FRANCE: SO WHAT GAVE THOSE GALLICS SUCH GALL?

FRANCE: SO WHAT GAVE THOSE GALLICS SUCH GALL? - The French are often criticised as arrogant, obstinate chauvinists. Richard D Lewis offers an explanation: look to their sense of history, love of logic and skilful use of language.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The French are often criticised as arrogant, obstinate chauvinists. Richard D Lewis offers an explanation: look to their sense of history, love of logic and skilful use of language.

The British visit France more than any other foreign country, they learn French more than any other language, they twin their towns with French ones, thousands of British and French children exchange homes every year, they play the French at nearly every sport invented, and have not had a decent war with them for over a century.

Yet the geographical, cultural and even linguistic closeness of the two countries has failed to produce real intimacy. In business, in particular, cross-cultural problems persist. The litany of British grievances is familiar: the French are obstinate, arrogant, and irrevocably chauvinistic; they don't like to speak foreign languages, especially English; they can't keep to an agenda; they talk too much at meetings; they are finicky; they prefer ideas to facts, and won't make decisions in a normal, straightforward manner.

The charge of arrogance is perhaps most easily handled. Both in politics and business, the French like to be independent, at times maverick, and frequently find themselves out on a limb at international meetings, isolated in their intransigence when all others have settled for compromise. They have a strong sense of history and tend to believe that they have set the norms for democracy, justice, government and legal systems, military strategy, philosophy, science, agriculture, viniculture, haute cuisine and savoir-vivre in general. Other nations, they reason, vary from these norms and have a lot to learn.

The long and significant involvement of the French in European and world affairs also gives the French the conviction that their voice should be heard loud and clear in international forums. And though their political, military and economic strengths may no longer predominate, they see no diminution of their moral and didactic authority.

So how should one deal with the French? Should one 'gallicise' oneself to some degree and become more talkative, imaginative and intense? Or should one maintain stolid, honest manners at the risk of seeming wooden or failing to communicate?

First, one should behave more formally than usual, using only surnames and showing exaggerated politeness to French senior executives. One should also stick strictly to logic, avoiding American style 'hunches' or British style 'feel for situations'. One shouldn't contradict anything one has said, even months earlier, or a Frenchman will pounce.

It is the pride of place accorded to logic and rational argument, together with the skilful use of language, that marks out the French negotiating style. French debating logic is Cartesian in essence, which means that all pre-suppositions and traditional opinions must be cast aside from the outset as untrustworthy. Discussion must be based on one or two indubitable truths upon which one can build through mechanical and deductive processes to clarify further truths and knowledge. It is not surprising that French negotiators often appear complacently confident and long-winded. They have a hypothesis to build and are not in a hurry; they see no reason to compromise if their logic stands undefeated.

The apparent long-windedness of the French starts early. From childhood, the French education system places a premium on good speaking, purity of grammar and mastery of the French idiom. Loquacity, articulacy and eloquence of expression are all equated with intelligence; unlike many of their contemporaries, French children are rarely discouraged from being talkative.

In later life, in business, the French learn to use their language like a rapier. It is a quick, exact language, and a French person fences with it, cutting, thrusting and parrying, using it for advantage, expecting counter thrusts, retorts and repartee. It is regarded as fair play for a Frenchman to manipulate his language, often at great speed, to be wilder and eventually corner his opponent. Language is also the chief weapon wielded by the French manager in directing, motivating and dominating his own staff. Less articulate Frenchmen will show no resentment. Masterful use of logic and language implies, in their understanding, masterful management.

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