Right now, I’m indulging in one of France’s most well-known pastimes: vacation.
French schools have two weeks of vacation every seven weeks during the academic year, and French workers enjoy a minimum of five weeks of government-mandated vacation per year (not including holidays). No wonder French people gape when I inform them that the average American worker gets two weeks of vacation.
Hence, the French stereotype about Americans is they work too much, and the American stereotype about the French is they barely work.
There are disadvantages to the French culture of less work, more free time. Life moves slower, and things don’t get accomplished as quickly, which sounds fine until you’re faced with the reality that it’s 3 p.m. on a Sunday, you need eggs, and the grocery store doesn’t open until Monday morning. Or your cellphone line is cut on Friday morning because the phone company lost your documentation, and it won’t be restored until at least Monday because, hey, it’s almost the weekend. (If you can’t tell, that’s my problem du jour.)
The default setting in France is to wait because, as the French often say, c’est pas grave (“It’s not a big deal.”). Life takes time.
Meanwhile, back in America, the culture is we want it, and we want it now. It’s rare for any store or service to make you wait. You want eggs on Sunday at 3 p.m.? No problem. In fact, come in 4 p.m., 10 p.m., or 2 a.m. for all we care. We’re open 24/7. The disadvantage is somebody always needs to work.
And here we arrive at the two countries’ differences in vacation time. France values free time, so here’s a heaping bowl of vacation; the United States values convenience, so it is among the rare countries whose government does not mandate a single vacation day. Companies must take it upon themselves to offer vacation. (This likely also goes back to America’s trust in business.)
France and America could stand to learn from each other. France offers a glut of vacation at the expense of convenience; perhaps the country could be friendlier to consumers if they pared it down a little. And America does not place enough emphasis on taking time off. Three out of four employees with paid time off do not take all their vacation days, which definitely does not contribute to employee happiness. That doesn’t even factor in the 22 percent of people who don’t receive any paid vacation.
The end of my two-week vacation from teaching draws near, and my next two weeks will come in December. I just keep reminding myself that two weeks was all I received for an entire year of work in America.