Decoding French Culture

Various definitions of 'Culture' include a set of integrated values, attitudes, customs, beliefs, knowledge, shared lifestyle, history, civilisation, practices that are common to a social group. No two cultures are alike and no particular culture is superior to others.


Our aim, while trying to decode French or any other culture, is not to understand an individual but to understand the basic traits of the society which are applicable for majority of its members. It is best to consider our 'own' culture, whatever that may be, as a starting and reference point for understanding others.



Apart from a prominent National culture, each individual can have a 'regional' culture (eg. a Mumbaiite, a Breton, a New-Yorker, a Basque culture etc.) in addition to having various sub-cultures owing to association with religious groups, social class, generation (X or Y etc.), educational institutes, sports club so on and so forth. This makes it complicated to understand the person one might be dealing with because of several layers of what might be termed as 'cultural conditioning'.

On various 'cultural' parameters, if a straight line were to be drawn, if US would be on one side and India on the other, France may be somewhere in the middle depending on the 'trait' being considered. These parameters are discussed herewith in detail.

Individual v/s Community

When we migrate from one country to other, we consciously search for and find solace with people from our own country. Expat communities and associations, that serve the general interest of the community at large, are commonplace. eg. American Hospital of Paris or Franco-British Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Various networking websites have on-line communities for members that share common interest. While all of us may need community affiliation, one time or the other, the need is more pre-dominant in Asian communities.

13th district of Paris (dubbed tentatively as the 'Asian Quarter') or the Gare du Nord area (the 'Indian Quarter' of Paris) are glorious examples. Such quarters serve the sub-conscious need for expats by offering certain cultural symbols- from indigenous food products to artefacts, from ethnic clothes to even bill-boards in native language- infusing a sense of belonging in 'members'. Thus communal bonding is raised to an institutional level compared to the 'western' countries.

Expat French do bond together. But no expat French community, virtual or real, can offer, outside of France, an extensive cheese and wine selection, in a number more than the days in a year! No wonder then that the 'real' French affiliation is found only when the expat French come back to their homeland. Apart from the gastronomic delights, the pleasure of listening to one's language, the French social-security and an above-average medical coverage are some of the other factors that attract back the members. The French-like 'Quebec' or 'Pondicherry', a 'Louisiana' or a 'Mauritius' are not French aberrations, they are rather a colonial heritage.

Where would you place France vis-a-vis your own country- more individual, less community or vice versa?

Whether we are individual oriented or society oriented, it gives us clue as to how best we could relate to people at work place. If your co-worker or colleague comes from a culture that is more community-based, then the management style they are used to is more paternalistic- the boss needs to make the decision and take the responsibility. Whereas if your co-worker comes from an individual oriented culture, they may be more used to an autonomous management style, more delegation of power and responsibility. Personal management styles thus can be switched depending on the culture of one's team, time-lines, and the corporate culture, for optimum results.


Attitudes to Entrepreneurship

Of all things French, the word 'Entrepreneur' is a gift to the English language from French. It is believed to have been first coined in 1800s by Jean-Baptiste Say- a French economist, businessman and an espouser to the cause of free trade and competition. Incidentally, Say was also the man behind his famous law 'supply creates its demand'. Richard Cantillon- famous for his Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en Général (1730), gave leadership ability as a quality for Entrepreneurship. Cantillon, an Irishman by birth who lived most of his life in France, is considered to be a foremost political economist. With such illustrious beginnings for entrepreneurship in France, do we assume that the French have it in their genes to be an enterprising lot?

Who is an 'Entrepreneur' ? One of the indicators of entrepreneurship is the attitude to risk taking. What does 'coming out of one's comfort zone' mean to you? Are you comfortable taking risks? Does putting aside financial and other securities come easily to you? As per several dictionaries, an entrepreneur is the one who undertakes an enterprise, venture, risk and assumes sole responsibility for his/her ideas, actions and outcomes.

The attitude to risk taking varies as per cultures. Multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, new-world countries like the US are found to be more open to risk-taking than Asian countries. Perhaps there is a link between being individual-oriented (from previous)- responsible for one's own self- and the attitude to taking risks. The community based cultures, on the other hand, foster a sense of protectionism and immunity to its members. This may render them less prone to standing out and taking risks.

Where does that leave France ? French may seem to be more prone to taking risks than members of Asian cultures, including India. However, compared to the US, Anglo-Saxon and Nordic countries, the French would seem more protectionist and less open to risks.

Whichever side of the risk-matrix you may belong, in order to reduce the risk quotient with a French co-worker or superior, a well-worked, presentable, thought-through and suitably documented plan or project is likely to work better than an equally well thought-out plan without proper documentation. This French affinity for processes may be explained from Cartesian thought process angle. René Descartes, French mathematician, writer & 'Father of Modern Philosophy', 1596-1650, believed in scientific investigation to de-construct everything and to re-establish them with genuine understanding. This would also mean, dear fellows, to be well prepared to explain the processes with back-up documents and to answer a lot of questions to your French counterpart!



This is the first in a series of cross-cultural articles to help the reader understand the nuances of French culture in a social or business setting. More articles to follow soon.