in order to move a project forward or not being informed in due time about a change in a decision that had previously been made.
  • Deadlines
    In the U.S. where the client is king, Americans will jump through hoops to ensure that a deadline is met. In France, the client-vendor relationship is more symbiotic, with the focus more on the final quality of a deliverable and a willingness to re-negotiate the deadline with a client. The more fluid adherence to deadlines from the French often leads Americans to incorrectly assume that their French counterparts cannot be counted upon, leading to mistrust. Probing to understand each side’s perspective—and the underlying expectations of their respective clients—can allow for more open discussion and collaboration.
  • Feedback
    While different communication styles impact how feedback is given and received, one complaint frequently expressed by Americans is the lack of positive feedback from their French managers or colleagues. Instead, they feel dejected when only being told when they do something wrong. Given the propensity for sandwich style feedback in the U.S. where a critique is cushioned between two positive responses, Americans often report feeling under-appreciated, thereby leading to lack of motivation and engagement on a project. In contrast, the French frequently convey their distrust of American-style feedback as being confusing, disingenuous and even superficial—particularly when their American colleagues overly exaggerate about something being “fantastic.”

While cultural differences will always be present, be mindful of how much our assumptions, perceptions and expectations often lead to miscommunication and mistrust. When we familiarize ourselves with the core differences in our respective values and beliefs and how they drive our behaviors, we are able to seek antidotes to address cultural issues proactively before they escalate further into us vs. them battlegrounds. Just as Rome was not built in a day, exploring these and other fundamental cultural differences and demonstrating a willingness to adopt alternative approaches to work will do much to bolster Franco-American alliances—in both diplomacy and in the meeting room.

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Intercultural Alliances, LLC

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