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  • Writer's pictureMarie Tseng

CI In Conversation #2 - Working harmoniously with the French? Is that even possible?

“ Working harmoniously with the French? Is that even possible?” This candid remark came from a close American friend. Together with Frederic Laplanche, Ambassador of France to Malaysia, and Gilles Waeldin, President of the CCIFM (Chamber of Commerce and Industry France Malaysia), we attempted to find an answer to the question.

A Strong Culture

In his role as a diplomat, Frederic Laplanche’s local, Malaysian colleagues have often actively chosen to work in a French environment, enticed by the culture. France’s status as the most visited country in the world and the 7th largest economy on the globe (as per the IMF’s World Economic Outlook Database) is also a testament to its attractive cultural elements. Working in a French space also gives non-French employees access to the French language, the world’s 5th most spoken language, and the rest of the Francophone countries, which makes learning it a worthwhile investment.

However working in a multicultural environment, where you are a minority or have to join another culture in a workspace, always raises unique challenges.. When Malaysian colleagues arrive in an environment where there is a predominant French culture, like the embassy, it may not be so easy. When Frederic asked his Malaysian colleagues, they said working in a French environment often means ceaseless debating, an insistence on critical thinking, and receiving criticism a lot more directly than you might do in a Malaysian environment. Indeed in France we value the ability to constantly question and review ideas and opinions. Being sceptic and in doubt in the face of absolute certainty are beliefs that stem back to the philosophies of the Enlightenment.

Learning how to say no is another challenge; Malaysians are accustomed to refraining from refusing outright, whilst the French attend to say ‘no’ a lot. For Frederic, despite these cultural differences, it is important to be able to communicate clearly. Sometimes we might think we completely understand each other, but due to language and culture, we may have misunderstood entirely. His advice to Malaysians: do not be afraid to ask, make sure you understand, and that you are understood.

Culture Shock

Gilles Waeldin has over 20 years of experience in bringing French organisations to Malaysia. For him, both cultures need to make a step towards each other in order for a Franco-Malaysian workplace to be successful. Hence why it is important for the Malaysians to understand their French colleagues and vice-versa, to avoid misunderstandings and stress in the organisation. “When you arrive in a new Malaysian team and you realise that as a boss you will never be criticised, or challenged because no one will speak out against you, it is quite a shock, because in the French culture there is usually a lot of debate.” says Gilles. He attended many Management meetings where nobody said anything during the entire time; this is different from a French company where there is a lot of open challenge and where it is accepted that the boss doesn’t always have all the answers.

There are also differences in how we approach work and projects. Gilles worked on the merger and acquisition of a Malaysian company by a French group looking to expand further into Asia. For the French, before making an investment, it was important to have a detailed forecast, numbers and a scenario planning. The Malaysian’s couldn’t understand why all of a sudden they needed to give so many explanations, when the business had always run smoothly without. The French couldn’t understand how the Malaysian’s could justify their business decisions without this information. The two teams could not comprehend each other and it became a “blocking point” between both groups.

Looking at the Cultural Impact Scan framework based on Dr Asma Abdullah 16 cultural dimensions, Malaysia and France can sometimes have different takes on key dimensions.

French Paradox #1: Hierarchy and Autonomy

The first dimension where the French and Malaysians have a different understanding is hierarchy. Frederic reminded us of the French Republic’s national motto: Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity). French people are very much principle based - they like to be able to relate to values, both in their personal lives and in their work. They want to know what they are working for. Frederic says that in this context, looking at the tradition of critical thinking and debate as well as the notion of equality, one may think that French don’t place any kind of emphasis on hierarchy. As confusing as it might seem, this belief actually runs contrary to the very real presence and importance placed on hierarchy. The ability to be critical, participate in a debate, and consider the other as your equa doesn’t prevent you from respecting the idea that someone else will make the decisions and that someone else remains the boss.

This means that the codes to understand hierarchy in France are less explicit than in Malaysia. Because of the aspiration for equality, inherited from the French Revolution, the French do not like to care as much about age or titles as Malaysians do. Nevertheless, we still bear the legacy of a monarchy where the king was the sole decision maker. You see that today in French political institutions and in private organisations. In France it is not because you call your boss by his given name that you are on a totally equal footing.

So how do you know where you stand in French companies? “Look at your organisational chart, be in open dialogue with others to understand the context and also respect the ‘order of things’ in the structure” advises Frederic.

Another cultural dimension that matters to the French is the notion of individualism and the strong need for a sense of autonomy- Many Malaysians working with the French can be puzzled: how does one reconcile being autonomous yet respecting hierarchy ?

Gilles’s explanation explored the differences in how we consider the group and the individual in France and in Malaysia. French individualism can sometimes be counterproductive; he gave the example of unions in France which struggle to reconcile their individual specificity with their desire to act together as a group. But as an employee in a French organisation, standing out as an individual will make your career because you will be supported. The French look for people who drive and initiate things, hence the emphasis on autonomy. One to one targets are more important than group objectives. People respect those who take responsibility: If something goes wrong in France; you can’t blame the group.

