Taking a Break from it All

People in different countries of Europe, and from Europe to North American and back, judge each others' work habits and schedules, and judge them often and vocally.  Of course, with current international business practices and the supposedly helpful diversity trainings (which, from what I have seen, are largely sources of successful transmission of  clichés), this should be seen as unsurprising in some ways.  The  economies are in real competition.  Discussions that Deutsche Börse, the German stock exchange, could buy the New York Stock Exchange (Wall Street) are very confusing to the average person (like me).  Wall Streeters will apparently vote on this on July 7, and Deutsche Börse shareholders will do so by July 13; but I don’t even understand the implications.

One of the most often-used clichés about this topic is that “The Xs (usually southern European peoples) work to live, and the Ys (usually North American peoples, but now some Asian peoples) live to work.”  Its all about whose values are better. This is a particularly meaningless cliché because what is actually going on in work and vacation is tremendously varied across countries, even across the countries of Europe.  And then there is that problem of how different people define and experience stress and therefore their need for vacation.  (By the way, one of the leading causes of stress that results in physical health symptions is: conflict in the workplace.)  But still, you hear the cliché all of the time.

Part of the cliché is perpetuated by people who are expatriated to another country for business.  The problem for generalizability and accuracy is the fact that there are financial benefits to the expatriation that effect the longevity of the cliche. For an American, being expatriated to Europe can mean keeping an American-level salary or most of an American salary, plus certain tax advantages. This financial situation is then combined with a lot of vacation time in a place where there are many easily-accessible countries to visit.  In other words, expatriation often (although of course not always) involves a non-representative level of time and money to enjoy all of the vacations that represent the “living” part of the cliché.  Furthermore, one member of an expatriated couple may not be working outside of the home, so that person can spend their time planning for the vacations. A cruise here, a biking trip there. Life is great! 

For people who are on sabbatical from a North American university, things are similar. Lots of time and lots of American dollars. What’s not to like?

Since they do not have the same salaries and tax advantages, the natives of the country in which there is so much assured vacation do not live the same situation as the expats.  In many of the countries of southern Europe, the grandparents live nearby, so that during school vacations when the family does not go away together, a grandmother is free to care for the kids for a week, or for two.  If the grandparents do not live nearby, then the kids can easily be sent or brought to them, and often they are.  In addition, lots of people have country (“secondary”) homes somewhere in the family, and these homes are used when the family does vacation together.  The availability of the grandparents (or failing that, aunts and uncles) and the availability of country homes (owned or borrowed in the case that there is not one in the family) overcomes some of the inconvenience of not having an American salary and tax breaks to pay for all the vacation (or the babysitting or camps to keep the kids busy). 

My husband and I were unique working in France because we had neither American salaries and tax breaks (we were not expats) nor the nearby family or summer homes (we are not French).  So, we just had the pure work experience and none of the vacation support.  It is not quite the same; I do not mean it is bad, it is just not the same as vacation feels for the other two groups.  And, our life therefore gave us a very good idea of how a country might have to be structured in order to have more “vacation time,” of the variety Americans think they long for.  Not only should there be family and secondary homes relatively close by so that vacation is relaxing, but grandma should want to shop and cook during the vacations so that you are not shopping and cooking your vacation away.  In addition, in order to have enough learning during those fewer numbers of days in school (e.g., in order to protect Pentecost as a holiday), the school days have to be very long.  Or else summer vacation has to be very short. Failing any of that. Salaries have to be much, much higher.

You can take your choice, but the assertion that living involves lots of vacation (the living that you are working for) is untenable unless the whole country and its educational and economic system are taken into account, and structured accordingly.  Furthermore, the need for and definition of vacation is strongly linked to what is going on at work and school in the first place.  If neither work nor school should be fun, and maybe they shouldn’t, then the need for vacation is very high. If there is a focus on creating a good work environment, then vacation is less necessary. Meanwhile, the balance is impossible to judge without a consideration of what is going on in both work and vacation contexts and the ways in which each makes the other desirable or even necessary.

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 2:36 AM JUN 15, 2011