When Work Ethics Collide for Cultural Reasons

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!

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