Get ready to cross into new territory.
When you first set foot into a French société (company), it’ll be very different from your French classroom or online course.
The French business world is a subculture, and like any other, has developed its own lexicon.
So you’re going to need a map to guide you along, keeping you from getting lost.
Luckily, that’s exactly what I’ve put together here.
After more than a decade of navigating this strange, lovely place, I’ve come up with a shortlist of the most essential vocabulary for French business.
This will be useful whether you’re a seasoned learner or just starting out on your French language adventure.
Essential French Vocabulary to Navigate the Business World Like a Boss
Understanding the French Business Environment
You know bonjour (hello, good day), but don’t make the very typical Anglophone mistake of greeting someone with it in the hallway after you’ve already used it at the beginning of the day. It’s employed strictly once per day. After that, you could say salut (hey)—but most French coworkers are more likely to just nod, or say nothing.
Handshakes (se serrer la main) are expected, while colleagues in smaller and more informal businesses may greet each other with la bise (kisses on the cheek) in the morning if they like each other—or pretend to. The number of kisses varies according to region, but in Paris it is often two kisses beginning on the left.
Formality: Tu vs. Vous in the Office
Which form of “you” should you use in the office, the informal tu or the formal vous? You’ll have to listen carefully to your colleagues to determine the correct level of formality for each situation and each particular business’s culture; when in doubt of course stick to vous.
That said, you’ll sometimes find tu used among workers at all levels in arts organizations, nonprofits and smaller companies. It’s also common for colleagues to use tu among themselves, but vous with the bosses. Some higher-ups don’t like this separation and will ask you to use tu; others definitely prefer to enforce it.
Vous is almost always used in meetings with those outside of your own company. Monsieur (sir) and madame (ma’am) are also used much more than their English counterparts, and can come in handy when you forget someone’s name!
Words for the (Limited) Role of Socializing in Business Relationships
Foreigners working in France are often surprised by the limited amount of socializing that goes on between les collègues (coworkers). Nevertheless, it is possible to transition to pote de travail (work buddy).
Opportunities to make a more social connections include the increasingly common team buildings (team-building events; ignore what dictionaries might tell you, as the shortened anglicism is usually used) and les formations de travail (training sessions), which companies are required to provide for their employees, and which employees famously don’t take too seriously and use as opportunities to socialize.
French Vocabulary for Business Organizations
The Word “Company” in French
Beware of the French word for a company, une société. It is also of course used in the same senses as the English “society,” but its second meaning as “company” is just as common (and now you know what French people mean when are attempting to speak English and ask, “What society do you work for?”).
Another term for a company is entreprise and a common informal term is boîte.
Types of Companies in France
- Une société par actions (A joint-stock company)
- Une société à responsabilité limitée (A limited-liability company)
- Une multinationale (A multinational company)
- Une maison mère (A parent company)
- Une association (à but non lucratif) (A non-profit organization)
- PME – petite et moyenne entreprise) (SMB – small and medium-sized business)
Getting Things Done in French Businesses
Updates During the French Business Day
One of the more frequent things you will be asked for in a French office is to mettre à jour (update) someone about something. The noun form is une mise à jour.
Ils mettent à jour ces stratégies au moins tous les trois ans. (They update these strategies at least every three years.)
Lorsque vous recevez une mise à jour… (When you receive an update…)
When you’re discussing numbers such as items or prices, you might use actualisation (update of data).
Une actualisation des prévisions de trésorerie (An update of cash flow forecasts)
And then there’s une mise au point, which literally means “a bringing into focus,” which is used for meetings that update, define or further refine projects.
Types of Reports in French Businesses
Have you been asked to livrer (turn in) a report? The vocabulary used will be quite different depending on what your boss expects.
- Un bilan is a published report, given to the media; it may also be called une annonce.
- Un rapport de situation is a status update.
- Une évaluation is an evaluation, such as of an employee.
- Un compte-rendu is the minutes of a meeting, or a general write-up of a situation.
- Un rapport annuel is an annual financial statement.
Here’s a good general guide for beginners to writing various types of business reports in French. Note that you will use formal and sometimes slightly more florid language than you might in the ultra-practical world of Anglophone business; check how other reports at your company are generally structured.
Dealing with Money in French
The one constant in any business culture, of course, is money.
One of the more general terms to know is le paiement (payment). More specifically, there is le salaire (salary) and les honoraires (fees).
Une avance is an advance payment and une échéance is a due date for a payment. Un règlement par virement bancaire is a payment by bank transfer.
These will be handled by la comptabilité (accounting department), often referred to as just la compta.
Le bénéfice is the profit of a company, and les biens are its assets. The adjective brut means gross (referring to salary or profits) and bénéfice net is net income or profit.
Business Telephone/Skype French Vocabulary
Whatever your level in French, you’ll want to have at least the basics for dealing with business calls.
The typical French phone opener allô ? is too informal for business. You should instead answer the phone by stating the name of the business, the type of business or the department. For example, you might say “Relations publiques, bonjour !” (“Public relations, good morning!”)
A simple au revoir is fine to end the call.
Connecting to the Correct Person
You may have to go through secretaries or colleagues to find the person that you want, in which case these phrases will be handy:
- Pourrais-je parler à ______ ? (May I speak with ______?)
- C’est de la part de qui ? (Who is calling?)
- C’est ______ à l’appareil. (It’s _______ calling.)
- Je vous le passe. (I’ll put you through.)
- Ne quittez pas. (Please hold — formal). This literally means “don’t leave,” and if the song helps you remember this one, great—just definitely don’t model your French pronunciation on Nina Simone, however lovely she is. Go for Jacques Brel:
- La ligne est occupée. (The line is busy.)
- Pourriez-vous rappeler ? (Can you call back?)
- Voulez-vous laisser un message ? (Would you like to leave a message?) – You’ll rarely be asked this though, as many don’t seem to want to go to the trouble. Which is why you might need…
- Est-ce qu’il/elle peut me rappeler ? (Can he/she call me back?)
- Mon numéro téléphone est le _____. (My telephone number is _____.)
As everywhere else, some businesses in France now take advantage of Skype and other forms of video and internet calling. You might be asked to have une vidéoconférence (a videoconference) or more simply to faire un Skype (discuss over Skype).
With the obvious advantages come disadvantages, and the necessity for more vocabulary. Be ready to say, for instance, la connection est très mauvaise (the connection is very bad) as well as pourriez-vous répéter ? (Can you repeat that?). You can also say la connection a été coupée (the connection dropped), whether you’re on video chat or a mobile phone.
If you have something to show someone, you might partager l’écran (share the screen) to show them.
Whatever your adventures in the French business world, may they be interesting, smooth and—of course—fructueux (profitable).
Mose Hayward is a polyglot and has lived in Paris for more than a decade. He blogs about “20-minute fluency,” dancing and romantic adventures for travelers at TipsyPilgrim.com
And One More Thing…
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