Thursday, September 23, 2004

the office, french style
You may not be too surprised to hear that working life in France is not the same as working life in England. Not only are the keyboards arranged differently, so that to type a number you have to push the shift key, but people are organised differently too.

Perhaps the most striking contrast is the attitude towards developing a social friendship with your colleagues. Basically, you don't. In the nearly three years I have worked in France I have only been out with the team once, and that was a flop.

This contrasts markedly with the British attitude where the social element of work based relationships is mostly seen as very important, and is encouraged by regular and spontaneous trips down the local pub after work.

I asked one of my French colleagues about the logic behind this cultural phenomenon. I am sure there are many, but basically he said, by French logic, having friendships at work means that you won't devote 100% of your work time to your work. The flip side is that seeing your colleages socially means that work will encroach into your private life and steal time from your family and 'genuine' friendships.

In contrast, English logic considers that the more people get to know one another, the easier it is for them to work together and the more people generally feel motivated to actually bother turning up to work every day to do their stuff.

In England, work is experienced as a tedious annoyance that is made bearable by the fact that you have some friends there. In contrast I often get the impression that in France, work is a duty to be taken seriously.

As an English guy, accustomed to my native cultural norms and expectations, the French type of office culture is disappointing from the social side. I find it particularly strange how life can be so simplistically divided up into different boxes.

A person is a person for me, so the work context of my work based relationships does not figure in my consideration of whether I would like to a colleague socially. I simply experience the relationship in its context, seeing a colleague as just another person who could be either liked or disliked.

If I get on with them then in my world it is normal for the context of the relationship to expand into a social one, assuming their reciprocal expectation. As it happens, since the vibe I get from most of my colleagues is a vibe of polite distance, I don't warm up to them.

To put this whole thing into perspective I really need a much greater understanding of the other aspects of French relationships. If you don't form friendships at work , my French friends, where is it that you form them? Does this mean that working friendships aren't necessary to you? What happens when you actually quite enjoy the company of your colleages?

Answers on a postcard please.

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