I’m always interested in cultural differences between English and French and how they might have come about, so I was fascinated recently to have a chat with a young French chap who has just got back from a work secondment in Germany, and was talking about the differences between work experiences in the two countries.
As always, I’m not telling the following story as a criticism of the French (or German or British) way of working, but simply to highlight the significant gulf that can exist between workers in one one country and another…and perhaps to hint at the problems faced by French employers trying to implement changes.
Apart from the (inevitable) comments about differences in eating habits (lunch being a quick sausage taken at the worker’s desk…) it was the working conditions that he found most surprising in Germany.
He was truly astonished that when workers were asked to do something new or different at work – they just got on and did it! To his amazement there was no talk of strikes, no meetings with management or union leaders to discuss the changes, or under what circumstances the new work might be acceptable…
…and he really did genuinely believe that this ‘blind acceptance’ made the German workers ‘a herd of sheep’ (his words). He couldn’t begin to understand their attitude.
This difference was reinforced by an interesting comment someone kindly left on the recent blogpost about the differences between the French and English (Vive la difference) – as it was quite long I thought I’d post it here (slightly abbreviated) so it gets a bit more attention…
I am reading your article with a lot of interest and a big smile, because I am French, and it is surprising to see how you, as an expat, you watch France.
Well, on the political topic, here is my point of view. For me, the thing is not in a kind of national spirit, making English and French different, but rather in history.
I think Boris is completely right. There is a history of the protests in France stopping government action. Not going back to the 18th century of course, but I can give you here some examples (always on the topic of student or retirement!) when the French government gave the odd impression to be really weak in front of a national strike, by canceling the laws and even firing the Prime Minister! And several times…
1984: loi Savary sur l’école privée (changement de 1er ministre)
1986: loi Devaquet sur l’Université (démission du ministre)
1994: loi Falloux sur le salaire des étudiants (retrait de la loi)
1995: loi Juppé sur la réforme des retraites (démission du 1er ministre)
2005: émeutes de banlieue (apparition d’un 2nd 1er ministre…)
2006: Contrat 1ere Embauche (CPE) (quasi démission du 1er ministre)
2010: réforme des retraites (le 1er ministre devait changer alors que la reforme était encore en cours de discussion: c’est de la prévention?!)
With such a political balance sheet, a French man would be mad not protesting when his little comfort is in danger. It seems so easy to frighten the government (specially student organization and lorry trade-unions are strong in that game, because each time they enter in the game, the prime minister starts getting his bag ready!)
I don’t really know recent British history about strikes or social conflicts. My “Epinal picture” (stereotype) is the conflict between Ms Thatcher and the miners in the mid-80?s. Once reduced the power of the trade unions, people are less confident starting a trial of strength…”
Are the differences in working attitudes because of the conflicts between Thatcher and the miners in the 1980′s? Almost certainly yes, but also I think because generally in Britain (and presumably Germany) both pay and progress in a company are linked to effort and performance – so employees actually see ‘going the extra mile’ as the path to their personal success, rather than strike action.
If a company is going to lay-off 10% of its staff is it better to all go on strike together to protect the jobs (French style), or to work harder to make sure you aren’t in the 10% (UK style)? There’s no right or wrong answer but I can see how the difference of opinion might come about, and why it can be so difficult for each nation to understand the attitudes of the other!