Wednesday, 25 January 2017

French v. British Cultural Debate

Pic of French and British flags flying at top of flagpoles in opposite directions

The French Chamber of Great Britain's 5th cross-cultural debate took place at the French Ambassador's Residence in London in December 2016. The debate was sponsored by Airbus. It was both constructive and rich in content. The two speakers and the chair all have in depth knowledge of both French and British cultures.

Thinking differently
The debate quickly exposed different ways of thinking and reasoning between France and Britain. The French are more inclined towards abstract thinking; whereas the British are more interested practice than theory. The priority is that it must work for the British.


Pic of the two speakers during the debate
Dominic Grieve (left) and Yann Bonduelle (right) during the debate

Top-down French thinking is often misunderstood in Britain. The French need a philosophical 'framework' in which to work. The British like a more pragmatic approach; the French want everything well-defined within boundaries before moving ahead. The British don't even have a written Constitution, relying instead on precedents in Law. The French approach can end up with the perfect solution to a problem that has moved on in the meantime. Pros and cons emerged from both nations' approaches.

British politics is adversarial. French politics is conducted behind the scenes more. Ideas have value. The British do not like a public discussion of ideas. It is not regarded as a compliment to be considered an 'intellectual' in Britain.

Hybrid cultural approach
A hybrid approach was recommended when working with cross-cultural teams. The British like executive summaries. The French like to receive lots of information to consider first. The best approach is to give the British the 3 bullet points that they want first and move onto the framework required by other nationalities. Then have the debate.

Cultural debate evening at the French Ambassador's Residence

Education systems
The roots of the different French and British approaches trace back to our respective education systems. The French approach is to examine a concept to find its flaws. If it proves valid, it will be adopted. The British attitude is more inclined to 'get on with it'. The result can be that the British don't think through the consequences in 4-5 years' time. The British approach can therefore appear amateurish to the Germans and French.

The British education system has the upper hand when it comes to positive encouragement. It leads to a greater inclination to risk-taking in later life. The French system encourages pupils to conform. This makes it easier for French schools to rank pupils; whereas in Britain there is greater encouragement to find your 'sweet spot' and bolster self-confidence. A French lycée is competitive and critical with more negative reinforcement. The British system is seen as better at encouraging team-working from a young age.

Public v. State Education
The discussion moved on to discuss the differences between public and state education in Britain, as well as the perceived advantages of a very structured curriculum. Secondary schools in Britain may leave pupils with huge areas of 'ignorance' by contrast with the French system. It was felt that the French elite were well-educated.

Education v. Experience
Silicon Valley with its encouragement of out-of-the-box thinking and risk appetite received much admiration. This lead on to a discussion on preferences for experience over education in the UK and US. The French and Germans rank education more highly than experience. 

Education is not so essential for career progress in Britain and the UK. It is possible to find a 'side entrance'. Education becomes irrelevant once you have the experience. PwC abandoned the UCAS points system in its recruitment policy, as it was a huge predictor of social class. PwC now attracts a more diverse range of job applicants who are progressing very well and beyond expectations.


4 young people - 2 men, 2 women from different cultural backgrounds


Handling disagreement
The debate moved on to discuss direct and indirect approaches to disagreements. An indirect British approach can appear hypocritical. Courteous disagreement is a skill taught in British public schools. The intention is to have reasoned disagreements without offending. The British have developed a wider vocabulary to handle such subtle nuances.

In the South East of England, there can be a reluctance to face a disagreement. Some people may say even 'yes' to avoid a disagreement. Head further north in Britain and you will know more clearly where you stand. Here, a disagreement may even appear aggressive. Mediterranean cultures expose raw emotions in disagreements.

By contrast, academic French has a set vocabulary designed to impart complex ideas quickly without verbosity. You can't cut off a German speaker in mid-sentence or you may miss the word at the end of the sentence that conveys the real meaning.

Meeting styles
The most important person comes into the room last in a meeting in France. In British meetings, the focus is to put everyone at their ease for the discussions to follow. The French approach makes it clear who holds power in the room. No discussions will start until the Head arrives. In Britain, this strategy is disapproved of and can be high risk. Time equals money for Brits and they aren't inclined to wait.

Risk appetite
Silicon Valley has a huge appetite for risk and tolerance if a strategy does not work out. It was considered that there is still some stigma in the UK, especially in the Media. The French need 'more of the frying pan' - early pressure with the security of a safety net to improve their risk appetite.

The chair asked both men which quality they would export from each culture to create Utopia. Suggestions were French 'joie de vivre and 'bonhomie' and the UK's informality and 'unbelievable aptitude to make a deal'.

In conclusion, it was noted how learning about one language and culture opens the door to many other cultures. Cultural awareness is important even without language skills. We need to build bridges between cultures and between classes.

Pic of outstretched with loads of different miniature flags floating above theme
One language opens the door to many more cultures


The French Chamber's Cross-cultural quiz evening to be held at PwC's offices on 23 February 2017.


Pic of Yann Bonduelle speaking with his hands during the debate
Yann Bonduelle is a Partner and the UK Consulting Data Analytics Leader at PwC. His 150-strong UK team includes experts in Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). He has a PhD from Stanford University in Engineering Economic Systems and an Electrical Engineering degree from INSA, Rennes, France.  The Frenchman’s international career with 8 years in California and 20 years in London. It makes him an ideal speaker to discuss working practices across cultures. 

Pic of Dominic Grieve MP
Dominic Grieve is the MP for Beaconsfield and a QC. Hewas the Attorney General for England and Wales and Advocate General for Northern Ireland from 2010-2014. He is  bilingual in French and English. He attended the French Lycée in London's South Kensington before studying history at Oxford University and Law in London. 

Pic of French Chamber's Senior Vice-President
Peter Alfandary, Senior Vice-President of the Chamber chaired the session (see first right). Peter is Head of Reed Smith’s French Business Group and has been involved in cross-cultural relations for over 30 years. 






Karen Andrews is a freelance French to English translator, transcreator, content writer and editor. She has a strong background in global marketing.

Email Karen for further information via karenanglicityen@gmail.com in French, German or English.

Photo credit:  Cross-cultural debate evening photos were taken by Joana Saramago. Other photo credits are noted in the properties tags for each photo.


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