Thursday, November 17, 2005

'There's a place in France...'

Looking up from the Java code on my screen, I gaze out the window at the river and at the long row of stately white stone buildings on the other side, with the cathedral spires just beyond them. I look at the bridge standing on its brick arches with the tramway train speeding across it. Being a programmer in France is a lot like being a programmer in the U.S., except for the view.

There are other differences as well. For one thing, U.S. companies seem to like to put the programmers into individual cubicles, Dilbert-style. French companies are more partial to tossing all of the programmers into one big hall where everyone can see and talk to everyone else continuously. As you can imagine, this has advantages and disadvantages for getting your program written. It's easier to quickly ask a colleague about a point you don't follow in the code, yet it's harder to concentrate on your own code without getting distracted. It's also harder to surf the Internet for hours on end without people noticing. So here in France you get a similar but slightly different set of challenges.

Another difference is the morning round of greetings. The way I remember it in the U.S. companies I worked for, people would say "good morning" the first time they happened to see each other for the day, but that was about it. Both of the French companies I've worked for have had this custom that when you arrive in the morning you go around and individually greet all of the people who work in your area. Or if you're really friendly and/or ambitious, you go around and greet everyone in the whole programming hall.

Here the greeting is a big production. It's more than just "Bonjour!" or "Salut!" When two women meet, they greet with a kiss. I'm not making this up -- this is how random colleagues greet each other every morning!! It's not a "French kiss" of course -- sorry to disappoint! -- it's just one of those air-kisses on both cheeks.

When a man and a woman greet each other, they do the kiss-kiss thing as well. Now just try to guess what two male colleagues do when they greet each other in the morning!

Give up? They shake hands! See? Even here in enlightened France the guys have this "I'm-not-gay-not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-that" thing going just like their American counterparts!

Now if you're a typical programmer (i.e. not getting any action outside of the great virtual realm of cyberspace), you may be thinking that this is a really sweet deal (unless you're a gay guy, of course). After all, you're bound to have at least a few attractive colleagues, and they have to kiss you every day!! Air kisses at least are better than nothing, right?

Well this, my friend, is one of the many good reasons for moving to France. Of course it's a bit of a two-edged sword since no matter how repulsive you are, there's bound to be someone more repulsive, and you have to air kiss them too. So you need to take that into consideration as you're weighing the pros and cons of submitting your transfer request to your boss.

Another amusing difference is in this same vein: naughty pics!!

On the wall within view of my desk is a calendar of almost-naked ladies. Last year it was a swimsuit calendar and at my previous job in France it was a lingerie calendar. Such a thing is so perfectly ordinary here that I really have to stretch my brain to remember that in the U.S., posting such a thing in a workplace would be shocking! Shocking!!! And almost certainly illegal.

Now I'm a feminist, and I've spent a lot of time wondering precisely how this sort of thing would create a "hostile work environment" for women as people say the feminists claim. I'm not joking or being facetious when I say that. Even before leaving the U.S., for years I'd spent a lot of time trying to figure out why such a thing should be offensive to women in order to decide whether I should be offended by it.

My conclusion is that erotica -- even in a workplace -- is not a priori offensive to women, and that I am not offended by it.

The only serious explanation for why some feminists don't like it is for the simple reason that loads of people -- no matter what their ideology from secular leftist to religious fundamentalist and everywhere in between -- are made uncomfortable by reminders about sex. Period. That seems weird to people like me who love sex unconditionally, but the reality is that feeling embarrassed about sex is very common. And people of every stripe tend to try to explain their negative feelings through some sort of religious or political rationalization.

Now I imagine I've offended a gaggle of people by writing that, and I can picture them in my mind's eye jumping all over themselves to tell me that erotic pics in a workplace will certainly encourage sexism and sexual harassment. However, I can tell you from first-hand experience that they do not.

In reality universe we have X amount of code that needs to get written, and X number of bugs that need to be debugged, and X amount of work that requires our full attention. Also in reality universe, a bunch of programmers sitting around writing code are going to spend X amount of time fantasizing about their colleagues (or their spouses, or celebrities, or random people they met on the Internet), and this X is affected little (if at all) by a gentle reminder to think about sex posted on the wall. I haven't noticed it to have any affect on the various engineers' professionalism or respect for their colleagues' technical expertise, regardless of gender.

True there aren't many female programmers, so you might easily get the idea that there is some sexism going on. Yet at least I can report that the few women are treated like anyone else. Indeed, one female colleague just got a big promotion, and don't even imagine for a second it was in exchange for "favors" (wink-wink-nudge-nudge). It would be more accurate to say that it was for intimidating everyone. :lol:

On the other hand, I have to admit that all of the nudity all the time can get a little tiresome. I know you're probably shocked to hear me say that! But there's just so much boobage going on here in France! I pass several topless sculptures on my way to work each day and countless ads for all manner of things being sold by half-naked people (of either gender, but mostly female). One time when a new sculpture was installed in a nearby park that had a female figure that didn't have obvious exposed breasts, I caught myself admiring its originality!

I think I might feel differently about all the boobage if I were a guy. Perhaps I'd be aroused by it rather than simply finding it vaguely amusing. On the other hand I might not. Hard to say. Of course all of my elaborate musings about what it would be like to be a guy could fill up a whole other column, so I guess I'll stop here.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor October 6, 2005.


Anonymous said...

Wow packing up and moving to Paris, I have dreamed about that but not being in computers I don't think it would be easy for me to find work there. I studied French in HS and college here in the US, and even spent a month Quebec getting 6 credits of French quick. So I have always wanted to go there and enjoy the culture but I am stuck in Phoenix. Oh well at least I can read about your experience.

C. L. Hanson said...

I think moving to another country (or even just living in another country for a year or two) is a valuable experience. It's too bad that most people don't have the opportunity.