France and America at Work: The Same, but Different

The French and the Americans appear to be similar. And yet, when they have to work together, misunderstandings can arise and lead to frustration. Through their professional experiences, Sabine Landolt, a visual communication entrepreneur, and Agathe Laurent, a marketing studies entrepreneur, had to deal with this challenge and occasionally found themselves in comical situations. In an effort to understand our differences, they interviewed 50 French and American people who have spent several years working with colleagues “from the other side,” and compiled their testimonies in a book, Can We Agree to Disagree?, now available in French and English. This beautifully illustrated guide offers practical solutions for anyone working in a French-American professional environment.
© Rachel Levit Ruiz

France-Amérique: In your experience, what defines French and American work cultures?

Sabine Landolt and Agathe Laurent: Work culture in the United States is characterized by its flexibility and responsiveness. Americans always try to reply quickly, to adapt, to change. They offer solutions, think about what is scalable, and identify the processes required to achieve a given goal. Theirs is a very pragmatic culture that reacts to different circumstances. By contrast, French work culture is far more rooted in continuity – people change careers far less – and a certain sluggishness – there are more protocols, stages in decision-making processes, hierarchies, and validation steps. In a way, it is more thoughtful. On an individual level, attitudes to work seem more emotional in French culture, with more space for interpersonal relations and private discussions. The French sometimes have meetings just to connect with each other, to be together without an agenda or making any decisions, which can be very strange to an American. As for the French, they are astonished by the U.S. culture of action, the constant search for efficiency, and the inability to switch off. They simultaneously admire and hate this culture.

“The French work to live; Americans live to work.” Do you think that this saying is true?

This saying is largely based on the structural organization of both countries, and is actually one of the chapters in our book. Without a job in the United States, it is difficult to access health insurance or simply meet your needs. In France, the search for pleasure and quality of life are essential, and the system allows for that. With this in mind, many French people are surprised to discover that their annual vacation time does not interest Americans. And many Americans still don’t understand where the French disappear between noon and 2 p.m. As always, this simplification may seem stereotypical, but the testimonies that we have collected which illustrate this deep-seated contrast are eloquent and, honestly, not as amusing as you might expect. This subject is actually very profound and sensitive.

Which other American clichés about the French at work, and vice versa, appeared the most during your research?

About France, the clichés include vacation time and lunch breaks, as well as the need to debate and demonstrate. Then there is the habit of systematic criticism – French people who say no but do things anyway! Others include the absence of taboos about politics or sexuality. When it comes to America, the main clichés are the highly casual, very direct manner, and superlatives – the ultra-positive mindset in which everything is great and amazing! Incessant discussions about sports and a strict ban on flirting are two others. While some clichés are disappearing with globalization and the arrival of a new generation, and can vary between different types of companies, they are still deeply rooted in our cultures.

With its paid vacation time, retirement system, and unions, France is often seen as a strange, alien place in America. Is France’s social model admired by the U.S., or rather seen as something to avoid at all costs?

We have to remember that job security is part of the French model. According to the people we interviewed, we can see that this is somewhat envied for the comfort and peace of mind it provides. For the Americans who experienced it, French-style vacation was a way to recharge their batteries, and the concept became highly desirable. They saw the positive impact that it had on their work: “When I got back from my first long vacation, I realized that I had found my creativity again, that I was more inspired. I never wanted to go back to the old ways,” said John, one of our interviewees, who worked in France for eight years. But all these apparent advantages are also seen as obstacles to economic dynamism and, on a personal level, a hinderance in a system of career progression founded on merit.

France is the sixth largest world power while working an average of 35 hours a week with five weeks of paid annual leave. How do you explain this “French paradox”?

We have found that France has a two-tier economic reality. Many French people work far more than we imagine. France also produces extremely versatile and exceptionally well-trained executives. Some statistics show that France has the highest hourly productivity rates. It seems that counting the days until vacation is a great motivator!

© Bayrol Jimenez

“Entrepreneur” is originally a French word. However, according to a stubborn myth, entrepreneurial spirit is not a part of French culture. As French-American entrepreneurs, who do you think has the best business culture, France or America?

France is proving to be an incredible entrepreneurial breeding ground. Until now, risk culture – and opportunity – has of course been more present in the United States, as the market is more fluid and investors are more generous. The amount of capital raised in the U.S. is far greater than in France. America is the land of “Yes you can,” “Just do it,” and “Fake it ‘til you make it!” Americans trust personalities, whereas the French tend to spend too much time studying resumés – to the point that French entrepreneurs often choose to move to the United States. However, times are changing, and these cultural aspects tend to shift very quickly. French political support for the tech sector and the boom in start-up incubators are making us more than optimistic that entrepreneurship can also be a part of French culture.

We often compare French-style management, with its reliance on authority, with American-style management, which is more flexible and based on collaboration and teamwork. Do you have any examples from your research to illustrate this contrast?

Yes, many! This is typically seen in how decisions are made. French bosses tend to decide and impose their own visions. Americans, on the other hand, are good at motivating and mobilizing their teams while making each person feel that they have something to contribute. However, it should be noted that the French are increasingly making efforts to be collaborative and integrate American-style team-building techniques. This is particularly visible among U.S.-based French entrepreneurs who have a talent for taking the best of both worlds.

The French are quick to criticize the American capitalist model, despite the fact that it is embodied by the concept of the “start-up nation” in France. Have mentalities changed in France?

Historically, France has a complicated relationship with money and hardcore capitalism. These concepts are almost taboo, and the French tend to criticize people who are perceived as too wealthy. It is not uncommon to hear insults like “rich asshole” when an expensive car overtakes someone on the highway. It is hard to imagine a French Elon Musk trying to develop trips to the moon! Such extravagance would be seen as vulgar, pretentious, and above all illegitimate due to its lack of meaning for the collective interest – a requirement for garnering respect in France. That being said, American successes in the tech sector, among others, are increasingly envied. Many of our contributors have succeeded – or want to succeed – like Americans, and do not hide their materialistic aspirations. In this way, capitalism can sometimes be seen in a positive light when associated with more noble values such as entrepreneurship, risk-taking, creativity, and the ability to bring ideas to life and surround oneself with the right people. As we said before, inspiring examples in France – such as political support for entrepreneurs and the growth of entrepreneurship training courses – are helping to change mentalities. But will we ever see a world in which the French do not lambast overly rapid or excessive financial success? Probably not.

Gender relations have changed enormously. But American legislation is far stricter on sexual harassment, and is renowned for being fairer in terms of equal pay for equal work. As women, in which environment do you feel the most comfortable, and why?

Definitely in the United States! In New York City, where we live, we feel able to suggest ideas without being judged on our gender. In terms of sexual harassment, rules of appropriate conduct are more established in the United States and may seem excessive. However, we find them reassuring. It was actually very interesting to listen to French men explain how this is a horrible situation for them. They feel incredibly frustrated. One said: “I’ve become an emotionless robot.” Another commented: “We know that it is not a question of will I be sued, but rather when.” But there is still a lot of work to do in the fight against sexist bias, including in the United States, where there are still major regional differences. There is also the infamous glass ceiling for salaries and career progression.

What advice would you give to an American working in France, and vice versa, on the attitude to adopt when dealing with management?

Our book is packed with tips and tricks to help everyone work better together. But the best advice is to listen, stay curious, humble, kind, and take the best from each culture!

Can We Agree to Disagree?
by Sabine Landolt and Agathe Laurent, TBR Books, 2020.


Interview published in the August 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.