Paternity leave

The political advisor to the Cultural Minister sent an unfortunate email yesterday out to an American journalist. The email was in Icelandic, so it seems the journalist forwarded it on to the Grapevine, which is an English language newspaper here in Iceland. I suppose they just wanted a translation. Grapevine however recognized that this was no ordinary press-release cleaned-up email. No, this was an email meant for an Icelandic colleague, someone in his own political party presumably, not the foreign press. Grapevine published it with delight, since it included both a funny vulgarity and a bit of political spin in action. Anyhow, the guy who wrote it then revealed that he had been working at home and that he thinks his son must have started playing on his computer, which is how that email got sent to the wrong recipient.

When I first started dating my ex-husband, who was and is in the Coast Guard, I was really surprised how easy it was for him to leave his office for a few hours to take care of things like going to the gym, getting his car washed, going to the doctor's, just anything. In the military, your personal life and your work life are all under the purview of the military. You enlist. You go where they want you to go. They pay your rent. Sometimes they give you food. In this sense the military is not a job, it is a lifestyle.

By contrast, in corporate America, there is a very strict line between your personal life and your professional duties. When I worked in a big 5 accounting company, if I needed to go to the dentist or get my car washed, I either tried to do it on the weekends, during my lunch break, or afterhours. Many people applied to take a day of leave periodically (one of 20 or 30 allocated all year long) during which they took care of many such personal matters all on the same day. Personal phone calls were not allowed except during lunch (and believe me, if you are working in a cubicle, you definitely do not want to engage in long personal phone calls anyhow). If I went on vacation one of my coworkers was assigned to cover my duties. If I went on extended leave, a "temp" would be hired to fill the job. My job was a slot I was filling, and although I did it well, I was not irreplaceable.

In Iceland things are closer to the US Military model, and yet the reasoning and idea behind it is not the same. In the military, you become 100% professional, you are always on the job. Here in Iceland, it seems rather that your job is seen as an extension of your personal life. It evolves out of where you live or who you know, maybe what your father did. In the blue collar sector there is some sense of a work day, a separation, but I have really been amazed by the lack of it in the white collar sector. Business meetings at 9pm and lunch with the grandkids on a work-week day both seem perfectly normal. In a way it is very liberating, to have two parts of your life flow easily one into the other, and to feel trusted that you will take care of the work that needs to get done whenever you have the time for it.

But it also has its disadvantages. Myself and many foreigners, or indeed any Icelander who has lived abroad for an extended period, express astonishment at a very common exchange that takes place here in Iceland. You call somewhere, perhaps a bank or a government office, even a car company, and you are told that the person who is able to help you with your issue is on leave. Gone for 6 weeks maybe, or 2 weeks, whatever. You will need to call back when that person is off leave. No one is temporarily assigned to take over those duties,* because a job is identified with a single person. It is "their job," not a job they are doing.

And of course yesterday pointed out another disadvantage. In a society that makes little or no distinction between your job and your personal life, one has to try to balance the two on one's own, and that can be very difficult. Things like this happen.

It is not very professional, but it is very Icelandic.

* Teaching is in fact the only exception I have heard of, the only profession where if you are on leave, a replacement is brought in to temporarily teach the courses. 


Valur said…
Ég kynnti mér þetta mál lítið en las þó þennan póst. Í þessum e-mail stendur: "Þannig getum við sett fókusinn á eitthvað eitt atriði sem við viljum að fjölmiðlar séu fókuseraðir á þegar þeir mæta á fundinn." Mér segir svo hugur að þetta sé setningin sem hafi ollið öllu fjaðrafokinu. Hún kemur inn á viðkvæman hlut í hjörtum margra fjölmiðlamanna. Setningin gefur í skyn að þeir hafi takmarkað athyglissvið og mestan áhuga á sögum sem er sensational. Sem þeim finnst kannski vera klisja en er þó alveg dagsatt um fjölmiðlabransann.

En svo er mannerismi Íslendinga auðvitað líka önnur hlið á þessu máli. Mér finnst ég einmitt oft rekast á fólk sem hagar sér eins og það sé heima hjá sér þegar það er í vinnunni. Mér hefur jafnvel dottið í hug hvort það hagi sér eins og það sé í vinnunni þegar það er heima hjá sér.
Lissy said…
Pretty sure I have seen something like that (giving one or two journalists advanced notice so as to steer the direction of a press conference) in every Hollywood White House film since Watergate at least. So yeah, it is a cliche, and one I am sure the recipient of his email was aware enough of that it did not need to be mentioned. Makes me wonder if it is the first time it had occurred to him, though!

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