Thursday, October 22, 2009

French without faux pas: rules for the office

So you thought Gallic style was effortless? Far from it, as a new guide to the complexities of office life reveals

Want to work in France? Then you will need to mind your language and the way you look. Your hair, clothes and make-up must be immaculate, even after a long, hard day. Your self-control should be total and your conversation will avoid all subjects likely to rile colleagues, such as love, money and your personal problems.

This advice on the Gallic ideal comes from the author Laurence Caracalla, who has written a guide to French office life that covers such subjects as clothes, manners, parties and romances. It makes daunting reading.

At 7pm, for instance, a self-respecting Frenchwoman must look and sound as fresh as if she had just showered in the morning, Caracalla says. Her appearance will be flawless, her conduct exemplary.

Smiling and fragrant, her ideal office worker will feign interest in the boss’s account of his marital woes but not bother him with his or her own — and will then text a lover and arrange to meet at a suitably tactful distance from the office.

The key, according to Caracalla, is a combination of discipline and education. For the French, in her view, are not effortlessly chic at all. On the contrary, the effort required of them is gruelling.

Caracalla, 47, is a former Paris press officer who apparently spent much of her early working life correcting les fautes de goût — errors of taste — made by those around her. An un-ironed shirt? An upturned collar? Cheap perfume? Whatever the error, it had to be corrected.

Two years ago she decided to condense into book form all the advice she had been offering to friends, family and colleagues.Le Carnet du Savoir-Vivre (The Notebook on Manners) was an instant success and Caracalla became a sort of national arbiter on social etiquette.

Should a male host greet female guests with a kiss? (Yes, if he knows them already). What should you talk about at a dinner party? (Films, art exhibitions but not your last holiday, your health or your children’s school results). How often should you have your feet done at the beauty parlour? (At least once a year).

These questions were obviously preying on the Gallic mind, as Caracalla is now asked to expand on them regularly for talk shows and is soon to start a blog on the subject for Le Figaro.

In her view, the unwritten rules of office life are a labyrinth in which even French employees can easily get lost — so this summer she followed up her first success with Le Carnet du Savoir-Vivre au Bureau (The Notebook on Office Manners).

Her bestseller runs to 248 pages of tips for anyone planning to work in France. Don’t eat roast snails the day before an important meeting, for example — your breath will smell of the garlic they are cooked in. Always remember to say “Bonjour” to others in the company lift — they will take offence if you look in silence at your shoes, which, by the way, must be polished daily. And never ever mention your salary, the cost of your watch or the size of the restaurant bill that you are offering to pay — money in 21st-century France is like sex in 19th-century Britain, the great taboo. It is better to phone the restaurant afterwards to complain that the waiter has overcharged you.

In person, Caracalla looks the part. Her make-up respects her own golden rule, that “it must light up your face without others really knowing where the brilliance comes from”. Her elegant black jacket and chiffon blouse are similarly immaculate and her smartly sandalled feet have obviously been taken for their regular visits to the beautician.

She assures me that she still does her best to preach what she practises — a point underlined when her press officer appears with a slightly upturned collar. “Your collar,” she says. He flattens it down swiftly.

Her protocols apply at least as much to behaviour as to appearance. Take, for example, the end-of-year party (which is, anyway, a far more sober affair in France than in Britain). Caracalla warns her readers sternly not to let their hair down or even to be seen with someone who has let his or her hair down.

“Be yourself, just smile a little bit more than usual and be a little bit more affable,” she counsels. “Flee the colleague who seems tipsy like the plague.”

You may have thought of the French as a nation dedicated to the good things in life. But in Caracalla’s view fun doesn’t really enter the equation, at least not in the workplace — not at the office party, not on your coffee break and certainly not during a business lunch.

Fancy wine with the meal? “Be careful. Alcohol makes you lose your inhibitions and you may disclose confidential things and regret it bitterly,” says Caracalla. If your guests want a bottle of red, allow yourself a glass. Otherwise, make sure you stick to water.

The same self-control is necessary if you spot an acquaintance on the other side of the restaurant. “Stop yourself from waving ... a simple smile or a small gesture with the hand will do.”

Want to break the ice with a joke? Bad idea. “You can’t tell if you’re going to be funny. The best thing is to abstain.”

Spontaneous office chatter is banned. “Turn your tongue seven times in your mouth before speaking” is an old French expression that sums up the Caracalla approach perfectly.

Dying to tell colleagues about your daughter’s appendicitis? About your nightmare journey home last night? About your visit to the dentist? Caracalla winces. “We are always convinced that our lives are enormously interesting,” she says, “but you have to get it into your head that you probably don’t interest other people that much at all.”

This advice applies particularly in open-plan offices, where extreme caution must be exercised. “Remember what you were always told as a child,” says Caracalla. “Don’t bother other people. Don’t speak too loudly.”

So no laughter, no whoops of delight, no barking into the telephone and no “bling” jewellery that may bang against your desk.And while we are on the subject of objectionable habits, avoid an overdose of perfume “which can purely and simply ruin the life of your colleagues”.

How much perfume is too much? “A few drops behind the ears and on the coat in winter are enough,” says Caracalla.

But what if you have fallen in love with an accountant on the third floor? Surely you can then cast aside the rules and splash on perfume in the name of l’amour ? This, after all, is supposed to be a nation with a romantic pulse.

Again, the answer is no. Strict as ever, Caracalla says that office affairs must be hidden: steer clear of contact at work, meet only outside the office, never reveal your feelings to third parties.

Best of all, she says, avoid office affairs altogether, as most of them end in tears. “Every day you will come across the object of your torment. It is depressing,” she says. “If an affair does happen, avoid making a scene in front of witnesses. That will embarrass everyone and you will be a laughing stock.”

So, is there any solution for the love-struck French office worker? Here’s a thought. Move to Britain. It may not be so chic. Your colleagues may be less well-dressed and they may not behave with such decorum — but at least you can drown your sorrows in the pub opposite when the accountant on the third floor dumps you in favour of his secretary.

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