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French vs American Work Ethic

Paris skyline

Ooh, a hot topic on many of my tours is the question of the French Work Ethic. The assumption among most Americans is that the French don’t have one.

I’ve heard it all (and probably said it myself many times):

“They’re always on strike.”

“They only work 35 hours a week.”

“Waiters don’t have to work for tips so they’re lazy.”

“The French are on vacation more than they’re at work.”

“They can’t wait to get laid off so they can live off generous unemployment.”

“They have no ambition.”

“They don’t care about making a profit.”

Is any of this true? How much of what we believe is coming from the media? If it is true, does it automatically mean they have no work ethic? What is this “work ethic”, anyway?

For the sake of argument, and because I hear a different story from this side of the Atlantic, let’s have a look at the United States. Is it true, as the French often believe, that:

“Americans only care about money.”

“They would rather work than spend time with their family.”

“Having a prestigious career is more important than being there for your kids.”

“The workers have no rights, pathetic health care benefits if any, no or little vacation (which they are discouraged from actually taking), and no job security.”

“Profits over people in US companies.”

In general, the French look at the Americans the way we look at the Japanese: with awe at their productivity, but pity at how they don’t have personal lives. And this opinion goes all the way back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century book, Democracy in America.

I think, diplomatically speaking, that both perspectives are a bit skewed, but based on some truths. The problem is that we’re each measuring each other with different criteria. For example, it appears to a French person that because Americans don’t have free daycare for children (and mandatory paid maternity leave, and free education system, etc) that Americans don’t value their children. And to many Americans, the French tradition of five weeks paid vacation (taken all at once, usually in July-August) just seems lazy and bad for productivity (“after all, look at their GDP”).

But I think we all have the same values, we just have different ideas of how to uphold them. An American couple may sacrifice time spent with their children in order to work and save enough for the kids to attend an expensive university. A French couple may have a more modest income and smaller house due to high taxes, but they know their kids will benefit from universal health care and free university.

But all of these “you’re just looking at it from the wrong angle” arguments doesn’t mean that these aren’t just generalizations. I know plenty of Americans who would happily hang out watching daytime TV all day if they didn’t have to work. And since almost all of my French friends work for themselves (without the corporate parachutes), they’re as workaholic and driven as anyone back in the USA.

It’s not as exciting for the nightly news to show all of the people who still go to work on “National Strike Days” in France. And I guess it’s not very interesting for French newspapers to praise American families who place quality of life and time with loved ones above the balance in their bank account. So I vote we just laugh off the stereotypes, especially since the 35-hour work week is gone, and I know plenty of Americans who would take five weeks off over a pay raise any day, and get back to arguing about what’s really important:

Which presidential dog is cuter, Estrie or Bo?


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  • Do we live to work or work for living?I am lucky enouth to have a very flexible schedule here in America and once I got my money for the month – I spend the rest of it (month, ussually 35-40% of it) at home with my wife and kids. My wife is a housewife and I'm happy with it – that way its better for kids. She might get back to work when kids get bigger just in time to push for university and such.Sure thing, I can't afford spending $1000's on vacations, designer clothes and latest mustang… well…. hell with it! Guys' lets face it – almost all of us would agree to work less and rest more. Just as french business owners would hapilly cut thouse 5 week vacations in half.

  • I am in my last year of high school and my business teacher has set an awesome assignment about comparing the business ethics and lifestyle choices of Australia (where I’m from) and a country of our choice. I’ve chosen France for it’s romance, culture, cuisine and laid back lifestyle, and France is an interest of mine, one which i hope to see one day. Any way, there isn’t much information on comparing the business ethics of Australia and France, and although American and Australian businesses are different they certainly have some similarities. So if anyone could please tell me more about the actual business ethics and not about what the American’s think about the French. I would really appreciate the help if you could give it and if not then thank you for the help you have already given me

  • I worked 60 hours/week in the States, and 40 here in France (plus the forced hour-long lunchbreak – unpaid, making my time out of the house around 10 hours/day on average.) I make almost as much money here as I did there, but I find my job distinctly less fulfilling. Does that make me a workaholic? No. I love having 2-day weekends every week. What I miss is the passion for food. That’s right. The French pastry chefs I work with are WAY less interested in food than those I worked with in the States. Go figure.

  • So Chaz works 35 hours in the US, and Dave and Omid work more hours here in France, lol! I think these are all great examples of how we can’t make any assumptions about what it’s like to work in other countries.

  • Ever since moving to Paris, I work noticeably more hours, get home from work much later on average, and – believe it or not – take a shorter lunch (!) than I ever did in the US.On the other hand, I don’t have to worry about traffic, speeding tickets, car payments, ever-decreasing health benefits vs. increasing insurance premiums – all those little, nagging things that take time away from my friends and family.

  • I recently moved to France to work in a software company, and I have to say that the work ethic question has definitely been something I’ve struggled with.When I moved here, I was hoping for the green, green pastures of paid overtime, 7 weeks of vacation, and the 35 hour work week. Honestly, these things don’t exist.My overtime is still unpaid, and is compensated by an extra two weeks of ‘RTT’ vacation days. I do get quite a bit more vacation, but I was surprised to find that it’s not as restful as I was led to believe; most french kids get an outrageous amount of Holiday time, and many french parents alternate their holiday time with that of their spouse to cover the children’s vacation. Overlapping vacations for family holidays are much less common than I expected. (that said, they do seem to be out of the office a lot).Lunches are longer, but coffee breaks don’t exist, so it balances out.And that 35 hour work week? Not happening. It might be law, but in practice, I’m still in the office every day from 9-7. Plus, my commute has doubled, but I was spoiled before.That said, I was surprised by two new things as well.First, I mostly agree with the statement that they have low ambition. But, I don’t think it’s a lack of ambition, just a cultural expectation that promotions do not come quickly; one should be happy with their, very secure, lot in life; people are not created equally. (One thing I’ve heard a lot is people who think that they will never move up because they didn’t go to University, or they will stop at a point because they didn’t go to the ‘right’ university, or they don’t have the right profile for promotion. I’ve never heard that in North America. Maybe issues around Gender or Race, but never class, ability, or education, we make heroes of the underdog. Keep in mind though, they are not unhappy that they won’t move up, they just accept their role in the larger scheme of things.)The other thing that strikes me is that there is a distinct difference in how people take ownership over things. In North America, employees want ownership over things because it shows that they can handle more, and therefore should get a promotion. Here, you don’t do work that is not in your job description. I once found something that was broken for 3 months, and asked someone if they’d noticed it. They had, of course, and didn’t fix it because it wasn’t their job, didn’t tell anyone because they figured that if it wasn’t their job then it must be someone elses, so they would just wait until that person fixed the problem. It was maddening for me, but the other people who heard this conversation nodded their heads in agreement. Clearly, the fault was in the person that was not fixing the problem, whoever that might be, or in the project co-ordinator who didn’t realize that someone needed to be assigned to watch for these problems.All of that said — I have been utterly astounded at how things do get done here. Things are happening, they are just happening in a very different manner than I’m used to. Looking at the engineering solutions for things as simple as a gate, a door, electrical wiring, etc. has been a fascinating part of my time here. They are working, and they are making advances, it just looks different than it does in NA.

  • ZOMG! Estrie!!!!!!!! How incredibly adorable.As to the rest… I’d gladly take the French way of life, I’m fortunate to have a 35 hour work week (not counting lunches), but real vacation time, health care that doesn’t bankrupt etc, etc, I’ll take the French way any time.