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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Differences in Business Mentality

In 1987, Paul Kennedy, a historian at Yale University, wrote a book called "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers". Kennedy delves into the histories of past and current world powers, discussing how they came to be important, and how most eventually faded into history. Throughout this book, one sees a common theme: a nation gets powerful as a result of good decisions, a strong economy, and success in war. As a result of their success, many of these countries became over extended, had strewn their money and resources over far too large of an area, and eventually were the cause of their own demise.
One might wonder what this has to with the subjects that I normally discuss in my articles, but I'm getting there.
As I came across this theme in Kennedy's book, I came to realize that this type of rise and fall could be applied to other fields as well.
Let me give the example of someone opening a restaurant in the United States. With good promotion, products, and/or success, the workload will most likely increase. This is a good thing, to a point. It becomes tempting to continue to expand operations, hire more employees, and try to make more money. Since the restaurant one has is successful, why not open a second one? Why not use the extra capital to expand into a totally different direction or industry? Occasionally this works out, though oftentimes it does not. Companies can get too spread out and pay less attention to small details. This may lead to less personal attention to clients, more stress, and an increasingly unpleasant work life.
In France, French chain restaurants are a rarity in comparison to the seemingly endless amount of restaurant chains in the United States. Most restaurant owners in France are in charge of one sole restaurant, or in rare occasions, two or three. When posed with the question: "Your business is doing so well. Why don't you take advantage of it and open a second restaurant?" most would respond, "Why would I do that? I am already busy enough as it is."
By keeping operations relatively small, the French are able to focus on the quality of their products. Occasionally this will lead to high prices, especially if a vendor is offering a product with high demand. Many French culinary delicacies are able to pull this off.
In Julia Child's book, "My Life in France," American experts made suggestions for the French on how they could "increase productivity and profits" in their respective businesses. She suggests the following response to be what an average Frenchman might say:
"These notions of yours are all very fascinating, no doubt, but we have a nice little business here just as it is. Everybody has a decent living. Nobody has ulcers. I have time to work on my monograph about Balzac, and my foreman enjoys his espaliered pear trees. I think as a matter of fact, we do not wish to make these changes that you suggest."
To comfort those that work far more than necessary, some complain that the French are lazy and don't get much done. As a result of this misconception, the fact that France is one of the most productive countries in the world is a surprise to more than a few. A survey conducted by UBS, a banking and financial services group, found that French workers are on the job more than 300 hours less per year than the world average. When comparing GDP per capita and number of hours worked per year, it actually turns out that the French are more productive than the Americans (French: The Most Productive People in the World, Business Insider, August 20, 2009).
Another difference in mentality is what one wants to achieve by working a full time job. Does one work to buy nicer things, or does one work just enough so that they can have plentiful time off? The differences in vacation time between the United States and France are well known, and yes, the differences are as staggering as reported. The French have, on average, 5 to 6 weeks of vacation time per year. Americans have, on average, two. Furthermore, many choose not to take their full vacations, for they feel like they will appear lazy for taking more than a few days off a year. I know of many Americans who work constantly throughout their vacation, even though they are supposed to be off work. An American friend of mine was told that he would be reprimanded if he turned his work cell phone off, even at night while sleeping (I should add that he was supposedly on vacation). The puritanical work ethic has remained ingrained in our collective consciousness in the U.S., whether we are aware of it or not.
Meanwhile in France, no work related anything gets done while on vacation. Bosses even tell their employees not to work while on holiday (not that they needed the reminder). While on vacation, emails are left unanswered and phones calls are hardly acknowledged.
No one in France would think of giving up his or her vacation. A friend of mine who worked in Paris told me that in her office of 60 or 70 employees, only 2 of them were at work for the majority of the month of August. Not surprisingly, the ones that stayed were not French.
While some in the world would prefer to work to increase prestige, privilege, and productivity, others are content to work just enough to provide a comfortable living for themselves and/or their families, have ample time off from work to be with them, and have time to pursue other pleasurable activities. Who can say whether one way of viewing one's career is the right or wrong way, but given the choice, I personally would choose the latter.
If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat, in addition to walking around some of Paris' best neighborhoods, take a look into my tours at

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1 comment:

  1. While walking around NYC the other day, I came upon a store that made and sold French Macarons. Unfortunately, it was closed. Not to worry, they had 3 other outlets in the city.
    I wonder if part of the difference, at least in NY, is real estate. In NYC, a store would rent a space. Maybe in Paris,or the rest of France, you buy the space. Then you are secure that you can continue to be in that space as long as you can earn a living.
    In NYC, it is typical that the landlords raise the rent to a price that even a successful store cannot afford to pay. Thus, to stay alive, you have to have other outlets 'just in case'.
    Also, there is the fact that perhaps Americans just will not pay extra for quality.