Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Feature: The French Office & how to survive it

I’ve thought long & hard, (that’s what she said), about posting this. I’ve had so many recent conversations about this subject I felt compelled to send this out into the void at the risk of making some generalizations. When I arrived here, I was such an idiot, in so many ways. I made all the mistakes below, and more. Ugh. I shudder to think at how ridiculous I must have seemed... or, well probably still do seem lol.

I’m adding a disclaimer in light of the above:

The following is based on my personal experiences and each company, depending on its size, location and make up, will behave differently. I don’t advocate sweeping-statements about cultures or people in general, but that said, you may relate to some of these situations and if so, I hope that the advice based on my own reactions is helpful to you. Take it with a grain of salt ;)

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So, you've done it! You’ve moved to France and by some miracle, landed a job that will give your life meaning and line your pockets cash! Yay, good for you! That, already, is some feat. Before you get too excited, be prepared for some cultural differences, good and bad, that will make this experience unlike any job you've had in the States.

1. Professional Distance
You. Are. The. Job. Professional distance is a biggie. Just as you can expect French friends to take longer to warm up to you, your colleagues may not give you the welcome you expect from day one. In France, people probably won't ask you how your kids are, wait, in fact, most don’t give a rat's ass if you have a family and probably prefer you not mention it.

They're there to work, not to make friends. The good side of this is that you don't get the opportunity to play favorites with someone based on their personal life. Theoretically, you're judged on your work. Theoretically.

The downside to that distance is that it makes it really hard to connect with colleagues. Everyone seems, to me, to be in their own little bubbles and not really concerned with the emotional investments and motivations people harbor for their pet projects.

Tip: Hang in there. Unless your company is populated with douchebags, you'll slowly but surely integrate. Don't be offended, it's not you, it's them.

2. Perceptions of Hierarchy
Nobody likes a cocky noob. Though this goes without saying in any company, I think it goes double for French companies. Status is very important in this culture. By this I mean both hierarchy and seniority. You should be aware of your 'place’, it’s key to not pissing everybody off.

I know from experience that if you waltz in with all the answers, you will be despised no matter how helpful your insights might be. You may get advice claiming you need to disregard the opinions of others to gain respect, but I don’t think that’ll get you very far. All people enjoy being listened to, and having their ideas considered. I’ve been in situations where that just *doesn’t happen* with French bosses, and I think as expats, that might make us stand out more as mangers.

Tip: Even if you were hired to shake things up, it's important to ease into your job, listen more than you speak at first and you'll ruffle fewer feathers. You can't revolutionize the French workplace over night. Question co-workers to get the low-down on who to 'vous' (formally address) and who you can 'tu' (informally address). That will help you to avoid an embarrassing faux-pas, AND give you the low-down on who the status-mongers are from the get-go. Be sure to treat the 'vous' people with kid-gloves when it comes to their ego or you may regret it!

3. Positive Reinforcement
I’ve heard that from day one in French schools students are taught that they’re not good enough. They colored outside the lines, they misspelled the word 'immatriculation' - whatever the teacher can criticize, he or she will without hesitation. In my opinion, this explains a lot about the thanklessness in the office.

I think of it this way: your boss is not there to encourage you to work well, but rather discourage poor performance.

Tip: Be realistic about this cultural difference and learn to pat yourself on the back. When the French do dole out a few kind words, write them in a notebook and break them out on days you feel you deserve them most. Or, do like me, and find some expats you can complain to, that’ll make you feel better ;)

4. Benefits & Their Evil Twin, Taxes
Time to sit back and stroke your golden goose, France has a benefits program that will make your toes curl. The healthcare options are outstanding. Being American, I appreciate this even more. It’s a great comfort to know that the financial burden of being ill has been lifted. Having kids also brings another bundle of joy -- tax reductions and government checks!

The greatest gift of them all has to be the vacation: five weeks plus twelve RTT days are enough to make anyone jump for joy!! However, nothing is free, and the taxes you'll pay to enjoy all those fabulous benefits will likely make your smile turn upside-down.

