French vs American Work Ethic
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Heather Stimmler-Hall in American work ethic, Bo, Estrie, French Culture, French work ethic, N'importe Quoi, cute dogs

Ooh, a hot topic on many of my tours is the question of the French Work Ethic. The assumption amongst 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?

Article originally appeared on The only authentic insider guide to Paris. (
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