By Dr. Jim Dahle, WCI Founder

The American relationship with France has been complicated over the centuries. We fought against them in the mid-18th century during the Seven Years' War (known as the French and Indian War in North America). A few years later, Lafayette and his countrymen helped the British colonies achieve their independence. US armed forces eventually repaid them at the Somme in World War I and on Omaha Beach in World War II. However, Americans are still quick to bag on the French every time they don't want to help fight in an ill-conceived search for weapons of mass destruction. Remember “freedom fries?”

Many of us love visiting France (is there anything better than lunch on a French sidewalk?) Paris! Chamonix! The French Riviera! Carcassonne! In fact, it is the most-visited country in the world (we're second, though!) Despite that, there are significant cultural differences between the countries. We can learn a lot from them. Like anything in life, let's take what we find useful and leave the rest.


Work-Life Balance

Americans enjoy their hard-driving reputation. The culture in medicine is a great example. As one physician might say in America:

“You know the problem with Q2 call, right? You miss half the good cases.”

The French are far more interested in work-life balance than we are. The standard work week is not 40 hours; it's 35. They also get five weeks of vacation, at a minimum, and they actually take it. Americans average 11 days of PTO, and they feel guilty taking it. Shoveling your food down is frowned upon in France, as is eating while walking or driving—much less at your desk. Americans drink coffee so they can work harder. The French drink coffee to take a break. An American who works a lot of overtime is viewed as hard-working and productive. To the French, that person is NOT productive, because they can't get their work done during the 35-hour work week. You probably won't be surprised to learn that only 44% of French general practitioners are burned out compared to 51% of American family docs. The first thing I ask burned-out docs is: “Why don't you cut back to full-time?”

In France, people are much less defined by their work. You're not a doctor in France; you're a person who also happens to practice medicine. You don't ask people at cocktail parties, “What do you do?” And if you do, you wouldn't expect an answer that talked about a job. In fact, it's actually considered rude to ask someone what they do for a living when you first meet them.

More information here:

Finding Balance in Your Life

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3 Stages of Life

Given that people don't define themselves by their work, it is far easier for people to retire from that work without losing part of their identity. The French view life as containing three stages. The first is childhood, adolescence, and education, where the focus is on schooling and learning. The second stage is where you raise your family and have a career. Then, there is this entire other stage that we would call retirement. Every French person expects to have a bunch of decades of their life when they are no longer working. This is why they're willing to pay so much in taxes to support a massive pension system. This is also why they get so upset when politicians start talking about pension reform.

Don't get me wrong. The French love to protest, and they are darn good at it. Perhaps if their kings had not been such totalitarian tyrants, this wouldn't be part of their culture. The people had a long fuse but when it finally blew, it went big. That first protest lasted for a decade and involved not only “eating cake” but beheading the king and just about anybody else who looked like they might have had a little bit of money or authority under the old regime.

At any rate, when the French protest, they really protest. President Emmanuel Macron skirted Parliament to make what is probably a very reasonable change to their retirement system, increasing the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64. The French went ballistic. The Eiffel Tower and the Louvre closed. The trains stopped running. The garbage collectors stopped picking up trash. Roads were blocked. Huge demonstrations with hundreds of thousands of people in the streets went on and on and on, and 13,000 cops were called in. The protestors pelted them with rocks and received tear gas back. There were more than 1,000 fires burning at a time.

The French people really, really like their retirement—almost as much as protesting, it seems. In America, we (obviously not all of us, but in general) idolize hard-working folks like Steve Jobs or Marissa Mayer, who worked more than most resident physicians. We view people like Warren Buffett and Jack Bogle who worked their entire life as admirable. In America, it seems the third stage is completely optional. If you don't do a good job saving and investing, it might not even be an option for you.

More information here:

5 Financial Considerations for American Doctors Wishing to Live Abroad

When Everything Clicks into Place: How Foreign Travel Can Make You a Better Doctor


Self-Responsibility vs. Social Responsibility

Americans come from people who were not afraid to go out and take a risk. Having grown up in The Last Frontier, I'm at the far end of a long list of people who left the comforts of home to head ever further west. In Alaska, we favorably view somebody who can go out and live in “the bush” and be self-sufficient. Being self-sufficient is so rare these days that multiple TV shows are made about it.

what we can learn from the french

In America, we like the idea of being responsible for ourselves and getting the rewards for doing so successfully. French culture? Not so much. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They are much less likely to complain about their high taxes (46% of GDP compared to 26% in America) and to enjoy the benefits of those taxes (government-provided education, healthcare, pensions, etc.)


What Can We Learn from This

I don't think Americans are going to wholesale adopt French culture anytime soon. I'm not even sure that's a good idea. But there are some pearls here that we can learn from. Here are a few:

  1. You are not what you do—just like you aren't what you drive, wear, or live in.
  2. There is a third stage of life—the one after the kids leave home and you stop working for pay—that you should prepare for and enjoy.
  3. Take your vacation and ask for more; there are some things that cannot be put off until that third stage.
  4. It's OK to not work 40 hours a week, much less 60. It doesn't make you a bad person or even a bad doctor.
  5. It stinks to pay taxes, but it also stinks to pay for healthcare, tuition, and retirement. It's probably about the same amount of money either way.

What do you think? What useful lessons have you learned from French culture? Would America be better off adopting some of the French attitude? Comment below!