Tip: Two words: Monthly. Payments. The first time I had to pay taxes in France, it was a lump sum deal. It felt like someone was ripping my heart out of my asshole signing that check!! Splitting the checks in twelfths was a hell of a lot easier.


5. Meeting Etiquette
Meetings are a whole other ball of wax on the other side of the pond. The Parisian faction are fashionable, and believe strongly in being fashionably late. Be warned, you will consistently be calling people to be sure they show up to your meetings. This is completely normal, even if it makes my 'merican head stoke out.

The rules are just not the same, and sometimes you just have to cope with the hand you're dealt and try to find a balance between how your Frenchie colleagues react to your promptness, and what you can stand.

Tip: Let your colleagues know how you operate if you're the one organizing. Give them the lowdown from day one to avoid aggravation/surprise when they show up 20 minutes late and you're pissed off. Expect them to show up early? Tell them straight out. Willing to bend a little? Let them know what you're willing to accept, so that if they show up later, you can kindly remind them... in front of the others. (A little ego-check never hurt!)

6. Hours
Americans have an entirely different outlook on what constitutes a work day. More often than not, we go in early to get out early, but in France, people don’t think the early bird gets the worm. Most people mosey on into their offices around nine-thirty or ten am, and head back home around seven-thirty or eight.

A ten hour day for a 35hr work week? Et oui! That's because lunch will be at least an hour or even and hour and a half long and breaks are frequent. What your French colleagues *may* lack in productivity is made up for in conviviality ;)

Tip: Follow their lead as far as hours go and take breaks with colleagues to better know them. Not eating with your crew will put a big fat 'outsider' label on your back from day one and hinder your integration. If you don't dig eating with your colleagues every day, try to make it a point to go with them at least once a week so they don't get hard feelings.


7. Hiring/Firing Practices
Getting a job in France is no simple task, even if you have a work visa. For expats it means finding someone willing to overlook your French language flaws, cultural faux-pas, and most importantly, the fact that you aren't French, and trust that despite all these 'drawbacks', you just might be competent one day (after months of their condescending tutelage).

What makes this process even more difficult is how hard it is to fire someone here. Sometimes I think having to fire someone is what the French fear most. It is the culmination of someone's failure to judge the employee's abilities, and who likes to admit they're a poor judge? Certainly not French management. It's also a ginormous legal hassle, full of proving, discussing, documenting, blah blah blah, shoot-me-now kind of crap. So, obviously, no one likes this part either.

Tip: Don't be surprised when you have ten hours of interviews and a cavity search before getting the nod. Also patience is a key trait to master since sooner or later you'll be stuck with a dud who can't be sent packing because it deflates someone's ego or would make some waves. Your future French boss might also be provocative during the interview, expect questions that are meant to shake you up, try to keep your cool. (I’ve had this happen to me, and heard it from a lot of friends, American or otherwise.)


8. Quitting Practices & your CV (resume)
Everyone has their limits. Sometimes you take a job and give it your all, only to find that it just doesn't fit. However, before you hit the road, there are a couple of things you should consider.

The French don't like flighty employees. “Duh, who does?” you’re saying. I know, I know. But in the US, at least in my case, it was better tolerated. Almost all my interviews here had a “Wow, you’ve changed jobs a lot” moment and my American bosses never seemed to blink at that fact. Stability is a huge asset, and if you move around too much, you're risking your rep’.

The second thing to think about is the 'demissionaire' phase (quitting period). Unlike in the states, two weeks is not an option. Three months is a typical notice period for a 'cadre' status, and in non-cadre situations it depends on your contract and can vary but is usually a month or so.

Tip: If you’ve got ants in your pants, try to negotiate your departure using vacation time to shorten the amount you have to work before leaving. Study your options before quitting, know your rights and the rules associated with your "Convention Collective" (see next point for more info on this). You might even be eligible to search for a new job on company time, or give less notice, or make a mutual break of the contract to obtain other benefits. Knowing these things in advance helps the process go smoothly and more to your advantage.

9. Collective Conventions
This documentation is a must read. It describes for all types of work in France the benefits and limitations like vacation days, your rights if you should quit or be laid off, etc. A quick google search will lead you to legifrance.gouv.fr where you can read this information for free (in French).

