• INSEAD professor Erin Meyer moved from the US to France 17 years ago.
• She finds French people are more like coconuts: They take a while to open up, after which they’re willing to share a lot.
• Americans are more like peaches: They’re friendly right off the bat, but after a certain point, they close up.
In the 17 years since moving from the United States to France, Erin Meyer has heard French people use some … interesting words to describe their American colleagues.
Read: “superficial,” “hypocritical,” and “fake.”
Meanwhile, Meyer’s heard many Americans complain about their French colleagues being “standoffish,” “hostile,” and “unfriendly.”
Meyer is a professor at INSEAD and the author of the 2014 book “The Culture Map.” As someone who’s both studied cultural differences and experienced them firsthand, she knows how easy it is to get frustrated or confused when doing business abroad.
One of the biggest differences between French and American cultures, Meyer told Business Insider, is that French people are more like coconuts while Americans are more like peaches.
Think about a coconut: It’s hard on the outside, but gets softer as you drill deeper. That’s how French people operate — they take a while to open up, but once they do, they’re candid and genuine.
Now think about a peach: It’s soft on the outside, but eventually you hit a hard pit. That’s how American people operate — they’re warm and friendly right off the bat, but then they close up and don’t reveal anything more personal.
For example, Meyer said, French people “don’t talk about personal information with strangers.” They generally don’t place family photos on their desk.
She continued on to say that French people are “very formal with people that they haven’t built a relationship with, and they’re unlikely to smile a lot or do a lot of personal talk with people that they don’t know well.”
But as you get to know French people, Meyer added, “they become more and more warm, more and more friendly. They open up more about their personal lives and usually, once you’ve developed that level of closeness, the relationship sticks. You’ll probably have that relationship for the rest of your career.”
Americans, on the other hand, “tend to be very friendly with strangers and talk very easily about their personal lives with people that they don’t have close relationships with. They smile a lot at people that they barely know at all.”
Yet “after a point of friendliness, [Americans] don’t share more. [They] kind of close up. That’s how [they’re] experienced by Europeans: They’re really friendly, but they don’t show you who they really are.”
Meyer shared an anecdote that illustrates how this coconut-peach disparity can cause trouble.
She once worked with a French executive who moved to South Carolina for work. That executive had a new baby, but he wasn’t comfortable talking about his family with his new coworkers and didn’t think it was appropriate.
As a result, Meyer said, “people had difficulty relating to him. His team felt that he wasn’t authentic … and that he was shielded, so it was difficult for them to trust him.”
Other coconut cultures, Meyer writes in “The Culture Map,” include Russia, Poland, and Germany. Another example of a peach culture is Brazil.
Note that there’s no universal right or wrong strategy for building relationships. It’s more a matter of understanding what different cultures are like, and trying to adapt your own communication style to theirs.