Samantha Bennett: The person you have dialed is not in service

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Many years ago, I took a trip to France and was impressed by several aspects of the quality of life there. Ones unrelated, oddly, to wine, romance or butter.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with wine, romance or butter, in any combination.)

For starters, I stopped at a little salon in Cannes to get my nails done and was pleasantly surprised by two things: 1. I was allowed to have an entire conversation with the manicurist in French, which is a more difficult achievement in France than you’d think, and 2. I received the manicure lying down. I was ushered to a reclining, padded chair that was more comfortable than beds I slept on in college, and the manicurist sat in a rolling chair that she trundled to one hand, then the other, while I struggled to tame half-remembered irregular verbs.

This was a revelation. To this day, when I get my nails done in this country, I have to spend the whole time sitting in a chair that doesn’t even recline. After the day I’ve had. It’s barbaric.

I also enjoyed chatting with a bus driver who could, in most American cities, have been a model. His uniform was a beautifully cut suit. His hair and sunglasses belonged on the cover of a magazine. His tie was beyond reproach.

Think how different your life would be if that’s what you saw when you got on a bus.

Now, to be fair, there were many aspects of life there that did not impress me. The air in Paris was a cacophony of competing perfumes, wafting off every woman walking past; the beaches on the Riviera were stony, like English beaches, though much more topless; driving, particularly in Paris, seemed to be primarily an act of vengeance.

Often, French labor practices seem perverse. But last week I read a story in The Guardian about a new one that made me drop the wine I was buttering and take notice.

If your boss sends you a work-related email after you’ve left the office and headed home or out to discuss Proust in a cafe, you’re allowed to ignore it.

In fact, you have to.

After hours, it turns out, even if you carry a smartphone and check it obsessively every 10 minutes, it is not the boss of you. Neither is the boss of you.

This is possibly the most civilized thing that has happened to working people since Casual Friday.

Back in the days before mobile phones, shortly after the Earth’s crust cooled, there were big hunks of time when not only your boss, but your friends, family, fundraisers and bill collectors simply couldn’t get hold of you. When you were in the car, for example, or at your kid’s school play, or in the bathroom.

People who needed to talk to you just then would have to call your home landline and leave a message on a recording device, which was notoriously unreliable, particularly when deliberately ignored.

It was dangerous and terrifying. And wonderful.

Your time was, quite literally, your time. And then it became possible for anyone who had your mobile number to call your purse or pants at any time of the day or night. Or weekend. You could still ignore them (“I fell down a well and couldn’t get a signal”), but they knew you were carrying the phone and would have to see they’d called. On-demand communication quickly went from convenience to obligation.

In 1999, France adopted the 35-hour work week, but technology has since let the office erode workers’ “off” hours via smartphone and email. Employers’ federations and unions just signed a new agreement that aims to hold the line on extra, unpaid work done at soccer games and between courses at dinner.

Sadly, only about 250,000 employees in the technology and consulting fields are affected, but a blow has been struck for sanity and work-life balance, and I say, “Magnifique!”

Largely because I can say that without the use of irregular verbs.

Samantha Bennett, freelance writer:

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