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Winding Down the Workday: Zoning the Evening Hours in Paris, Oslo, and San Francisco

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This article explores the subtle yet far-reaching ways that cultural environments shape the uses of the evening hours among business professionals in three countries. Drawing on interviews with professional men and women living and working in Paris, Oslo, and San Francisco from a spectrum of professional fields and employers, the article explores their evening routines. Three contrasting patterns are identified. Where the early evening hours between 17:00 and 21:00 are concerned, French, Norwegian, and American professionals traverse different cultural terrains. The French professionals and their employers treat this temporal zone as a status-conferring period. Adhering to a transorganizational cultural convention defining the early evening as work time, they use these hours to distinguish themselves as committed practioners of their métier equipped with status and authority. In Norway, comparable professionals approach this period as nonwork time off limits to their employer. Early departures from the office are encouraged and facilitated in the Norwegian workplace. Among the American professionals far less uniformity prevails among the evening routines of respondents working in different organizations and occupations. This variability is explained by the absence of the higher-level temporal conventions present in the two European contexts. In the American setting two deciding factors come into play: the temporal expectations of the professional’s employer and the bargaining power wielded by the individual professional vis-à-vis this employer. These differences between the evening routines of the three groups reflect important cultural differences across countries with broadly similar postindustrial landscapes.

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  1. 1.

    Given these work hour patterns, countries like France and Sweden outpace the United States when it comes to the proportion of time awake consumed by nonwork activities (Viard 2002, 66).

  2. 2.

    Like other management and economics scholars, Bloom defines a “manager” only in terms of his or her supervisory responsibility, rather than in terms of education, class status, or expertise or a combination of these attributes.

  3. 3.

    Surveys of French cadres have established the existence of a substantial gulf between the average workweeks of typical cadres and the average workweeks of French workers (ouvriers), even though the Aubry II work-hours framework in 2000–1 is supposed to apply to both types of employees (see Cousin 2004).

  4. 4.

    Both tempograms were created from data contained in time diary studies from the BLS in the United States, INSEE in France, and the SSB in Norway. With respect to the Norwegian time diary data, I am grateful for assistance from Odd Frank Vaage of the SSB.

  5. 5.

    It should be noted that the peak proportions differ for each country because of the different labor force participation rates in each country. The highest labor force participation rate (82 %) is found in Norway, while the lowest rate (65 %) is found in France.

  6. 6.

    The data collection was undertaken as part of a larger project examining the impact of European and American cultural conventions on the work lives and private lives of comparable French, Norwegian, and American professionals.

  7. 7.

    My language training in Norwegian was undertaken with the aid of a FLAS grant as well as generous financial support from the American-Scandinavian Foundation allowing me to live in Norway and learn Norwegian. This immersive experience allowed me to acquire the language skills needed for the project. Many of the French interviews were conducted by myself and a French-speaking colleague in residence at the École Normale Supérieure acting as translator.

  8. 8.

    It is not claimed that every Norwegian professional in every instance is entitled to leave the office at or before 17:30 whenever he or she pleases. As is evident from the Norwegian work-family literature (Halrynjo and Lyng 2009, 2010), there are circumstances under which it is very bad form to quit the office on the early side. However, when the Norwegians’ evening routines are contrasted with the evening routines of their French and American counterparts, it is immediately apparent that only the Norwegians enjoy any kind of dispensation to treat the evening as nonwork time. This comes across particularly clearly with regard to attorneys and other professionals who work the longest workdays. Among these hard-driving workers, arriving at the office extremely early and/or working through the lunch hour (and at home during the late evening hours) are typically preferred tactics for coping with work overload. Working through the early evening hours is considered a last resort. The contrast between the evening zoning practices of the French and the Oslo-based professionals was explained to me by Emma, a Norwegian consultant who had transferred to the Paris office of a large consultancy after working in their Oslo office. Whereas Emma feels free to leave the office by 18:00 or 19:00 in Oslo (a late departure by Oslo standards), in the Paris office she cannot leave so early without risking the ire of supervisors and colleagues who typically toil deeper into the evening.

  9. 9.

    In the view of the Norwegian professionals interviewed for the study, the early-leaving routine was widespread within the working classes as well as the professional classes. Indeed, the Norwegian respondents claimed that they were adhering to a characteristically “Norwegian” or “Scandinavian” approach to work hours, an approach embraced by working people all across the Norwegian class system. Such claims did not come from the lips of either the French or the American respondents.


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I wish to acknowledge the financial and logistical support of a number of institutions and programs, including the National Science Foundation, the University of California’s LERF, the FLAS program, the American-Scandinavian Foundation, the UC Berkeley Departments of Sociology and Scandinavian Studies, the Cornell Department of Sociology, the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo, and the Center for the Sociology of Organizations. The paper has benefited from the feedback, comments, and insights provided by many scholars, including Neil Fligstein, Arlie Hochschild, Mary Blair-Loy, Marion Fourcade, Victor Nee, Trond Petersen, Neil Smelser, Richard Swedberg, Michèle Lamont, Laura Robinson, Jean-Pascal Daloz, Stanley Brandes, Brian Lande, Benjamin Moodie, Jennifer Silva, Sigtona Halrynjo, Karin Widerberg, Odd Frank Vaage, Øyvind Wiborg, Gabe Ignatow, Ofer Sharone, Helene Aarseth, Jen Hook, Victor Chen, Erling R. Larsen, Selma Lyng, Ingjerd Skafle, Heidi Nicolaisen, Abby Larson, Erin York Cornwell, and Benjamin Cornwell. David Smilde is also due thanks for providing valuable advice on the manuscript. Finally, I would like to express my deep appreciation to the interviewees who graciously and generously spent several hours of their precious time sharing details of their busy lives.

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Correspondence to Jeremy Markham Schulz.

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Schulz, J.M. Winding Down the Workday: Zoning the Evening Hours in Paris, Oslo, and San Francisco. Qual Sociol 38, 235–259 (2015).

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  • Work
  • Professionals
  • Cross-national sociology
  • Culture
  • Work-life nexus
  • Temporality