Friday, November 27, 2009

The French Way of Doing Business

The many frustrations of the last week have me thinking about the French way of conducting themselves.  The last week had a happy ending, but we were stressed and angry a lot of the time.  In some sense that's crazy, because basically what we are doing is signing up long-term for conducting business in France with the French, both as we try now to renovate and rent the apartment and in the long haul.  We are doing this because we love France, yet we spend half of our time complaining about the French.  What's that about?

There are all the stereotypes of the French, and they are kind of true.  They take long lunches and many holidays.  They don't answer emails.  They do no work on the weekend.  The French know this and are proud of it, they see it as the raison-d'etre of the whole system.  And that is in large part what we Americans are attracted to in France, it's a way out of the the 24/7 fast-food hurry-up rat-race that we spend too much time caught up in. 

But there is more to it than that.  The French are no different than anyone else when they conduct business:  they want to get a good deal for themselves, they compete for dominance, they press an advantage when they have one.  They just do it differently than we do.  Americans compete directly.  If a business transaction is competitive we will openly try to dominate each other, be the biggest force in the room, and intimidate our opponents.  The French ideal is never to act like you are trying to negotiate a business deal.  Instead you are elaborately polite and formal, even as you are maneuvering the situation you your advantage.

The seller of our apartment, Monsieur L., is a perfect example.  He drove us crazy throughout the process.  When the architect needed to get into the apartment to draw up some plans, he refused again and again.  But he didn't exactly refuse, he would just reply politely that he was "too busy" that week, that he couldn't get away from work and that his wife was busy with their child.  I'm not sure what he really wanted, the truth is I don't think he wanted anything, he was just establishing his dominance in the business relationship.  The deal had been done, we had signed the offer, and in so doing we had not required him to grant us a certain amount of access to the apartment.  An American would have just said that, maybe even asked to be compensated for the inconvenience, and if that seemed obnoxious, so be it.  Monsieur L had this small advantage, and the way he enjoyed it was to act as if his French lifestyle were just more important than ours, or the Notaire's, or C's, or the architect's.  He wanted deference.  He and our Flathunter representative C. wound up despising each other because they were in direct conflict throughout the process, even though it was always unspoken.  He would stand her up for appointments, she would misrepresent or half-represent what he had said when she spoke to us. 

The Notaires all play the same game.  They are treated like aristocrats, referred to as Maitre, or Master.  Our Notaire, Maitre F has an elegant, fancy office and a refined, polished manner.  It is like speaking to the head of the board of directors of a bank.  They defend this status by not answering your phone calls, by refusing (without ever saying so) to provide details about the money you are spending.  In a system that has gone half socialist, in which it must be next to impossible to get rich, status becomes the currency people are trading. 

I think if we had never done anything, the closing would have eventually taken place.  Monsieur L and Maitre F would have completed the status dance they were working through.  Monsieur L's own Notaire was in the mix, as was C and the higher ups at Flathunter who could never be bothered to communicate with us at all.  Sooner or later the pecking order would have been worked out, and everyone would have sat down and signed and felt good about it.  Gone to lunch and had a glass of wine.  We have the same thing here, but it is a matter of everyone getting along after they have yelled at each other and gotten angry, then everyone agrees not to take it personally and move it on.  Instead the French engage in subtle put-downs while they circle each other, then when everything has  been sorted out, they settle and move on.

We broke into the system by getting angry, and I don't feel sorry about it.  It was amazing, really.  After weeks and weeks of nothing happening, or one person after another not doing quite what they were supposed to do (not because they screwed up, but because they were too busy) all of a sudden everyone started scurrying around to get the thing done.  I think we took the fun out of it.  I don't doubt that they found our email angry boorish, our constant worrying (like when no one knew where our money was) pointless and neurotic.  Ah, those Americans, they must say, what's the matter with them that they have to get so angry?  But business is business, so they deal with us.  When I wrote L., the mortgage broker, to thank her and express mt relief that the deal was finally done, I joked about how no one had emailed us to tell us that the signing had actually been scheduled.  She wrote back three words:  Vive la difference.

1 comment:

  1. _Yes_. I can't imagine what their departmental politics are like.