On Questions

When I was in high school, my first job at 14 years old was an (under the table) hybrid of waitressing/dish-washing/take-out wrangling for a local pizza restaurant amongst a slew of high-strung Italian men. I quickly learned that there wasn’t much time for questions about the process, my job, or anything for that matter.

This lesson was emphasized throughout my next job in which my manager reprimanded me for asking too many questions before and not finding a solution on my own. I was advised to do everything I could to answer my own question before deferring to a manager who may be busy with many other tasks.

From a young age, I always thought this was an effective way of operating. It’s been engrained in my head that you should always try to handle everything in your control before asking a question that could make you appear inattentive or aloof. My dad furthered this by using his favorite buzzword when I came to him with challenges: anticipate. Anticipate the obstacles, prepare for them, and act accordingly. If you’re asking too many questions, you didn’t give enough thought to the problem to solve it on your own.

I attribute much of my success as a student, employee, and person to this mindset. But am I embodying this mentality to a fault? It appears I have. My mid-point review came back from my supervisor with the biggest area of improvement being my capacity to ask questions and “challenge” the tasks I’m given.

The French work environment has challenged all of these assumptions about what makes a proactive, effective employee (or intern, for these circumstances). At my internship, I’ve found that this work environment values conversation, exploration, and reflection. Questions are encouraged and appear to be an indicator of interest and understanding. I’m accustomed to viewing too many questions as an indicator of lack of preparation and sign of dependence.

The team at Balibart is small (about seven of us), and with the warm weather and many of my coworkers taking their vacation days, a good part of my time spent in the office is with maybe three other people. My supervisor is scarcely in the office as he is back and forth between the office and the printing workshop. This means I tend to have little supervision or authority to respond to or acquire feedback from throughout my workday. With so much independence and lack of structure or direction, of course questions arise, and I’m actively making an effort to converse with whoever is in the office that day. This comes only to my benefit and it’s not like they aren’t happy to help.

The French way is starting to rub off on me and the little voice inside of my head says not to be so hard on myself – ask more questions because curiosity and reflection is not a sign of weakness, especially in this contrasting work culture.

But naturally, the American in me says I probably should’ve anticipated this environmental change in the first place and adapted accordingly. 🙂