Tip: Know people in your field? Pick their brains! Still unsure? You could ask HR if no other option is available during your interview. As a noob, they might overlook your lack of knowledge in that area and fill you in.

10. M vs F
Break out time machine, you're going to take a trip back to 1950. In the U.S. if a man kissed my cheeks, told a dirty joke, called me beautiful and then asked me to get him a coffee, I'd probably pour it on his unmentionables and contact my nearest sexual harassment lawyer.

But I'm not in the U.S. I'm in France, where it's not offensive, it's "charming" and expected. Get used to some banter that would be deemed inappropriate according to American standards. Although many expect this will evolve and become less frequent due to the DSK incident, I think it's ingrained in their culture and fully expect it to continue on the sly.

(Note: of course you should use your own judgement about what feels acceptable to you. If you feel uncomfortable, bring it up with HR or your boss. My point is, they don't have the same standard of comfort here, and not to get your panties in a twist at the first incident because the intention may not be to harass you.)

Also expect to fight for your authority. Women do not enjoy the same commanding presence in France, much to my dismay.

Tip: Don't let the jerks belittle you or boss you around. If you're female, you've got to find a passive-aggressive way to put them in their place without totally f-ing their ego in front of other people unless you are looking to get a "bitch" label slapped on your back. And learn to laugh at the 'charming' personalities as long as you feel OK with it.





BONUS:

I have heard this question a lot lately: "I'm bumping heads with my French boss a lot, what do I do? nothing works!?"... Here are a few things I've noticed about French bosses and am sharing in hopes that it may help...

5 Management Do's & Don't's

- Don't work better/harder than your boss. Insecurity can be a real issue. One trick I used to use was to make my boss think that the idea I want to implement was his/hers and that I just added to it, or perfected it. Then I get recognition without hurting someone’s ego.

- Don’t be disrespectful towards them. This might seem obvious to you, and you should treat your boss with respect regardless, but it's even more important in France. Think twice about snarky jokes or sarcasm.

- Don't compromise your ideals. You can tell your boss you disagree, just don't do it every day or they'll get seriously annoyed with you and you'll earn a "trouble-maker" label. Pick your battles wisely, go after the ones that will make the biggest difference in your happiness at work.

- Do be a “yes” person. In my opinion, management here has to deal with some downer personalities compared to the typical American employee. I think they appreciate the can-do American attitude.

- Do take initiative. They seem to like it when you propose ideas, as long as they're not *too* out of the box. You may frighten them to death if it's too innovative (see first point!)

- Do be patient. Since your hire represents a big risk for your manager, try to keep that in mind when he or she doesn’t trust you over night.


Please, add your own tips, comments, ideas, "shannon you're full of shit"'s, etc in the comments :)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Why I blame Hollywood if I get cold-feet...

Raise your hand if you think this is going to be ironic in a few years: My first post about contemplating motherhood is the product of a nightmare involving the anti-christ.

Oh dear god I cannot get this image out of my head this morning: little blond baby, adorable as can be, sitting on my husbands shoulders... and his head doing a 360-spin with wide, evil, red eyes and a really scary grin. It looked *just* like Chucky, except for the red hair. Sweet Jesus, I am so damn scared of having kids now. SCREW YOU SUBCONSCIOUS!!

My husband and I have been married for some time in young-people-terms. Five years have flown by at lightning speed. Feels like just yesterday I was arriving in PARIS, to live with the man I love, to leave my entire WORLD behind, to boldly throw myself into the great unknown. I had to try this life on to see how it fit.

I feel like I'm on the verge of going down that road again since we're now talking about chillins'. Except this demonic little head-spinning vision playing in the back of my mind is not really... comforting.

God this is such a *huge* decision. I'm going to warn you now, this isn't the first time we've talked about it, I've been saying for years now, "maybe it's time we started a family, eh?"... some how it keeps getting put off.

First it was because we were moving to Paris & wanted to get settled. Then it was because I wanted to get my career rolling. Then it was because I found all these great expats, and just wasn't ready to give up my cocktail-fancy-free-social life. Always something.

