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Working

09/10/05 12:00AM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) As we put the long Labor Day weekend behind us and return to the workaday world, commentator Mike Martin has been wondering if we work to live - or live to work.


(MARTIN) Like most Americans, I didn't have to work on Labor Day. But as the last sweet hours of summer drifted by me, I thought about the work year ahead and how different cultures approach the work ethic.

In France, for instance, nobody does much work during the month of August. By law, every French citizen has six weeks of paid vacation every year, and most people take most of it in August. Businesses slow to an idle. Everybody's away from their phones. The employees left behind perform their work slowly - grudgingly. In some villages, even the baker goes off on vacation and you have to leave town to get a baguette!

This big-vacation tradition in France makes it a great place to be an employee and a tough place to be an employer. Hard work and efficiency are not ideas many Americans immediately associate with France. For us, France conjures up long, meandering lunches, multiple espresso coffee breaks, or people chatting and smoking in small cafes.

But while some of these culture cliches hold a kernel of truth, it's good to be careful when it comes to national stereotypes. For example, even though some businesses in the South of France still close between one and three pm for "la sieste" - a time when the Mediterranean sun makes it too hot to work - it's a tradition that is gradually being lost. And while it's true that the full-time work week in France is only 35 hours long, many French still put in 50 to 60 hours a week. Just like us, they keep going until their work is done.

In a recent New York Times article, Paul Krugman cites statistics that show French workers to be more productive than their American counterparts - when comparing the actual number of hours worked. In his article "French Family Values," he claims that the French approach to work reflects deep-seated societal values: that you should work to live and not live to work; that time spent with family and friends is sacred; that humanism must be protected from capitalism, sometimes.

As globalization puts American workers in direct competition with people working for less, we might be tempted to think that we can't afford to take a vacation - assuming we even know what vacation is anymore - now that our work tools have become our toys!

We take our Blackberries to the beach, we have our phone headsets on as we walk, or eat, or walk and eat at the same time.

Our laptops and desktops are where we watch movies, go shopping, and look at pictures of our kids, but they also keep us working after hours, on weekends, and even during vacation.

We Americans are proud of our entrepreneurial spirit and famous work ethic. But, as we go back to work and school, it would be good to keep in mind the French savoir-vivre and appreciation of life.


Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.
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