Diary of an Expat, Part 51
Work ethic (serious post wheee)
Of all the things that I admire the Germans for, perhaps the single biggest one is their ability to maintain a work-life balance.

You don't realize this exactly until you're an American (at least. Maybe Japanese, also) in Germany and you see that they are capable of building a functional society, and a strong economy, without completely destroying themselves in the process.

I went through an arc between thinking that the proscription on Sunday shopping was irritating to thinking that it was quirky and "just how things are done here" to thinking it's a bloody damned good idea. And it is, I think, emblematic of a functioning society that you can set a day aside and basically say: "No. Find something else to do."

There are a lot of something-elses to do in Berlin, of course, like the parks or just hanging out with your friends. Or restaurants, because restaurants are in any case still open. It's a very good way of enforcing decompression, and also time management.

It's not that Germans do not work late, if there is work to be done. But they have managed to divorce it from a sense of self-worth; if something needs to happen, you can find people burning the midnight oil, certainly. But at my office, it is consistently the Americans who are in the office until 8 or 9, every night, convinced that the project / division / company / world will fall apart without their ceaseless, painful toil.

I've been getting more into time management, lately, in particular the Pomodoro Technique, which emphases working for 25 minutes, taking a 5 minute break, and starting again. In other words, creating sharp divisions between "on time" and "off time." Forcing yourself to be off is just as important as forcing yourself to be on.

By and large, that's how the German work day goes. There are more important things to do at 6PM (family, dinner, beer, whatever). It sounds trite, but it means that the work that happens during the day is correspondingly tighter and more focused. We know that adding more hours to the work day comes with a corresponding decrease on return-on-investment, and eventually with negative productivity. So why do Americans keep doing it?

If you ask Americans, of course, they will tell you that they have no choice. If they don't work the long hours, they won't get promoted / won't keep their job / won't look good on their resume / etc. They will always have an excuse for sacrificing their lives at the altar of... something. And they'll phrase it in such a way that you honest to god believe them.

I know this.

I know this because that's how I used to be. I used to tell myself that, and consequently I used to tell others that. I told myself that until I believed it. And I might even have secretly sneered at those layabout, do-nothing countries who sat around while I and my compatriots — you know, the ones with an actual work ethic — Blazed Trails.

But it's bullshit, anyway.

The real answer is that it's a sickness. In the same way that apartheid was a cultural sickness of South Africa, that Torquemada's inquisition was a cultural sickness of the Spanish, that AIDS stigma is a cultural sickness in Swaziland, the American relationship with work and overwork is a fundamental cultural error.

The historic American focus on the "protestant work ethic," which linked spirituality and productivity, has percolated down for centuries. It has meant that "self-worth" and "occupation" are intrinsically bound up, such that "what do you do?" is one of the first questions Americans (uniquely) ask people and "being unemployed" is a cause for stigma and depression.

It is completely, batshit irrational. More than a century of research has demonstrated repeatedly that longer work hours are emotionally destructive and reduce productivity. But as a culture, Americans keep doing it, and individual Americans remain convinced that they have to. I'd like to think that this is because more Americans have found jobs that they enjoy doing — genuine enjoyment is the only reason to throw more than a third of your life into something.

But probably not.

I have not been out of the States long enough to stop. I still work too long, and I know that my productivity suffers for it — I know this because there are times when I come back to the office in the morning and I can't believe what I thought passed for acceptable work the evening before, or because problems that seemed intractable at 8PM are magically solved with a cup of coffee at 9:15 the next day. So I am slightly hypocritical.

But I have been out of the States long enough to realize how absurd the entire American work-ethic cult is, and how just like a cult it has brainwashed its members into believing not only that they have no choice (indeed no agency at all) but that they are doing the right thing. Because of course the reality is that a 40-hour workweek and reasonable vacation and sick-leave policies are not luxuries, and they were not beat out of fatcat industrialists by brave unions — they were adopted, and retained, because they were beneficial for the company offering them.

At some point things spun apart, and honestly I don't entirely know why that was, or when it might get better. So I don't have answers; that's not my job. But I will say that working in Germany for a year has, as being free from any abusive relationship, given me enough distance to see just how disturbed the things I used to think were normative actually are.
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