Jun 15, 2011

Taking a Break from it All

People in different countries of Europe, and from 
Europe to North American and right back again, 
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, although the structure of the economies is totally opaque for many of us.  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.”  This is a very unuseful cliché since what is 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 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” there -- only a problem in the sense of having one reality instead of another -- is the fact that there are financial benefits to the expatriation.  For an American, being expatriated to Europe can mean keeping an American-level salary or part 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 sufficient 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, so that person can spend their time assuring that the vacations are truly fabulous.  The "non-working" (in quotes because they are actually working) person can also take care of the kids during the school vacations when the family is not actually away traveling. So this is undeniably a very nice setup.

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 granparents live nearby, so that during school vacations when the family does not go away together, a grandmother is free to take (read: insists on taking, with possible emotional blackmail to follow) 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, there are country (“secondary”) homes, not just of the bourgeoisie, and these country homes are used when the family does go away 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). 

We are an interesting experiment because we have neither American salaries and tax breaks (we are not expats) nor the nearby family or summer homes (we are not French).  So, we just have the pure work experience and the pure vacation experience.  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 gives us a very good idea of how a country might have to be structured in order to have more “vacation:”  Not only should there be family and secondary homes relatively close by so that vacation is relaxing (or else everyone has to have a wonderful salary), 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. 

You can take your choice, but the assertion that someone "should" vacation more or less often is an empty assertion unless the whole country and its educational and economic system are taken into account, and then 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 must be very high.  That is, a focus on vacation is in part related to the level of stress experienced at work.  All of this can only be established within a country and can not be claimed cross-nationally.

After I have read more about positive emotion in the workplace, I’ll write about it. 

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