Everybody’s Working for (part of) the Weekend

There are plenty of topics and happenings in this world of ours that serve to divide us nowadays. Crazy times, crazy times, these are. You know the one thing I’m pretty sure all of humanity can agree on? The wholesome goodness of those two days every week where the daily grind comes to a—well, grinding halt. Say it with me: the weekend. Yaassss, the weekend. And the next one is already here! And just LOOK AT THAT WEATHER!

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With sunshine like this, the weekend can’t come soon enough (provided the sun sticks around, of course)!

Okay. Before I veer too far off-topic. The premise remains that everybody loves the weekend. No discussion. Blog entry finito.

Noooo, not yet. I wouldn’t dream of making things that easy for myself. I will devote some TLC today to how weekends are similar and different in my two home countries, the USA and Germany. Then it’s TGIF time for reals.

First, lets’s look at what’s similar: going out, sleeping in, meeting up, dressing down (like what I’m doing there?) shopping-till-dropping, gardening, cleaning, tidying, birthday party-throwing, soccer playing, binge-watching, hosing down the car, firing up the grill. Does this sound familiar? Anything missing? Certainly for Saturdays, relaxation may or may not have anything to do with the program both in Germany and the USA. Cramming all things necessity and pleasure into one day is a tall order.

(STOP THE PRESSES! The German hubs just had a peek-see over my shoulder and informed me that hosing down the car is not allowed here! A quick Google search has confirmed this. For environmental reasons –the chemicals from the soap can make their way into the ground water supply–car washing on your private property is mostly a no-no. I guess I wouldn’t know because I’m the gal who drives her car through the commercial car wash once—maybe twice– a year and that’s about it.)

Anyhoo, back to cramming everything all into one day…the weekend is two days, no? What can’t be done on Saturday can be checked off the to-do list on Sunday!

Well…not necessarily. In the States, it’s true that Saturdays and Sundays are almost equally commerce-heavy, save for slightly shortened opening hours for many businesses on Sunday. Some shopping juggernauts remain open 24-7. Exact laws regarding opening times are left to the states and local jurisdictions. Trivia for my US friends: there is one area where Sunday shopping is prohibited…can you guess where it is? (answer is at end of post)! But, as a rule, Sunday shopping is permitted—and exercised—across the country.

By contrast, in Germany, Sunday shopping is much more restricted. Though jurisdiction for laws regarding shop opening times have been handed over to the individual states (much like the USA), state and local governments have generally held to the no-shopping Sunday rule. Many areas designate a handful of Sundays throughout the year for „shopping Sundays“, and facilities such as airports and major train stations keep their shopping arcades open throughout the week.

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The neighbor cat agrees: Sundays are for relaxing, not shopping. Meow!

Despite the relaxation of opening hour laws over the last decade, culturally, Sundays continue to enjoy their status as a day for relaxation, recreation and family. Facilities such museums, swimming pools, amusement parks and restaurants remain open to support said relaxation, recreation and family time. To the oft-asked question directed my way of „but what do you DO on Sundays if you can’t shop?“, here’s a sampling of a typical Sunday agenda:

1. Sleep in (I can still snooze till 10:00 with the best of ’em)
2. Enjoy a leisurely breakfast. This is the ONLY day of the week I MIGHT indulge in an „American breakfast“ of eggs, sausages, pancakes, muffins
3. Plan a Sunday-ish activity, such as a hike or bike ride. Where we live, we have the yuuuge advantage of being proximate to the Palatinate Forest, the Black Forest, the Odenwald (another forest-y area), many lakes, the Alsace region of France and, a perrenial American favorite, the town of Heidelberg. If we want to get our big-city culture on, we can make the under-an-hour hop to Frankfurt to enjoy the museum alley along the Main river (closer to home, Mannheim, Heidlberg and Speyer all have museums, too).

A family favorite destination is—don’t laugh—the Frankfurt Airport. Here, we can indulge our plane-spotting quirk, have a lovely walk along the trails around the airport’s perimeter AND mosey through the ever-expanding shopping arcades in the terminal itself. Plus, there’s a nifty airport train that shuttles between terminals, allowing a great view of the awaiting planes docked at the gates. I understand this might all sound weird to many folks, who may spend their career-driven weekdays living at airports and hotels. To each his own!

