Hello, it's Better Laettner Than Never where I say a few things that may be unpopular opinion. For example, I think we should use the Oxford comma. But anyways...It's not always serious, but sometimes it is. Better that I say it now than never.
First, I’d like to say, as I will tell anyone I meet in person, I recently came back from spending my junior year abroad in Paris and I loved it. Not because it was academically easier than Duke, which it wasn't - though many people often associate that with time abroad - and not because I am an American escapist. I loved it because I took the opportunity to learn in a different culture and accepted the challenge of adjusting to a different academic system.
After a year abroad in Paris, I came back and experienced a bit of a new shock at the differences between our socialization habits here at Duke, and those in Paris. Of course, at this point I prefer taking the metro than taking an uber, for example.
As Americans—and specifically as Duke students—there are many things we can learn from Europeans about work-life balance. In his book, The Europeam Dream, Jeremy Rifkin cites the oft-noted distinction that “Europeans often remark that Americans ‘live to work, while Europeans ‘work to live.” Duke students should work to live too. I think we deserve it. We need to tell ourselves that we deserve it. We need to believe that we are hard workers, but that we don't need to work ourselves past the point of exhaustion. In fact, we need to employ a practice of balance in all areas of our lives. There’s simply too much “work hard, play hard” and “burnout” around us.
Practicing balanced productivity is much more productive than working full time, and this is something that European lifestyle clearly employs. There are many ways to practice this, yet there are a few essential facets to living this balanced lifestyle. This is not to say that these practices are exclusive to Europe, they may exist in various places throughout the world, it is just to say that these are the differences I noticed between France and the United States.
First, the French strongly demonstrate that the work day ends when the work day ends.
The French usually finish work at 5, and head to a café to have an apéro with a friend or lover. They stay there for dinner, or have a picnic with a bottle of wine along the river. They enjoy their company and their meal for several hours. That is hours of time spent living as a human, focused on nothing but interaction, discussion, and enjoyment.
Since the time of the Puritans, America has strongly adhered to the Protestant work ethic which proclaims a virtue of hard work. According to strands of Protestant theology, the idea of hard work contains a redemptive element for an individual both in the eyes of God and those of our fellow humans. Our Protestant ideals, however current or historic they may seem, lend to a belief that we should suffer for our work.
This high value placed on work is pervasive in American culture. However, people can kill themselves this way. A similar work-too-hard trend has seen Japanese men dying on the subways during their commutes due to excessive overtime work.
We all have the same number of hours in our days. What matters is how you choose to spend them. If you find yourself overwhelmed with work, maybe take an hour break so that you can come back and be more productive. Go outside and let your mind rest. Study in a way that sustains you.
Second, the French understand the importance of socialization for wellbeing. Beneficial socialization, or what some might call “deep play” is great for you. Americans tend to place a high value on being busy, whereas Europeans tend to place a higher focus on balance, and they seem to be more productive for it. I know for me personally, I do my work better when I have had the right amount of rest and can commit all of my focus on one task at a time.
Side note - Europeans also seem to practice the well-known secret that it is better to enjoy a drink with a meal, than to over-drink. The French are known for combining their great wines with their great cheeses. The whole idea of an apéro is a warm-up to whet the appetite for dinner. Less binge drinking and more conversing.
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Finally, the French appropriately value community . I think that there is a lack of community in certain areas in America. When one looks at many of the perpetrators of rampant gun-violence, it is clear that those individuals are often highly isolated from a healthy community. They self-exclude from a healthy group, or have been disassociated with their home community, and instead join a dangerous online community.
This lack of community influences many problems in the United States, and if we recognize the cultural cues into this loss of community, we could perhaps address these problems.
One cultural cue is our American ideal of freedom. As Rifkin points out, Americans and Europeans have two different understandings of freedom:
“For Americans, freedom has long been associated with autonomy… One is free by becoming self-reliant and an island unto oneself. For Europeans… it is inclusivity that brings security—belonging, not belongings.”
Balancing work and life is better for the mind, overall wellbeing, and greater community. It is better that we form and maintain large communities. It is better that we include diversity and diverse thought (and language—but that is for another op ed altogether).
There are things we can learn from the European quality of life, and things that we should do because we—as Duke students and human beings—deserve it. Rest to improve productivity, socialize to improve yourself, and create inclusive environments to improve community.
Sophie Laettner is a Trinity senior. Her column typically runs on alternate Fridays.