Sunday, January 17, 2016

Unexpected Differences between French and American Corporate Communications

Over the past six years, I have translated (and/or edited) hundreds of Annual Reports of publicly traded French companies that do business in industries ranging from telecommunications, the energy sector, logistics, food manufacturing, postal services, banking, advertising, television and film production, real estate, nursing homes – you name it and I’ve probably translated an Annual Report on it. While many might cringe at the thought of even reading a 600-page document that talks about a given company’s operations and financial results, much less translating it, I really enjoy it. I love learning about various companies’ operating models, how they motivate employees, CEO and Board of Directors compensation (my favorite part), what they consider to be risks to their business, internal control procedures, efforts to reduce their carbon footprint, etc. Over the years, while being neck-deep in talk of operating profit, BU synergies and Corporate Social Responsibility, I have noticed that cultural differences run deep, even in corporate communications. I could write an annual report-sized essay on this topic alone, but I don’t have time to do that (it is financial season, you know), so I am going to focus on what I consider the largest most glaringly obvious difference – how companies from France and the United States refer to themselves in Annual Reports. One thing they have in common is that buzzwords abound in both American and French Annual Reports, but how companies in both countries refer to themselves in writing differs quite a bit.

Let’s take a look at the US Social Media Giant, Facebook’s Annual Report. In the first four sentences of Part I, they say “Our mission is…”, “Our business focuses on…”, “How We Create Value…” and “Our top priority is…” The overwhelming trend in the United States is to make a company sound like a person. Endear people to the company. Engage with customers so closely that you feel like that company is a family member. When a company makes a mistake in the US, Americans react very emotionally to the situation– as if they were personally affronted.

In France, on the other hand, corporate management generally tries to separate the people from the company as much as possible. Rarely do I see a French Annual Report use the first person in their corporate communications and reporting. It’s always “The Group”, “its financial statements”, “its operations”, or the name of the company.

Six years ago, I attended my first financial translation-specific conference presentation, and the presenter, David Jemielity, a renowned translator in the field, implored us fellow financial translators to start translating French Annual Reports with “our” and “we” in English as opposed to “its”, so that financial translations would start sounding more natural to English-speaking audiences. His suggestion made perfect sense to me, so from that day forth, I set out on a noble quest to start convincing clients to let me have more liberty when translating pronouns in Annual Reports.
The result: almost every time I suggested that the client let me change “its” to “we” or “our”, their reaction was swift and forceful. THEY HATED IT. Almost all of them have responded immediately with a resounding and firm NO WAY. So my question is, why? What’s the big deal with a “we” and an “our”? What makes American corporate culture so different from that of France?

Coincidentally enough, just this afternoon, while browsing Twitter, a headline caught my eye. It said “Elon Musk says there’s ‘no such thing’ as a business”. I immediately had two simultaneous thoughts: 1) ‘Huh, cool, Elon Musk, let me read this real quick, this super genius always intrigues me’, and 2) ‘You know what, I bet this article directly pertains to the blog post I’m developing’; and sure enough, I was not disappointed. When being interviewed by Tim Urban of Wait But Why, Elon Musk said:

"I don't know what a business is." All a company is is a bunch of people together to create a product or service. There's no such thing as a business, just pursuit of a goal — a group of people pursuing a goal."

Combine the above attitude with actions such as the historic January 21, 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court Ruling, which upheld a corporation’s status as a person, thereby protecting Citizens United’s rights to free speech, and it’s no wonder American companies have no issue referring to themselves as a “we”.

The French, however, have a particularly impersonal attitude towards work, and they make sure that their personal lives are very distinct and separate from their professional lives. Additionally, their business etiquette has maintained a high level of formality that has been disappearing in the US. In France, you have to be very careful how you approach and talk to your superiors, you have to dress meticulously, and you have to maintain their formal and rather rigid salutations and writing style in any business communication. Perhaps these reasons at least partially explain French companies’ hesitation to embrace the exceedingly personal tone of American corporate communications. 

I have seen a few pioneer French companies buck this trend, but they are still few and far between -at least in my experience. Maybe the recent boom in French start-ups and young French entrepreneurs will bring a breath of fresh and informal air to French business communications. I personally prefer American companies’ corporate writing style, so in the meantime, I will continue to fight the good fight and try to convince French companies to let me say “we”.

What say you on this topic, fellow financial translators? To those who translate into and/or out of different language pairs: do you experience these types of cultural differences in financial or business translation as well? How do you handle them?


Resources:

"Shared Publication." Facebook 2014 Annual Report. 2015. Accessed January 16, 2016. https://materials.proxyvote.com/Approved/30303M/20150413/AR_245461/#/6/.

Dickerson, Kelly. "Elon Musk Says There's 'no Such Thing' as a Business." Tech Insider. September 3, 2015. Accessed January 16, 2016. http://www.techinsider.io/elon-musk-says-theres-no-such-thing-as-a-business-2015-9?utm_content=buffere8ef5&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer.

"Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm'n 558 U.S. ___ (2010)." Justia Law. January 21, 2010. Accessed January 16, 2016. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/558/08-205/.

"Business Communication." Business Culture. Accessed January 16, 2016. http://businessculture.org/western-europe/business-culture-in-france/business-communication-in-france/

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