job interview in France, help me avoid awkwardness
April 25, 2011 8:42 AM   Subscribe

What should I know about french cultural conventions in the context of a job interview?

I've passed a first job interview in Spain, which I think went great. I was immediately notified that the second interview would take place in Paris, where R&D is located. This is a purely technical interview that will take place in English, which is no problem at all for me; what has me worried is knowing nothing about French pleasantries or "faux pas", specially in a business context. I'm looking for tips on how to be a more appealing candidate and how to avoid awkward situations derived from the ignorance of the French ways. I'm talking about things like:

  • Would it be helpful to my cause to exchange greetings in French, even though the interview is in English? If so, should I address the interviewer as "vous" instead of "tu"? (I ask because this formality is already obsolete in Spanish business).
  • If introduced to women, should I kiss them in the cheek or shake hands? I'm guessing a handshake would be more appropiate, but I'd like to be sure.
  • I'll be wearing suit and tie, would this be seen as "too formal" for an R&D environment?

    Answers to questions such as these would be very helpful, but if you have other tips on how to make Parisians like you, please share!
  • posted by valdesm to Human Relations (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
    - If you decide to exchange greetings in french, never use "tu", as even people who are fairly close to each other can call ecah other "vous", in the business context. It all tends to depend on the firm's politics... but for a first meeting, you'll be perfect with "vous". IANARecruiter, therefore do not know know what it would be like to start off with such a greeting, but if your sentences are well thought, and your accent is alright / cute.... why not ?
    - You may not want to kiss the interviewer on the cheek. That's quite a no-no, as formal meetings are all set with the handshake code.
    - The suit and tie should work out fine.. and wouldn't be one bit too dressed-up. Make sure you are at ease wearing the ones you'll pick...
    Good luck on your spanish-frenchy-whatnot experience !
    posted by Jireel at 9:46 AM on April 25, 2011

    Another vote for vous not tu, handshake not kiss, suit and tie. It is very, very hard to harm your chances in France by being too formal, too polite or too well dressed. Any offer to be more familiar or casual should be initiated by them once you have got to know each other.
    posted by rongorongo at 1:02 PM on April 25, 2011

    you are describing a multicultural company so follow their protocols! The interview is in English, begin in English, only if offered the opportunity to socialise later try out your French, and even then only if the people you are with are French.
    Many French people welcome a stab at their language, a larger section of them however, knowing how few Anglophones can actually pronounce French vowels, cringe when people mangle it, so if you are confident your accent is good, wait for a more social opportunity to show you respect them enough to try it out.
    Their R&D section may be all English speakers, wait until you have more information before you try anything.
    posted by Wilder at 1:53 PM on April 25, 2011

    Firstly the fact you're asking this is great, and shows you're already thinking about the kinds of things that are essential to bear in mind when working internationally.

    I'm working in France now, in an international (working lang is English) but predominantly French culture organisation. To agree with what has gone before, politeness and formality are good things, handshakes not kisses for professional relations, and if in doubt follow their lead.

    From my own interview experience here, even if the interview is in English, I would recommend knowing how to ask for your interview at reception in French, you may not need it but reception staff aren't always bilingual, so if you can manage 'Bonjour, j'ai un entretien avec M. XX a X heures' it maybe helpful. I have to say that I have always found any efforts I make are appreciated rather than cringed at...however I am not in Paris, in the provinces they may be more tolerant.

    As an FYI experience of recruiting French candidates is that they don't ask that many questions at the end of the interview. Being anglo-saxon I always ask a lot, and apparently the staff who recruited me were a little bemused... it's more acceptable in US/UK/Aus culture. Having said that, if it's an international/multicultural environment, they should be used to all the different permutations of international-ness, so it shouldn't specifically count against you (it didn't for me)

    Am sure you already do this, but worth mentioning: if you are being interviewed by non-native English speakers, try to pace your speech so it is clear and avoid sayings/slang that may not been immediately understandable. Industry specific jargon is probably fine in R&D, but maybe worth checking if there are terms that are more used in the US than European (and the equivalents if needs be), just for your own awareness.

    If you will be working in France, ask if they will provide language tuition - even if the official language is English, having an 'in' to the French side of the organisation is a massive help.

    Also, less relevant for the interview but maybe relevant later, hierarchy is important in France, and I have found this is 'followed' more than in anglo-saxon work environments - ideas from bright young upstarts may not be as appreciated as proposals from senior staff: titles matter, so does a bit of grey hair! You can make this system work for you, of course.

    For once you get hired: another aspect of hierarchical working I have found here is that information sharing can be selective, which can make open team work more challenging. Evening overtime is acceptable, though not too late, but weekend working is incomprehensible to my French colleagues, unless the project is really a life or death matter. Meetings are more for discussing than for actions/decisions - these happen later, in corridor discussions etc. Arriving 10-15 minutes late for a meeting is forgiveable (and frequently considered 'on time', unless the staff involved have worked a lot with Northern Europeans/US).

    Oh! and when trying to agree a strategic approach for a project,I have found French colleagues may want to build things up from Cartesian principles....this may just be where I work but I think the fact teenagers in France study philosophy up to 18 definitely plays a role.

    Lastly, restaurant recommendations, food and meals out is always a failsafe relationship builder with French peers and colleagues - maybe useful for the post-interview walk out of the office :)

    Sorry I've given way more than you need for the interview but hopefully it all helps set the scene, and give you an idea of how your interviewers may be approaching things from a slightly different perspective.

    Good luck!
    posted by Skaramoosh at 5:17 PM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

    I should've clarified that the job is in Madrid although the company is French. Since English is my second language, I think the interview will be a struggle of accents! thanks for all the answers, and Skaramoosh for the great tips!
    posted by valdesm at 1:47 AM on April 26, 2011

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