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You’d be AMAZED how entertaining watching a plane de-icing can be on a dreary Sunday afternoon!

Soccer is a common Sunday activity, as are kiddo-related get-togethers. During the weather and light-challenged winter months, we often spend Sundays cooking, baking, reading, visiting museums, hitting the fitness studio (my husband, not me!), watching movies, visiting with friends, playing games, taking advantage of whatever „Shopping Sunday“ happens to be taking place in reasonable driving distance. I honestly don’t miss the shopping, or at least the stimulation of a well-lit and bustling shopping area, unless the weather is really cold and dreary. On those days, the airport works nicely in a pinch.

Another Sunday difference to the United States is that Germans are not big church goers, at least not on a regular weekly basis. The topic of religiosity and the role it plays in culture is outside the scope of this post, but a comparison of Christians to Christians (the dominant religion in Germany) in the USA and Germany indicates that only 13% of Germans self-reported as churchgoing, in contrast to 47% in the USA.

On a real-life level, aside from the fact that this means few Germans spend their Sunday mornings at church, it also means that the church in general plays a far smaller social role in the everyday lives of Germans. Rather, it’s the „Verein“ (club) culture that glues together townsfolk here socially. So, very little talk in these parts of the „church family“ or of various youth-group or other church social club activities.

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While you’re not likely to find many Germans at the Sunday church service, you will find plenty at the bakery, stocking up on fresh Sunday-morning goodies. Sadly, the bakery pictured–the one a stone’s throw from our house and one of the last independently-owned in our town, closed its doors this week. Sniff, sniff.

So, with those last thoughts in mind, I will close out this post and declare the weekend in effect in…three…two…one…now! Have a great one!

Oh…the answer to the trivia question is Bergen County, New Jersey!

If you are doing business—or are about to business—with Americans, make booking an intercultural training your first priority on Monday morning!

The Right to Rejuvenate

Micronesia. Tonga. Kiribati. Marshall Islands. Nauru. Palau. The United States of America.

These countries all belong in a group together, but for what?

No, they don’t all enjoy year-round tropical beach weather. Just ask our friends along the U.S. North Atlantic coast who are digging out from the recent late-winter Nor’easter.

Hint: a goose egg appears in the columns “paid vacation days per five-day work week and “paid public holidays” next to these countries.
Well, I guess that was more than a hint. Subtlety was never my strong suit. My bad.

Since this is a blog that compares and contrasts the business cultures of the USA and Germany, here are the stats for Deutschland:

Paid vacation days per five-day work week: 20
Paid public holidays: Day of German Reunification (October 3) is a paid public holiday nationwide. Aside from this, it is up to each of the 16 German states to decide which public holidays will be paid. These days vary between 9-13, with Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg having the most.

Now that I’ve put the numbers out there, it is time for some clarification (For yuks, I’m giving myself bonus points for every word I use that remotely rhymes with “vacation”. One point for me!).
Those goose eggs do not mean that American workers do not everrrr get paid vacation. Rather, they indicate that such days are not mandated legally at the federal level. This reflects a deeply embedded cultural value that employers should have a maximum amount of freedom to determine how they regulate their own workplace.

That said, a Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows that 77% of employers in private industry granted employees both paid vacation days and paid public holidays. These numbers are murkier for part-time employees and employees of small enterprises. Anecdotally, based on the comments to numerous articles on the topic, the amount of paid vacation time employees get from their companies varies wildly, from none to five weeks. Some get the time without the pay.

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Nothing like a long summer vacation to recharge everyone’s’ batteries and create a sense of family adventure!

What’s maybe even more interesting is that Americans—as a collective whole—seem to shrug their shoulders on the topic of paid vacation (a 2014 petition to compel the White House to take up the issue fell flat). Many of the various commenters wished for more time; several, however, indicated they would not know what to do with extra paid vacation time since they are not big travelers, for financial reasons or otherwise. Still others dreaded the work pileup, some feared being seen as “slackers” and thus feared repercussions for their jobs, while another contingent was bothered by the cognitive dissonance of being paid to do “nothing”.