Now there's no good reason to delay, and given how much I LOVE my nephew and feel this maternal need to protect him as if he were my own, I think I've made all the babysteps toward progress possible. Still... be prepared to read a year from now, that we've decided to wait. Again. And then my mother in law and mom will heave weepy sighs, and cross their arms in disappointment. I say I want to now, but when the time comes I fear cold feet will strike again. Thank you, Chuck.

In the mean time, I'm trying to boogie as much as possible. Dinners, book clubs, parties, you name it, I'm doin' it. I some how feel like my "free" life is going to end. Like, the baby will be this boss who will frown at me and send my social agenda to its room for a time out. An 18-yr time out.

Can't wait to read this post again a year from now though, wonder what I'll be thinking? Maybe by then I'll be heavily involved in an expat-mommy-scene. That could be rad. Hopefully they'll convince me that my future-baby will miraculously not be the spawn of beelzebub. I'm a little afraid of what my nightmares will be when I'm preggo if just talking about it brings satanic imagery to mind -- yeash.

Monday, June 6, 2011

WTF Wednesday: The DSK Effect isn't working fast enough.

So, funny thing happened on the way to Denver a couple of weeks ago. I realized more than ever, my husband is soooo right. When it comes to men... Don't talk to them. Don't look at them. Whatever you do, don't you f-ing DARE smile at them. In fact, pretend their faces are covered in their own stomach sauce if you want to survive emotionally unscathed. Of course, the minute I diverge one solitary step from the path of righteousness, I am given a 2.5hr lesson in mid-air discomfort.

The French and American cultures are not made from the same molds. When an American man sees me see him, he seems to be thinking "Hmm. Someone looked at me. Moving on.". When I glance for a fraction of a millisecond at a French man who notices, no matter what age, 18 - 80, it's as if Barry White starts playing in his mind and he's trying to figure out how to discreetly, but not too subtly, invite me back to his apartment where he'll douse himself in "Sex Panther", (you know what they say, 60% of the time...), and see where it goes from there. What IS that??

In short, I have learned the hard way that a friendly smile is interpreted as a whole different kind of friendly on this side of the Atlantic.

These are assumptions, based on cultural clichés, stereotypes, and personal experiences, which I realize is unfair to all those who are not at all this way. I don't want to make the case that *all* French men are perves -- this is far from true. The assumptions can get you into trouble, and not just French assumptions. I assssssumed, that American men were all on the up & up. Guess Again!

When a "nice" man struck up a conversation with me on the plane, his American accent didn't scare me off. I thought, screw silence, I have another 5hrs ahead of me on this flight, he's not French... I'm going to chit chat dammit!

We chatted. We talked about politics, about DSK who had just been arrested the day before, and numerous other chit-chatty things. Really, it was pretty classic plane-stranger-conversation, no red flags as far as I was concerned. I even talked about my husband and how happily married I am.

Unfortunately, I had to chose *that* day, to be seated next a moron of such epic proportions that he has earned his own blog. Normally, if someone is talking about how in love they are with their spouse, you wouldn't make an inappropriate proposition. Such was not his case. (F***wit)

I swear, for just a moment, I thought I was a victim of candid camera. I looked around, waiting for a stewardess to jump out from behind the first class curtain and laugh hysterically at me, but, alas, this was no laughing matter. Seconds lingered in the air uncomfortably. I felt like I was reading his mind. He seemed much like a flasher who realized he'd left his clothes on under his trench, but was stuck in a crowd and unable to escape with his flash-ee stuck behind him in line. Eventually I managed to politely turn down the offer to "rest" between flights. (Eeeeew, still gives me the heebie-jeebies.)

All over France, documentaries and newspapers are talking about the "DSK effect". They're postulating that the treatment of women, the innuendo and harassment will no longer be tolerated because of this historic arrest. Yeah. I'm still waiting for the effect to sink in.

In the mean time, the lung-butter-mask option works. I suggest you go with it until the rest of mankind gets with the program.

Has this ever happened to you? Share your grease-ball story in comments :)
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