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Four French habits that can help us work better

The French are among the world’s top 20 happiest countries and also excel at work. Here are some thoughts on how their habits may be linked to their success

The French eat their lunch at leisure even on a weekday.
The French eat their lunch at leisure even on a weekday. (iStock photo.)

I recently had the opportunity to spend few days in France. I was in Cannes, which is located on the French Riviera, attending the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Thereafter, I spent a couple of days walking around in Paris. The festival was rich in marketing lessons, but the entire visit was even richer in learnings about how the French lead their lives.

This may not be the most appropriate place to discuss everything that the Gauls do, but I would like to cover the domain of French habits that can positively influence our work as well as personal lives. After all, France is among the world’s top 20 happiest countries. Many of their corporates have excelled globally in their respective fields, including luxury giant LVMH, L’Oreal, Airbus, Christian Dior, Essilor, Chanel, Schneider, Peugeot and Renault. Their lifestyle habits may have something to do with such happiness and success.

Meal times are sacred

The first thing I learnt about the French is that so many of them take their office lunches and meal times very seriously. Unlike in many other countries, including India, meals are not eaten in a hurry in France. The French sit down and eat their lunches at leisure even in the midst of a working day.

I think they treat their lunchtimes not just seriously, but with reverence. During my visit, I saw so many groups of officegoers out at cafés during lunch time, savouring their food and engaging in relaxed conversation. Offices look relatively deserted during this time. An hour is not considered too long for a regular workday lunch here. When these people return from lunch, they are generally in a genial frame of mind and get immersed in their work immediately.

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For instance, a French Tourist Office in a small town which I visited in the north of France, was closed for two hours for a lunch break. I waited patiently, but when the lady-in-charge of the office returned after lunch, she was able to give me all the material I required so quickly, including an age-old brochure that she had to locate and pull out of the storage room.

This has reinforced my belief that, if we need to work at peak levels of productivity, we also need occasions during the day to elevate our mood. Meal times are among the best such breaks.

Time for conversations

I met many French people at the Cannes festival, as well as in a few offices in places as diverse as Paris (one of the great cities of the world) and Hardelot (a small seaside town). I met them while buying a ticket at the metro station, visiting an office, travelling by train. They always had time to engage in a conversation. Even though their language of preference is French, they switched to whatever little English they knew to speak with me. And this was not just transactional talk. They spoke about Indian food, French architecture, where to find the best ice cream, the latest news, and two of them even shared funny stories. They asked me questions about my interests and told me about their own.

I came away quite refreshed from these interactions and could focus on my next task much better thereafter. That’s why I think these conversations matter, no matter what subjects are discussed.

How much time do we spend in such engaging conversations on a wide range of topics each day, with our colleagues or even with strangers? Each such interaction may take 10 minutes of our time but will energise us greatly for the rest of the day.

C’est la vie

Within a few days at Cannes, I discovered a popular French expression which at least three people used with me at different points: “C’est la vie”, loosely translating to “That is life”. It signifies acceptance of situations that one cannot change. These could be adverse or unanticipated or unpleasant circumstances—the phrase captures them all in a single flourish.

For instance, when the queue outside a particular conference hall at the Cannes Lions Festival got too long, I became somewhat impatient and also feared that I may not get entry into the wonderful session if the hall got totally full before my turn. My FOMO had kicked in. I mentioned this to a French advertising executive who was in the queue immediately behind me, and she merely smiled, waved her hands and said, “C’est la vie”.

Clearly, this is a philosophy that can take a lot of the stress away from our work lives, because there are some things in our offices that we cannot change. Of course, we should influence everything that we potentially can, because we would not be effective managers otherwise. But if something is well beyond our pay grade or capability to alter, then maybe it is best to say “c’est la vie”, whistle a nice tune and walk away.

A love for the arts

The art galleries and museums I visited in France were teeming with people. Not just the big ones like the Louvre, but also much smaller places such as the Musee Gustave Moreau. The French marketing folks whom I met during this visit were inevitably eager to speak about books and architecture, not just about business and advertising. During our conversations, they wanted to understand more about Indian authors and movies. They are generally very proud of their art and literature and appear to be genuinely curious about these subjects.

This love for the arts results in enhanced sensibility around subjects such as design, storytelling and beauty. In fact, exploring the arts stimulates our creative right brain in many interesting ways. This is perhaps a desirable quality to develop in many Indian corporates, particularly since a large majority of our managers come through an engineering and management backgrounds and have very well developed analytical left brains, but who often tend to neglect the nurturing of their right brains.

It is now lunch time, and I must practice what I have preached above. I will, therefore, sign off for the next one hour by saying, “Vive La France”.

Harish Bhat works with the Tata group. He also noticed during his visit that the French walk a lot, and they walk everywhere. He tried to emulate them and got lost twice in the bylanes of Paris. That is the subject of another story.

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