Sunday, March 19, 2006

The French work culture – a couscous goodbye

The US and France have one unfortunate thing in common right now: they are both adept reinforcing their negative stereotypes around the globe. For the US, this means sticking to the unrelenting "bad cop" routine - for France, this means endless photo opps featuring riot police facing down poorly behaved citizens.

Working in a French company is a marvelous window into French culture that you don't get reading the USA Today. Despite the American stereotypes about an atrophied French work ethic, the 30 people at my software company in la defense work as hard as any Silicon Valley startup: in at 9am, out after 7pm. In a US company, we usually calculate 220 productive days per year per employee. In France, with it famous penchant for long holidays, this number is still 210 productive days per employee per year!

As befits a culture with a much longer history than our scant 200-year American odyssey, there are many charming refinements in the French approach to work. For example, when you arrive at work, the custom is to shake hands. Every hand! This means the first five minutes or so at work is a slow ramble down the hallways of the company pressing the flesh and exchanging quick greetings.

Not only are the greetings more leisurely and refined, so are the partings. For example, the ex-CEO of our company still comes to work regularly and has been very helpful in transitioning to his successor. In France, the personal relationships extend past the busines relationships - my experience in the US is that the personal relationships are usually subordinate to the business relationships.

As another example, one of our sales reps is leaving to start another business with her husband. By way of farewell, she brought a couscous dinner for the entire company, complete with wine. This being a true French meal (my children’s favorite “French” food is couscous), the wines included a sweet aperitif wine meant to be drunk before couscous and a more mainstream wine for drinking with couscous. When was the last time a departing employee bought you and the rest of the company dinner?