I ran off to Europe when I was 21 right after finishing my bachelor’s degree. I had been working since I was 14 to make “fun money.” You could find me after school or on the weekends babysitting, teaching gymnastics, being the jello-shot girl at a 4th of July block party, etc.. Not necessarily an office job, but any side hustle that I could find to pay for a night out at the movies or gas money to run around town. So it always makes me laugh at work when the Frenchies say “Kate, that’s such an American way to approach that project,” because i’ve never actually held down a job in corporate America in me wee 31 years of life.
I do have to admit though that while I do lack “real” work experience in the Land of the Brave, giggles aside, I do tend to agree with those Frenchies. After working 8 years in France, in 4 different companies, it’s safe to say that I don’t always approach things in the workplace like my French colleagues. It was quite the adjustment when I first started working in France, so if you’re ready for the big reveal of the 8 workplace culture shocks that surprised me the most, keep on reading. If you’re feeling lazy, you can always check out the corresponding video here or at the bottom of the article!
WORK LIFE BALANCE
It’s too easy to make this #1 because who doesn’t love a minimum of 25 days of vaca? I personally have 38 at my job. 😮 But it actually goes even farther than “just” the number of vacation days. Even the work week is shorter in France. 35 hours per week is full time over here while the US is asking for 40 hours tif you want to be a full timer. Now that’s not to say that people don’t work more than that in France or the US for that matter. But anything above 35 hours is overtime, so chaaaaa ching. You’re compensated for it. And above all of that, is the good ole’ French mentally that you don’t live to work, you work to live. PREACH IT SISTA. Unlike the majority of Americans who define themselves by what they do to make a living, the French are usually more concerned with defining themselves by whether they take a month off in July or August for summer vacation. It’s a heated question in La France.
There is a quite the strong division between your personal and professional life in France. This doesn’t mean that you won’t get invited to team drinks or have one two many glasses of champagne at the Christmas party and have some regrets the next day. The French aren’t robots after all. But don’t expect to get an invite to their house your first month at the office. Oversharing about your personal life is a big no no too until you really get to know someone. Once you become REAL friends with a French person, you’re pretty solid for life. But it takes time. Since the French tend to be more closed off until they get to know someone than their friends across the pond, they might not appreciate your detailed story about the fight you just had with your best friend’s boyfriend who happens to be a real arse. Stick to neutral subjects until you’ve gotten the cue from someone to share the gory deets.
Networking is important no matter what language you’re speaking. The phrase “it’s who you know, not what you know” rings true in both countries. However, I always associated this phrase with purely getting hired. In France, you can associate it with landing your dream job, but also with just plain old doing your dream job. Internal networking within a company is a REAL thang around here. If you’ve got to collaborate with a colleague to get something done, best hope you know them on a more personal level, or it’s a win win request for you both. Because the French have a much more complex way of getting work done than American’s. You might be waiting a long time to get that excel file if your colleague has three other (less urgent) requests from people she knows better. You either gotta wait it out or get your boss involved. And I shouldn’t have to tell you that getting your boss involved never helps cultivate a better relationship with that colleague.
Yup, the French complain. It’s part of their culture. Practically a national sport we could say. They love to do it anywhere, so work is no exception. They aren’t generally unhappy at work or unhappy with the situation. But complaining to one another and commiserating about work is part of the relationship building process at the office. My tip would be to learn how to shake your head and say “ahh oui, oui, ca craint” (oh yea, yea, that sucks). It’s different from the UBER positive American system where most discussions with your colleagues are sprinkled with sugar. If you can’t handle the potential “negativity”, think twice about working in France. Example? Positive feedback in French is “c’est pas mal,” which translates to “it’s not bad” in English. That’s POSITIVE feedback people. Get the picture?
Due to our culture of sugarcoating 80% of what comes out of our mouth in the US, Americans tend to shy away from conflict, especially in the workplace where things gotta stay PC. The French don’t play by these rules. They see confrontation and debate as healthy, especially in the office where confronting and challenging tends to improve ideas. It’s really common to be shouting and waving your finger at someone in France one minute and be chatting about what’s on the menu for lunch the next. What American’s might find to be agressive and inappropriate just doesn’t phase the French. There’s no hard feelings when it comes to a healthy debate.
Americans tend to get straight to the point at work. Time is a ticking and time is money, so why waste any second of it? When American’s come into a meeting, they tend to want to state the objective of the meeting, proceed to explain how we see xy and z and then ask if there are any questions. BIM. Meeting done. Not quite so simple in a culture like France that loves a healthy debate. The point of meetings in France is to discuss ideas and sticking to the agenda is never a given. You have to build up an argument, defend your point of view, get ideas from colleagues, leave a meeting and regroup, book another meeting to defend the ideas from colleagues you threw down the drain, etc… Your first meeting to discuss something is never your last in France, so get prepared for endless meetings that seem pointless to you, but are necessary to move those precious projects along.
Long lunch breaks at work in France shouldn’t be so shocking since 5 hour Sunday lunches with the family are the norm. Meal time is seen as a real moment to relax and take a much needed break. So say goodbye to packed lunches and ordering clothes from ASOS during lunch and say hello to hour long meals with your work fraandsss. Lunch is seen as a time to eat with colleagues and create that strong internal network that you need to get your projects moving along. Plus, meals in France are subsidised. If you have a cafeteria at your office, you get a kick butt 3 course meal for around 4 euros. AND they sell wine and beer, so if you’ve had a rough morning, you know what to do. Bon App!
Coffee is something American’s use to keep up their energy and work even harder during that 9 to 5. The French have their minuscule espressos as a way to take a break, clear their head and be social, all while getting an energy booster. Coffee breaks (and cigarette breaks) happen at least twice a day, if not three of four times. It’s a social opportunity, a time to network internally, build relationships with colleagues, debate, discuss ideas etc.. It’s pretty much all my workplace culture shocks rolled into one 15 minute pause. If you’re like me and don’t smoke or drink coffee, be ready for a new-founded addiction to tea and sparkling water. There’s nothing more bizarre than to be known as the colleague who never takes a break, or the colleague that does, but never drinks anything….
Got any workplace culture shocks that surprised you? Let me know any important ones that I missed in this article! ♥