The French Perspective on American Business

Marine Melin is an Evening UST MBA exchange student from IAE of Caen, France, here to learn about American business culture and practices. We invited her to share some of her insights on the cultural differences she’s experienced while at St. Thomas.

I decided to pursue an MBA at the University of St. Thomas in order to build my American résumé and enhance my expertise in marketing. As an international student, I felt quite apart at first. Most evening MBA students work full-time and have their family life with kids. I am not in this position which creates discrepancies when it comes to group meetings and experience sharing. However, the interactions I had with my classmates were insightful and enriching. Many cultural differences were enlightened thanks to our class projects and simulations.

So far, I have met a solid network of people. I have been working part time at the Office of Service-Learning and Civic Engagement for the past five months as a marketing graduate assistant. This experience reinforced my opinion of the American work environment. Initiative and autonomy are appreciated by my managers. They try to empower me by letting me handle my own projects. They are also very flexible with me. For instance, I can work from home if I need to. These features would hardly be implemented in my previous French positions, where there is a strong expectation of coming to work at specific times. Telecommuting could be perceived as being lazy and unproductive.

During my undergraduate studies, I spent a year at Whitworth University, in Spokane, Wash. where I held two jobs on campus as a live lab tutor and as a teaching assistant for a French professor. The fact that I found these two positions in less than a week without any previous experience was the first striking difference I saw with France. The U.S. market gives you the opportunity, if you demonstrate the willingness and determination to achieve it. In France, it is harder to occupy a position you have had no experience in. There is a strong emphasis on actual knowledge and expertise. Determination and motivation come second.

After my year at Whitworth, I studied in Spain for a year and went back to France to obtain a master’s degree in international management. I worked in Paris for two years as a marketing and communications associate for Printemps, one of the two French leading luxury department stores; and as an international merchandising coordinator for Coty Inc., an American manufacturer, designer and retailer of cosmetics and fragrances. These two experiences showed the French difference in terms of organizational culture – even though it is hard to draw conclusions out of the two examples. The French company appeared to have a hierarchical command structure with high centralization and upper decision-making process whereas the American firm had a participative and consultative leadership style with empowering social activities to foster cross-functional and cross-cultural relationships.

These differences may reside in our history, in which France has built itself through the long accumulation of reigns and monarchies. This background makes us more distant and narrow-minded than our trans-Atlantic neighbors. In fact, there is an overwhelming and welcoming feeling when you reach Americans. This perception is truly visible in informal relationships. Regarding formal exchanges, it is not as explicit but it is still more accessible than in France. The door is always open for questions, interactions, etc.

After working in France, and spending a year in Washington state, I tended to compare both environments even though expectations and variables were extremely different. I enjoy the American straightforwardness. Things are said more freely than in my own culture, where you have to weigh every single word, which can actually transform what you are saying or trying to say.

Graduate life is a rhythm you have to jump into. Evening classes are intensive, in-class discussion is highly encouraged, and engagement and risk-taking are rewarded. It is exhausting but truly enriching.

I believe I will have more ambitious opportunities here than back in France. This open and competitive environment also stimulates my motivation and increases my ambition. All of these reasons encourage me to work in the United States for my early career.