It is truly crazy to believe that I am already entering the last week of my internship here in Paris. Even over the relatively short time that I have been here, I have watched the overall composition of the city’s population. When I first arrived at the end of May, there was a pretty small number of tourists, and most people that I would see on the metro and on the streets were locals. As June and July arrived, more tourists began to arrive and the city grew crowded, with Parisians and visitors alike occupying public transportation and the city itself. Meanwhile, now, I can see the city beginning to empty a bit. Ironically, while it is the high season for tourism, many Parisians are actually leaving the city for a few weeks to vacation either in the countryside or in other nations. This past weekend was the 14 July, or the ‘Fête Nationale’ in France, and though Paris has the biggest celebration of this holiday in the country, there weren’t that many Parisians around to celebrate it.
It is this emphasis on taking vacation time that I believe is one of the strongest indicators of what defines ‘success’ in French culture. Of course, the French still believe in hard work and producing good results, but their definition of success is not so one-dimensional. Success in this culture is more centered around balance: a successful professional is one who builds themselves a solid career, yet still retains their personal life in doing so. A few times, I have proposed that I work on a project while I am at home, to which my supervisor seemed a bit surprised before insisting that I should never do internship work outside of my scheduled shifts. Similarly, every night, whether it is a weeknight or not, I see people of all ages sitting outside sharing a meal and/or drinks. It is rare to see French people staying at the office late, pulling all-nighters in order to be ‘successful.’ Similarly, paid vacation is a very important aspect of French culture, with employees receiving at least a couple weeks of paid vacation time, regardless of how new or experienced they are. The French do see the value of work, but they also seem to place equal value on building relationships with family and friends and enjoying life.
To me, this differs greatly from the American definition of ‘success.’ When I hear people talk about being successful, I mainly hear ideas like making the highest possible salary, or climbing the corporate ladder as high as possible, and doing whatever it takes to do so. Whether this is pulling all-nighters at the office, skipping events with friends/family, or choosing to work instead of taking a meal break, I feel like Americans tend to prioritize more tangible ideas of success like money and status. Consequently, things like building relationships or simply slowing down a bit can fall to the wayside. This is even reflected in the American workplace structure and system, such as the fact that one has to work to earn vacation time. Entry-level employees often receive only a little bit of vacation time, which is often unpaid. It is only after working for a few years and/or receiving promotions that longer and better-paid vacation time can be obtained in the US.
This difference in the definitions of ‘success’ between France and the US can also be reflected in the individual behaviors of ‘successful’ employees. In the US, one may identify the most successful person in the workplace as one who occupies a high position (manager, CEO, etc) which was earned through grueling work and perseverance. Meanwhile, the French may instead have a more broad definition of successful. A successful employee could be someone in nearly any position, who also maintains a healthy personal life. I often see my coworkers, including my very successful supervisor, stopping work to chat during the day, and stepping away from the desk to drink coffee or eat lunch. This could be contrasted with the perhaps subtle difference in the US, where people will choose to take their lunch breaks in their offices in order to achieve maximum productivity.