Learning French for business may seem like coming up against a whole other language.
Sure, vocabulary and grammar is the same. But some structures, rules, phrases and even words may seem foreign to your classroom-taught ears.
But don’t worry! With just a few tips to supplement your strong intermediate or advanced French background, you’ll be well on your way to rocking perfect French for business.
French Business Vocabulary
Much of the French vocabulary you’ll need in a business situation will be familiar to you, but some might seem foreign or unclear. So let’s straighten things out and make sure you’re ready for business.
Une réunion vs. un rendez-vous
When looking over your French vocabulary for meetings, you may come face-to-face with a few terms that seem a bit difficult to master.
One tough one is the difference between une réunion and un rendez-vous. Both are translated as “meeting” in English, so the nuance can be tough to grasp.
The main difference between these two words is that a réunion is by its very nature a business meeting, whereas a rendez-vous can be any sort of meeting, from a date to a doctor’s appointment to a meet-up with friends. Rendez-vous is a bit more like an appointment, whereas réunion constitutes a meeting, and yet both are useful in the workplace.
You might prendre rendez-vous (make an appointment) with someone in order to discuss something, but have a regular réunion in the salle de réu(nion) or meeting room, at work. Another difference is that a réunion is usually more formal than a rendez-vous.
On se donne rendez-vous à 16h? (Let’s meet at 4?)
Tu seras à la réunion de 16h? (Will you be at the 4pm meeting?)
General French Business Terms
Some French business words are cognates of English. For example, négociation or solution.
Others are easy to deduce, as they’re direct translations of English expressions. For example, gagnant-gagnant or perdant-perdant (win-win/lose-lose).
Still others, however, need a bit of additional knowledge to understand. Here are just a few general French business terms it’s good to be familiar with in the workplace or when applying for jobs:
appel d’offres: Loosely translated as a “call for bids,” (RFQ – Request for Quotation) an appel d’offres is often required in France before a business can pick a sous-traitant (subcontractor). This is particularly useful and common in IT (informatique in French).
· CDI: A CDI or contrat à durée indéterminée is one of two main contract types given to employees in France. A CDI is a long-term contract that cannot be terminated by either party without two months (sometimes three months) notice.
· CDD: A CDD or contrat à durée déterminée is a short-term work contract, usually for 3-6 months. Because firing employees is a complicated procedure in France, many companies hire employees on a CDD (or even two) before deciding to offer them a CDI.
French Business Hierarchy
One of the most common worries in the French workplace is the business hierarchy.
French, unlike English, has several different registres de langue (language registers) that are meant to be used with people of different hierarchies, not to mention that whole double second-person pronoun thing. It’s no wonder this part of French business vocabulary can be challenging!
The most important words to know in this area are the words that designate the different members of the company and their positions—we’ll talk about registers and tu/vous in just a bit.
For now, just bear in mind that every company has an employeur (employer) and several employés (employees).
There may also be a few stagiaires (interns), or even some apprentis (apprentices), depending on your company.
Some students also work en alternance, a system that allows them to attend school half the time and work half the time, funding their studies and gaining essential experience.
The CEO of the company is known as the PDG (président-directeur général) and is likely known ininformal terms as le chef, le patron or even le boss.
How do you refer to your job?
A job within a company is usually called un poste. You have un poste at a company, but when someone asks what you do, they’re asking for your métier, or trade. You likely went to school to learn your métier.
Once you land the poste, you might decide to use some slightly more familiar terms to refer to it. Un travail can be referred to as un boulot or even un taff—but be careful! These last two words are slang and won’t fly too well if you’re talking to le boss!
Culture in French Business
A discussion of business in France wouldn’t really be complete without addressing the cultural aspect. As mentioned above, there are lots of things to bear in mind when conversing in a French business place, and for many, vocabulary would appear to be the least of your worries.
One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in the French workplace is deciding whether to use “tu” or “vous” with your boss and colleagues. This is made all the more difficult when you realize there’s no hard-and-fast rule! In the past, everyone in the workplace used vous exclusively, but with the onset of certain American influences (including open space offices and young people invading the workforce), the tendency is moving more towards tu, especially if you are working for a French company based in Australia.
Your best bet when deciding which to use is to always err on the side of caution and use vous, especially in your early correspondence. After that, be attentive and listen to how other people are speaking.
One clue might be the dress code of your office. Some offices have laid-back dress codes, and this is a good hint that employés are using tu with one another—and sometimes even with the boss! But if neckties are an essential part of everyone’s work uniform, you can probably bet that you’ll be using vous, at the very least with your superiors.
Another element of culture shock when it comes to the French workplace is the breaks. While smoking is coming out of fashion and there are therefore fewer pauses clopes (cigarette breaks) to take, nearly everyone starts their morning around the coffeepot, chatting with their co-workers. They’ll likely take a few pauses café throughout the morning and afternoon, and lunch will likely be an hour (or two!).
You’ll be seen as impolite if you don’t take part in these classically French breaks, greeting everyone with bonjour! when you arrive in the morning and taking time away from your screen to enjoy lunch in the cafeteria, at a restaurant with your colleagues or at a table in the open space.
With all of this break time, you’d think that the French would be clinically behind on work, but studies have shown that the French are some of the most productive workers in the world!
If Business Vocabulary and Culture still seems foreign to you and you want to make sure to avoid any faux-pas with your new French boss, best might be to work together on reviewing how to best present yourself in such a context.