Our French e-Tutor Sev provided us with these tips for understanding and using body language in France, especially in a professional setting:
French people are in general more ‘classic’, that is, relatively strict compared to some American relaxed ways. This harks back to the manners and etiquettes of the French aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Similarly, formal writing can be quite complicated, using very specific wordings according to each situation.
Also, it is important to avoid being in a hurry or putting pressure on making decisions.
Here are some more specifics:
Shaking hands: In France, handshakes are brisk and light, with one or two up and down movements. Too much strength and too many movements would be perceived as domineering, but too meek would not inspire trust.
Kisses: Read an earlier post of mine which explains the French customs associated with greeting one another with a kiss (une bise).
Hugs: No one hugs in France, unless it’s a really emotional situation.
The American “okay” sign typically means ‘zero’, ‘nothing’ or ‘worthless’ in France (except in scuba-diving, where it means OK). On the other hand, the “thumbs up” sign means ‘okay’.
The peace/victory sign (index and middle fingers raised) is not used in France, only as a (joking) reference to hippies.
Eye contact is frank, direct, to show one’s interest and trustworthiness, but staring is considered inappropriate, especially during a first meeting.
In general, smiling when meeting new people is toned down compared to Americans; the French may consider large smiles a little too familiar, perplexing, arrogant or even stupid.
When sitting, sit up straight, knees together (legs not spread apart), or with legs crossed over the knee. Hands should remain out of pockets. Feet should remain on (or near) the ground (never placed on tables, chairs, etc.)
During a French business lunch, which are more formal and long, it is important to keep one’s hands resting on the table, never on one’s lap. People start eating when the host asks, begins or invites to do so.
As a final note, slapping one’s open palm over a closed fist is sometimes seen in the US, but this would be considered a vulgar gesture. To be avoided!