The quest for authority in France

This is something that I mostly notice in the workplace, but it seems to be the case generally in French culture. The people seem to absolutely love to have responsibility assigned to them. By this I mean they want, more than anything, to be in charge of some thing, place, or activity. These responsibilities are often minimal. For example, perhaps there is some piece of equipment that needs tending or a document that needs completed. In the US, these duties may be ad hoc or just a small part of somebody’s job that is rarely mentioned. In France, it is formalized and you are made to know about it.

I used to think this was all just about a cultural need to have policies and procedures in place. It may be a little of that too, but as time has passed I’ve become more and more convinced that a big part of it is to maintain each individual’s sense of importance. I believe this because of the silly emphasis on these tiny side projects. Related emails and signs give an air of importance around what is often a minor footnote in my day.

I’m sure part of it is the language, and this isn’t surprising because languages seem closely related to culture. I work in a small building with 15-25 people on a given day. If a hypothetical policy comes down from above that applies to some system in my building, really a casual note is all that’s needed:

Hey everybody they want us to start doing X to the widget, so could you go ahead and do that when appropriate?

Instead, we get an authoritative email:

In accordance with the policies that have been enacted due to the recent events pertaining to the use of university widgets, I have been assigned the responsibility of widget control officer until further notice. A new policy regarding widget use is now in place for all staff and students. You will now be required to do X to all widgets upon completion of activity Y. Any deviation from this plan is strictly prohibited.

Now I’m not saying there is anything wrong, per se, with the second email, but hopefully you can see how this comes across as excessive and self-important to an American. I’m also not pointing fingers at anybody in particular, as I see this sort of verbosity from many different people.

Finally, the point of these assignments is not productivity. If the guy who is responsible for a given task goes on vacation, it just doesn’t get done until he returns. As an example, we have a system in my lab where a single person is responsible for the reservations of an important piece of equipment. (Note that in 1.5 years, this policy has changed 3 times.) Unfortunately, we have a couple months of holiday every year in France, so he’s often gone. We cannot properly reserve the equipment during that time. Yes, we can still use it because in practice the reservation system is useless given the general lack of competition for the equipment. But this just goes back to my point about responsibilities being assigned purely for the sake of assigning responsibilities and not because a policy is needed.

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