Australia: A Culture Shock

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Leonardo’s now been in Sydney for a month and has started a new job. He’s finding the situation in the workplace very different from France. The thing that bothers him most is that people don’t take time to socialise. He says he doesn’t understand it because if people don’t know each other, he doesn’t see how they can work together efficiently.

The first thing is saying “hello” in the morning. If you’re ever been in France, I’m sure you’ve seen people arrive in a bar and give everyone they know a kiss on both cheeks (even twice in some cases). When kids get to school in the morning, they do the same. At work, you always do the rounds of colleagues when you arrive, saying “bonjour” and shaking hands or kissing them (depending on which sex you are, how well you know the people and how casual the atmosphere is). And if you run into someone a second time during the same day, you say “re” meaning “rebonjour”» to show you’ve already seen them and said the first “bonjour”.

It took me a while to learn this when I started teaching at uni. I thought I was being perfectly polite when I said, “Excuse me, do you think I could have the key to the class room?” But no. I hadn’t greeted the person. One woman in particular would always reply “Bonjour” in an insistent sort of way. Then I’d say “bonjour” back. After that, I could ask for the key. I felt foolish, I must confess, but she was no doubt doing me a favour. Everyone probably thought I was rude! Now I go and say « bonjour » to everyone when I arrive.

Here, you say “bonjour” or “messieurs dames” to the people waiting in the doctor’s surgery for instance (only using “messieurs dames” if the company’s mixed obviously). You throw out a general “bonjour” when you walk into a bakery or a butcher’s or anywhere else where you intend to buy something. Clothes shops are not the same because you might just be browsing although saying “bonjour” will always be appreciated.

And with all this “bonjouring” you obviously have to say “au revoir” when you leave. Dashing off at the end of the day without saying goodbye to all your colleagues is definitely frowned upon.

Practices seems to be very different in Australia, though, according to Leonardo. Yesterday, one of his co-workers suggested he and another co-worker go grab a coffee. They all walked down to the coffee machine. Leonardo then expected them to take five or ten minutes for a chat around the coffee machine the way they do in France. No such luck. To his amazement, they all went back up and drank their coffee in front of their computers!

Another problem he’s come up against is that all the shops close at 6 pm so he doesn’t know when he can do his shopping.  He said there’s late closing on Thursdays but that’s all. They close even earlier on Saturdays. In Paris, shops tend to open later and close later, often staying open until 7.30 or 8 pm and even later if they sell food. Saturday is a full day and they’re often closed on Monday because the law regulations say all employees must have two days off in a row each week. It’s a bit different outside Paris where opening times tend to be stricter, 9 am to 12.30 and 2 pm to 7 pm.

Anyone got any suggestions to help Leonardo adjust?

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6 thoughts on “Australia: A Culture Shock”

  1. Even though most workers are ‘entitled’ to a 10 min tea break you’ll find the majority do not physically leave their desks to take it. They will simply go and get their tea or coffee and, as Leonardo has noticed, return to their desks and continue working. Of course, the smokers all take time out to leave their desks as all internal spaces are ‘smoke free’. He may find it easier to socialise with his colleages during his lunch break as this is the time they would probably leave the work environment and ‘go for a walk’ or visit the local cafes etc. Also, meeting for drinks after work, particularly on Friday evenings, is quite common, especially now as our days are getting longer. The evenings are really the best time of the day to be outside – not too hot and quite lovely around the water at Darling Harbour, King Street Wharf etc. Glad you found Broadway Leonardo – our family who live down near the Rocks – travel to Broadway to do the majority of their food shopping.

  2. Like Katherine, I was going to suggest that socializing may happen outside office hours. When I started working in the UK I was surpised that the office was so quiet! Tea/coffee breaks are usually only a break to make the beverage and then everyone brings it back to their desk and drinks it while working. Lunch breaks where I worked were very rare. But, after about a year I finally starting making friends with colleagues and we decided to have lunch out once a month. Socializing was done on evenings (usually once a month on a Thusday or Friday) at a local bar and that’s how you get to know people.
    I don’t know what the turnover is like at Leonardo’s new companym but where I worked/work turnover was so high that you needed to prove you were going to stick around a bit for people to invest in you.
    Leonardo may try asking someone to tell him or show him where the best local sandwich shops are, etc. That’s also a good way to get someone to actually take a break with you and show you around.

  3. Thanks, Katherine and Maple Leaf, for your suggestions. I think the point about the turnover is important. It seem there is a high degree of what is called casualisation in Australia now, meaning that people don’t have fixed term contracts so don’t want to become involved with co-workers who are not going to stay long.

  4. It might also be this strange American work ethic creeping into Au working life. Broadly speaking, we see Europe as highly regulated, shorter hours, lots of holiday time, while the US has long hours, fewer holidays, lots of extra time expected to be spent at work ( with a lot of the day spent faffing around ) with long hours recognised as some kind of ‘going beyond the call of duty’, hence applauded. Australia is somewhere in between. Especially in tech. We all seem to be overworked and busy. And there’s definitely a shorter term view of employment, versus the longer term, ‘job for life’ that appears to be somewhat the norm in Eu/France ( well, from how we see it at least).

    1. It’ll be interesting to see Leonardo’s answer to that. I’ve never worked in a company either in Australia or France as I’ve always freelanced. There’s certainly more holiday time with 5 weeks paid holiday, lots of public holidays and what they call RTT which is time off in lieu of extra hours worked. Also, in France, you can’t have more than one repeat of a fixed-term contract.

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