The slacker fear is real, and points to a major distinction between the American and the German business culture. No, not that Germans are slackers. Whereas German employees enjoy contractual protections that make their job positions comparatively secure, Americans live under an “At Will” employment ethos, better known to Germans as “hire and fire”. In many American states, employers do not have to provide a reason to fire an employee, which means even valuable workers could theoretically be let go from one day to the next. The likelihood of this happening is up for debate, but the possibility alone is enough to put a damper on anyone’s extended-vacation spirits.

The perception that someone who is not at the work place is enjoying downtime or “doing nothing” is also, alas, a persistent one that echoes the Protestant work ethic as old as the founding of the country. Specifically, the first European settlers in America were Calvinist Protestants. Calvinists had a, well, special view of the role of work, which, arguably, remains detectable in our cultural fabric to this day. Digging deeper into this here is beyond the scope of the overall topic at hand, but this New York Times book review sheds some more light for those who are interested in how Calvinism may (or may not) still be influencing our business culture.

Has anything else rhymed with “vacation” yet? Man, I’m losing my rhyming mojo.

Anyhoo, back to modern times: it’s not really that Americans dismiss out-of-hand the need for leisure time; it is very much that we stop short of seeing extended time away from the workplace as a necessary investment for keeping employees highly productive the rest of the time. Call it residual Calvinism, call it naked capitalism (you made me say naked!), call it Shirley…the sumpthin’ fer nuffin’ prism we Americans tend to filter things through while clutching our pearls is hard at play here. Never mind that employment, health and travel experts see this differently; deeply ingrained cultural norms are a [female dog] to change.

With this elegantly-formulated hypothesis in mind, I suggest that–for the time being anyway—the most realistic way to ensure paid vacation time for American employees is by way of private companies themselves. Here are some that are leading the way with particularly creative vacation incentives (yes, one company is Canadian…that didn’t slip past me. Does “Canadian” sufficiently rhyme with “vacation”, by the way?). It’s a great way for companies to attract—and retain—talent.

The devil on my shoulder is whispering that such incentives are often not extended to every level and type of worker and that not everybody is fortunate enough to be hired by goodie-stocked companies; Here’s where I sure diddly would love to see some (maybe state-level) incentives for businesses to offer their employees paid vacation. If the Feds were inclined to kick something in, so much the better. But now I reckon I’m really thinking outside the box. But give me props for doing pretzels to avoid suggesting anything resembling a mandate. Change in cultural perspective takes lots of time and baby steps.

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Nuttin’ wrong with working the earth on your vacation time…especially if the kiddos do the hard labor!

So, why do I even care? I’m here in Germany, after all. But maybe that is why. Having lived here to the point of almost complete acclamation (the almost is significant, but not relevant here. But HEY, “acclamation” rhymes with vacation!), I’ve seen the systemic benefits of normalizing employees’ (or citizens’, depending on who’s court you believe the paid vacation ball to be in) right to pull away from the daily grind completely enough to truly slip into relaxed-person mode. And by “slip into relaxed-person mode”, I mean neither having to worry about answering a steady trickle of business-related e-mails at the beach nor about how to finance said break in the event it is not paid. Knowing that extended times away from the workplace are never out of reach, German employees are able to keep their noses to the grindstone that much more when they are on duty. And, brother, they do work intensely. My plentiful anecdotal observation is validated here.

It actually matters very little exactly how one chooses to spend one’s vacation time. There’s a joke here about spending one’s days in “Balkonia”, meaning lounging on the balcony. Ever diligent, some Germans do DIY home improvements or gardening work on their time “off”. We as a family often take the opportunity to indulge our wanderlust (like here, here and here), though we have our share of “staycations” as well. Whatever. The point is to disconnect digitally and mentally—like a detox for the soul—to get the energy flowing again. Employers benefit directly from the rejuvenation in elevated employee motivation and productivity.

Sounds like a win-win to me.

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