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I’ve had an interesting summer, and not all of it was good interesting. But I learned some things. As this summer comes to a close, I am enlightened about one thing in particular: if you’re working with the French, don’t expect to accomplish much in the […]

I’ve had an interesting summer, and not all of it was good interesting. But I learned some things. As this summer comes to a close, I am enlightened about one thing in particular: if you’re working with the French, don’t expect to accomplish much in the month of August.

In fact, when you’re working with people from any culture other than your own, you should be prepared to deal with assumptions and expectations regarding work that may be radically different from yours.

Now, before moving here two years ago, I had heard my whole francophile life that the French all went on vacation in August. But of course, that had to be hyperbole, right? I’ve concluded at this point that it’s not much of an exaggeration.

Here’s the scenario. I have a startup project and have brought the two co-directors of a French multimedia design firm on board. In early July, we signed a contract to outsource a software development project and had a strategic planning meeting where we agreed to get some tasks done by the end of August. Then Poof! my partners disappeared. By disappeared, I mean that I haven’t heard from them in weeks.

My advisor and lawyer were also nowhere to be found this month. No appointments were available in August at the French government agency we’re going to for funding.

The developer on the project is British and lives in London. I’m American. He and I kept plugging along, as you might expect. We’re web workers, after all, and nobody’s giving us paid vacation time!

One of the things I’ve always admired about the French is that they have a serious handle on the work/life balance thing. I really do like that about this culture. When they aren’t working, they aren’t working. That means when they’re at lunch, they’re savoring the food and, not infrequently, a glass of wine or beer, while their iPhones and Blackberries remain tucked away in their pockets.

And obviously, when they’re on vacation, they’re on vacation.

Before you jump to any conclusions about the French based on this summer exodus habit of theirs, I want to point out that there are plenty of French people who have been working this summer, my husband included. And although the French work fewer hours than Americans do, they have the highest hourly productivity of any country (that’s GDP per hours worked). Many argue that they’re more productive when they are working because they take more time off. They’re doing something right anyway; American companies are France’s primary investors.

But I’m trying to launch a startup here and, in my American view, “startup” and “vacation” are mutually exclusive concepts. This means I’m having a hard time reconciling my simultaneous respect and frustration when it comes to this culture’s work habits. So for several weeks, while I’ve managed this development project alone, I’ve been schizophrenically alternating between furious and flabbergasted, experiencing moments of admiration here and there. Admiration, for my partners’ having the discipline to take time all the way off, that is. The thing is, they probably don’t even realize how negatively an American partner could interpret the fact that they go completely off the grid the way they do. I’m quite sure these guys know less about how Americans operate than I know about how the French operate. I probably come across like some kind of business dominatrix to them.

My husband, also a web worker, has been on the receiving end of work ethic-related misconceptions himself. For example, project managers at a major Chinese translation agency for which he does a great deal of software localization seem incapable of grasping that he doesn’t work on weekends, and certainly not for his regular rates.

So where does that leave us? As web workers, we are increasingly placed in the position of having to work with cultures that don’t see work the way we do. It can be frustrating, or even infuriating for all parties. But then again, working with people who have different perspectives, priorities, and ways of thinking can enrich your work, your product, and your life.

If you find yourself working with people from other cultures, my advice is to be very explicit about your expectations and make sure you know theirs from the very start of your negotiations to avoid any misunderstandings down the line. Try to educate yourself about doing business with that culture. As for my French partners, I’m going to ignore my culturally programmed performance criteria—for now—and give these guys a chance to show me what they can do when they’re not vacationing.

I’d be very interested to hear about cultural disconnects you’ve experienced, how they impacted your work, and how you’ve handled them!

  1. Nice write up! I’m British living in France for the last 5 years and I do a lot of web work with Americans.
    I’d say that the Brits take the middle ground between the states and France. We don’t expect people to work weekends (a lot of my US clients are surprised when I don’t), but then again we don’t have the 4 week obligatory holiday in August like the French do.
    I have to say that when I first came to France it was frustrating to not have shops open on Sundays or at lunch time, but now its simply a part of life – and my quality of life is so much better for it.
    Take holidays, long lunches and afternoons off – it quality not quantity that counts! – I read somewhere that Roal Ddahl would work 4 hours a day – and yet his writing is pure creativity!

