Job Perks: A Peek into the French Way of Life

paris in the spring“In France, a personal life is not a passive entity, the leftover bits of one’s existence that haven’t been gobbled up by the office, but a separate entity, the sovereignty of which is worth defending, even if that means that someone’s spreadsheet doesn’t get finished on time.” The French Counterstrike Against Work E-Mail

So I’m back in New York. Don’t even get me started. Those who’ve seen me in person (and even many who’ve only spoken to me through text) have already gotten an earful.

But this isn’t going to be several paragraphs about how much I miss Paris. It’s going to be several paragraphs about one of my favorite parts of France: the work culture.

I love to work — mostly I love to be busy. But I also love to relax (earth shattering, I know). I am either extremely busy with many things or completely relaxed doing almost nothing — there is very little wiggle room. And when I get into that busy zone, it’s really hard for me to get out of it.

One of the things I loved so much about the French work environment is that people seem to be able to switch between these two zones so easily. When they are at work, they are at work — people get things done and meetings are held and problems are solved. But when it’s lunchtime, it is lunchtime. There is no eating at your desk while you’re trying to finish up a spreadsheet. And when it’s time to go home at the end of the day, same deal — it’s time to go home.

The first week I was there, I was checking my work email at the bar we’d often go to during the week. My coworkers almost slapped it out of my hand (out of love, and maybe slightly out of vodka, too). Work is for work hours. Play is for all other hours. It’s a common stereotype to say that the French value pleasure above all else, but I think it can be amended slightly — they do value pleasure, and they see a person’s personal life as exactly that: a personal life. A whole life that involves friends and movies and drinking and food and love and kids and everything else. But they also value work just as much. They value a job well done. And they see those two parts of life working in tandem with each other, not against each other.

It’s difficult now with iPhones and wifi and offices in multiple time zones to feel like you can ever really “shut off” completely. And especially when you work in a field like social media, which literally has no off switch, it can feel like you always have to have an ear open to make sure you’ll catch anything if it happens. What if there’s a disaster in the middle of the night? What if something happens while your phone is dead?

But you have to draw the line somewhere. You have to just stop working sometimes, or else you’ll go insane. And you have to stop checking your texts from friends at some point and just get that Excel sheet done. Everything has its moment. And I know that this is all common sense and that no one would argue that you need to strike a balance between work and play, but I’ve never seen so many people actually live this out before.

It was a delight to get a break from the USA work mindset for three months and live like the French do — where it doesn’t necessarily matter if you get to work 30 minutes late as long as the work gets done at some point; where it’s not the end of the world if you have to save a task until tomorrow; and where it’s just as important to hang out with your coworkers at the bar on Wednesday night as it is to brainstorm with them in a meeting on Tuesday morning. Where work is a beautiful thing, but so is play.