In Focus:  Communicating With The French

Low- and High-Context Societies

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall once pointed out that any kind of information transfer between humans relies on both meaning and context.  He also noted that they are “inextricably bound up with each other” and thus cannot be measured independently.

However, their relative influence can vary greatly between different cultures.  Where a society is found on the high-low-context continuum determines how implicitly or explicitly information is communicated among their members.  The fact that this also applies to information transferred to “non-members” of the culture makes understanding context very important in international business communication.

Hall describes “low-context” cultures as those where most of the information is communicated through the explicit part of a message.  Americans are on the low-context side of the continuum.  Others, for instance Germans and Northern Europeans, are even closer to that end of the spectrum: in their oral and written communication, most information is clearly stated and little is found “between the lines”.  It is advisable to be very explicit and factual when communicating with people from these cultures.

On the other side of the spectrum are high-context cultures in which much of the information transferred lies in the physical context or is internalized in the person communicating.  People in these cultures will resort to highly explicit information transfers only if none of those involved in the communication share a sufficient context understanding.  A good example of a high-context culture, and one that often baffles Americans, is France.  While it is not at the extreme end of the spectrum (where Japan and China are found), understanding how communication works in and with France is a good preparation before interacting with other high-context cultures.

France:  One Is Expected to Know

Several Americans doing business with French companies, or with French subsidiaries within their own companies, reported that they often felt as if they were being kept in the dark on purpose.  People seemed to ignore proposals, left emails unanswered, and it seemed impossible to predict their decisions.  A complaint that is frequently heard is that the French “just won’t tell you what is going on”.

People in France have a different view of how to communicate information.  What is said and written in formal communication is often kept to a bare minimum, at least when viewed from an American perspective.  While in the U.S. information is readily available and updates are often provided automatically, in France, one is expected to ask and find out.  The primary sources for this are individual contacts, and the French will spend considerable time developing and nurturing their networks.  In this high-context culture, building a strong network of dependable relationships is a way to “fill the gaps” and become aware of what is going on.

Note that this applies to the French communicating among themselves as well.  For example, it can be surprising to observe how little information French managers will sometimes share with their employees.  They will frequently expect employees to find out themselves whatever it is they need to know.


Here is some advice to help you become more effective when communicating with the French in business.

  • Watch carefully for subtle messages conveyed through choice of words, body language, also through what is
    not being said.
  • Spend considerable time building your own network of insiders, intermediaries, and influencers.
  • When in doubt, ask questions rather than waiting for someone to inform you.
  • Communicate through people, not channels.
  • Do not rely on e-mail (the French may or may not respond). Call them instead.

(This article is also available on our web page)
  Link to article on web page

Book Of The Month
French or Foe?


While not without flaws, this is a useful source for information about country and culture.

Countless examples, short stories, and interviews make it entertaining reading.

(click title for full book review)


Web Site Of The Month
France from A to Z


Compilation of useful facts to know about France, provided by the French Embassy to the United States.

(click title to visit this web site)


Quote Of The Month

What is history
but a fable agreed upon?

(Napoleon Bonaparte)


Leadership Crossroads
is a global resource for

  • International Team Development
  • Global Business Coaching & Training
  • Cross-Cultural Project Management Assistance
  • Outsourcing Preparation
  • Cross-Cultural Negotiation Training and Assistance
  • Organizational Learning and Development
  • Executive Coaching
Would you like to know more about us?

The right place for your
and your company's
international and
competency development

Lothar Katz is the founder of Leadership Crossroads.  He has a wealth of experience in achieving productive coopera-tion across cultures and driving business success on a global scale.
A seasoned former executive of a For­tune 500 company, he regularly interacted with employees, cus­tomers, out-sourcing partners, and third parties in more than 25 countries around the world.


Contact :
Leadership CrossroadsTM, 2005

Global Business Practices:
Ten Tips For Doing Business in France

  • Although many people speak English, discussions will often switch back to French. This is not meant as an offense and does not mean that they are hiding things from you.
  • Share your ideas freely, but give compelling reasons for why they will work. The French admire both logic and creativity.
  • Formal authority is normally respected and managers may sometimes strike you as 'bossy'.
  • This is a "multi-linear" culture. Don't expect people to follow checklists or stay focused on one thing at a time.
  • The French use both indirect and, at times, very direct ways to communicate. Pay attention to subtle messages.
  • Being loud, quickly addressing people by their first names, displaying poor table manners can be deadly sins in France.
  • One's private life is considered private and is not a good topic for small talk unless you know the person well.
  • Although Frenchmen can be very relaxed and casual, staying on the formal side is usually the safe choice.
  • Showing great respect for the country's culture and for its people's intense national pride is prudent if you want to do business in France.
  • Business life in France will almost shut down during the vacation period between mid-July and the end of August.

Our newsletter is a monthly publication about all aspects of International and Cross-Cultural Business Management.  Past issues can be found in our  newsletter archive.

If this issue has been forwarded to you, would you like to subscribe to it now?

If you are a current subscriber but you do not wish to receive this newsletter in future, simply send a blank e-mail to