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  2. As you say, American companies are France’s highest investors. So they are probably far more aware of how Americans operate than Americans are of how they operate!
    What might be a little hard to swallow is that while they do understand all this, they’ve chosen not to care what kind of an impact their great approach to work-life balance has on partners who don’t understand them ;)

    In my experience, the best way to deal with cultural encounters like this is to just accept, and move on to thinking about what you need to do to get the job done. If you can understand, then all the better, but accepting that maybe you never will saves a lot of frustration and gnashing of teeth. And look on the bright side – working through this will give you something to factor in the next time you are planning a project with any overseas partner.

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  3. As an American living and working in France too, I can relate. First few summers here made me pull my hair out!

    I’ve learned to adapt….”when in Rome….” and all that. Nobody starts projects in June. Unless they are ones that can be put to sleep for a couple of months.

    I suspect that this habit of really valuing the personal life and protecting it from the work part of life is maybe what makes for the lower heart problem rates- it’s not just the diet.
    I enjoyed your writing!

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  4. 48% of the French haven’t taken a vacation in the last year (http://www.liberation.fr/actualite/societe/348857.FR.php).

    Unfortunately for your project, your partners weren’t in that group.

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  5. I’m a french man working with Americans and I must admit that this year I took 3 weeks off and did NOT check my emails at all while on vacation. :-)

    Actually checking professional emails while on vacation is very weird to most people here.

    I agree with you that this is a pain for “hot” projects that have a summer deadline. This causes serious delays, like the one I’m currently working on. (My colleages took 3 to 4 weeks OFF, and not at the the same dates so you never get the people you need in July and August…)

    Oh, and you’re absolutely right when you say “when they’re at lunch, they’re savoring the food and, not infrequently, a glass of wine or beer” ;-)

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  6. As an American who’s lived and worked in Europe for more than 30 yrs. now (mostly in Germany), I think the real challenge is getting over the idea that there is a ‘right’ way to do business – and that that way is your way. *smile*

    I look forward to working with partners who will deliver quality work in order to ensure the success of whatever endeavor I’m involved in. Period. How they get from A to B on their particular leg of a project is up to their own discretion.

    Anyone handling a cross-cultural project has to make sensitivity to both cultural and individual differences a high priority, and adjust project planning to reflect the specifics of the people/nations involved. Ofttimes that means simply communicating openly about things that would otherwise be no-brainers, and asking questions that – within a monocultural context – might seem elementary.

    It really is the only way to ensure that people are all on the same page – and that people’s individual needs and work patterns are being addressed in a way that benefits the outcome of the project.

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  7. There are some notable cultural quirks, such as surfing-related absenteeism during high tides in Hawaii, etc. But in general, be aware of national and religious holidays observed in nations where you have partnerships and do business. I’ve seen a few teleconferences that missed key people due to “bank holidays.”

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  8. Unfortunately, I think it’s part of the American business culture to think that you’re “king” if you’re the one with the money and that the American way of business is the only real way to do business. My primary US contract has freelancers across the world however the expectation has been that they work to us without any give towards their cultures. The result has been a loss of the most talented freelancers and an increase in freelancing cost because now most of the work needs a second “vetting” before it can be released. With the talented freelancers, it was correct from the get go.

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  9. samuel from Toulouse, France Wednesday, September 3, 2008

    Enjoying all the good stuff live can offer…is work ! can’t write more, got to go to lunch !

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  10. This is all fabulous feedback! When our developer came over from London for the meet and greet/contract signing, we spent two hours savoring our lunch, including beer and wine… At one point afterwards, he and I were standing off to the side and he commented about how different Paris was than London. I asked what he meant and he said “Everybody here is so much more relaxed. In London they’re all talking on their cell phones and looking at their blackberries and rushing somewhere.” Of course it’s a better way to live. You’ll get no argument from me there! But one of the issues I wanted to point out with this post was that assumptions and expectations regarding work are often pretty deeply ingrained, and we’re often unaware of them until we find ourselves in a situation where there is a contrast. It’s been a learning experience and a challenge, both things I like!

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