French Paradox #2: Critical thinking and Creative thinking

For Frederic that sense of autonomy is closely linked to creative thinking. Individual staff members are expected to bring new ideas and creativity is highly valued. However, you must remember that a new idea will need to be validated by the hierarchy and this is when you will need to demonstrate critical thinking in order to convince your boss that you have thought this idea through thoroughly. It echoes the example that Gilles shared earlier about his experience with the merger and acquisition.

So not only do you need to be creative, but you also need to be articulate, fully enunciate your thought process in detail, spell out every detail for people to examine, change and potentially criticise. This is a topic of frustration for many Malaysians who work with the French and may interpret these meticulous and exhaustive demands as a lack of respect and value for their ideas. On the contrary, the French demonstrate interest and respect by challenging your ideas.

Gilles suggested that this precision and comprehensive explanation comes from our education: “At school we never had multiple choice options in our tests, we were always required to submit a full, written answer - essays. We are used to lengthy and detailed justifications.”

This leads us to the question of communication. Malaysians think that the French are very direct, while Americans see us as very opaque,indirect, and vague. So what is the best way to communicate with the French?

Frederic reminds us there is no one size fits all and each individual will communicate differently. Yet, the French people share a common culture and most of the time, they will be interested in the cultures around them. The people who come to Malaysia have decided to come here to expatriate themselves. They have made an active choice to come and understand. This may be a good way to connect and communicate with your French colleagues: share information and insights about Malaysian culture.

A Malaysian participant commented that the French are indeed very interested in local culture but for their own knowledge, at a cognitive level. However connecting and communicating at a personal level with the French can be tricky as they also tend to keep to their own social groups. In some cases, you will need to get familiar with french communication codes to fit in.

Frederic encourages Malaysian to explain their culture to the French and to not hesitate to tell them why as Malaysians, they might react differently. Gilles agreed, “silence is the worst,”, the French are willing to accept criticism; they have been educated this way! So tell them when their behaviour is not appropriate, the French should be open to adapting and learning.

French Paradox #3 : Reason and Art de Vivre

Another piece of advice from Gilles is to take meals and lunch times seriously. For the French, these are an extension of our meetings. Lunch at work is a place for debate and discussion. So invite your colleagues to go for lunch, it is an informal venue for sharing and communication.

However, it is key to understand that Malaysians and French people may have different expectations regarding lunch. For Malaysians, lunch is not a place for work related conversation, whereas the French prefer to blend casual and serious talk. Always remember that the French enjoy a subtle harmony between reasoning and structure and being social and casual. The two don’t conflict. People might not understand how two people can get heated over a debate but then grab an easygoing coffee after. In Malaysia that might result in a break in a relationship. In France this is completely normal. The challenge is to find the right balance - it can’t be a one way discussion. One example is food, because food is supremely important for both cultures. Or local politics. A blend of serious topics with what’s going on in the world etc.

Frederic connected that to another French Paradox: French people like to enjoy life - this is known as l’art de vivre. The art of living. Art, holidays, and food all form some of the pillars of this subject. At the same time the French are also quite serious and as a result might even be very serious about the art of living. To the extent that it has even become competitive as evidenced by the many French luxury brands and the French culinary arts and Michelin stars.

He added that one must accept that over lunch tough discussions will inevitably take place. His advice: “Just relax, it’s normal that you will experience moments where things are not fully comfortable. We have to accept that this is part and parcel of cross cultural encounters. Despite some beliefs that we have a reputation of being arrogant or rude, we are curious. So we’re happy to have these discussions.

Three tips to work with the French

Both guests concluded with three tips for people to work successfully with their French colleagues. For Gilles, first, find a middle ground. If you are joining a French company in Malaysia, understand that the French organisation is making an effort to adapt to the local environment. However, despite their best efforts, you can’t expect everything to be the same, and so you must be willing to accept some changes and differences too. Both parties must take a step towards one another. Secondly, take advantage of coffee breaks and make full use of lunch hours to discuss and debate with your colleagues. And finally, perhaps most importantly, insist on everyone speaking a common language (A rule which applies to both the French and the Malaysians alike!). This will remove a lot of tension. Gilles even suggests asking anyone who is caught speaking another language to donate a coin towards a collective tin that can be used to treat everyone to a meal once it is full.

Frederic reemphasised the importance of talking a lot and communicating, perhaps more so than you would in an entirely Malaysian organisation. Perhaps even learn a word or two in French from your colleagues. His second tip harkened back to ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite’. Values matter for French people, and remembering our national motto might help you understand the very present differences between cultures and why we act and react the way we do. In his final point, Frederic joked: “Go out for lunch! But please, not karaoke. French people like to eat, but they cannot sing!”

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