The French are a formal nation and tend to make extensive use of titles, especially in corporate life. Some individuals have family names which include a “de” or “d’” prefix, this is usually an indication of nobility. The same applies to academic titles and degrees, which are very important, and you are expected to use them in all conversations.
The French language is highly regarded as a symbol of the culture and the use of it is an indication of respect for it. When developing a business relationship, it is important for the visitor to make an effort to speak French and to address their counterparts by title and in French.
The use of last name terms and relevant titles must be made until you have been specifically invited to use first name terms. The use of first name terms is mainly reserved for close friends and family, but colleagues with the same level of responsibility generally use first names in private, but titles and last name terms in public. However, this practice is less frequent when there is an age gap or a considerable disparity in the status of counterparts and in these cases formal terms are used at all times.
Where names and titles are unknown you should use ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’. When you are addressing people as Monsieur, Madame or Mademoiselle, do not use their surname. Madame is a basic title of courtesy used for all adult women, married or single, over 18 years of age (except for waitresses, who are addressed as Mademoiselle). The word Mademoiselle cannot be used in formal administrative paperwork anymore. ‘Monsieur’ is the courtesy title for men.
The order of first name and last name is also particular – the French tend to use the last name first and first name second. This can cause some misunderstandings since both could sound as if they are first names. For example “Pierre Paul” or “Jason Andrew”. If unsure, it is best to double check and look at their business card or signature on the documents you might have from their correspondence. There are also instances where, the last name could be substituted by the person’s official title (e.g., Monsieur le President).
The use of the familiar “tu” or “less formal you” should be reserved for small children. The “vous” or “formal you” is obligatory in business culture. You may be invited to use ‘tu’ but until you are it is safer to use “vous” so as not to cause offence.