Monday, October 12, 2009


Why do people say "God bless you" when you sneeze within their hearing distant (not to mention within spray distance). No matter where you might be, like on a train for instance, some total stranger two rows back happily asks God to bless you just because you go a-schwew. The sneezer is blessed even when he fails to cover his mouth and risks infecting the whole bus.

Why would God give a damn that I sneeze? I read once that this practise goes back to Medieval times when people thought that every time a person sneezed, a little bit of that person's soul escaped his body. Okay, that's a quaint notion but last time I checked we are living in the 21st century.

Why would a person bless a total stranger? What if the sneezer was an atheist who might be offended by the proffered blessing. What if the sneezer was evil, like a child molester or murderer? Would you bless Bernie Madoff if you heard him sneezing in the cell next to you? Conversely, why should I accept your blessing? For all I know, you too could be a child molester or murderer whose blessing isn't worth the expenditure of breath. In my book, strangers shouldn't bless strangers nor should strangers accept blessings from strangers. It's a wicked world out there, so you have to be judicious about throwing blessings around or accepting them willy-nilly.

I'm further annoyed that this elevation of sneezing to a religious matter puts pressure on me to bless someone who sneezes in my vicinity. I usually don't offer my blessings, but I can't help feel a slight twinge of guilt from breaking a social custom; and I don't like feeling guilty over a sniffle.

Okay, I admit that I'm coming across as some sourpuss Andy Rooney curmudgeon. The sociologist in me recognizes that little acts of civility, kindness, graciousness are the glue that keeps our frenetic, borderline schizofrenic society intact. As Guiliani proved in bringing down NYC's crime rate, it's those little acts of incivility, petty crimes, blatant disrespect for the law that create a culture of complacency which accepts more serious crimes as just part of the landscape. On the flip side, displays of politeness and consideration for others help create a milieu of social amity.

For example, have you noticed how more often than not, men allow women to enter and exit elevators first? This little remnant of chivalry exists despite the Age of Feminism which sneered upon such patronizing, "patriarchial" behavior. Every once in a while, you'll even see a gentleman give up his seat to a lady on the subway or bus. (It's a shame how even the words "gentleman" and "lady" seem to be relics of a bygone era.) Along the same lines, in certain parts of the country, particularly the South, it's customary to wave at people for no particular reason, even if they are total strangers.

I guess this Gesundheit tradition is part of the same effort, sometimes desperate, to just get along with one another, to paraphrase that famous humanitarian, Rodney King. For that reason I'm willing to bear with it and not say to the person who happens to bless me when I sneeze, "Mind your own business, bud."

Saturday, October 03, 2009


Remember that sappy MASH theme song? Not only is suicide painless, but it can even be funny in a mordant sort of way. If you think that I'm being insensitive, then read THE WALL STREET JOURNAL article dated September 15 about workers at France Telecom. The company has been afflicted by a rash of suicides among its workers, numbering 23 over the past 18 months. The unions were quick to jump on this stat as evidence that the company's restructuring efforts caused these employees to jump out windows, slash their wrists, fall in front of trains, etc. The company, being chicken shit like most major corporations nowadays, accepted the union's claims and said that it will train all its managers to identify staffers showing signs of depression or erratic behavior. The company accepted these union assertions notwithstanding the fact that the incidence of suicide among the 100,000 France Telecom employees is less than the national average. But in a country like France, ruled by unions, facts don't really matter if it they somehow force it to acknowledge the real global economy, which France seems to think that it can serenely float above like a bloated dirigible.

Recent suicides among France Telecom workers include a 53-year-old employee who tried to end her life by overdosing on barbiturates and another worker who stabbed himself in the stomach during a staff meeting (that's a sure-fire way to wake everybody up). These workers had recently been informed that their jobs were about to change. Let me emphasize: They were not losing their jobs, they were not being fired; their jobs were being changed as a result of a long overdue effort by French Telecom to become at least as efficient as Telecom Italia.

These unsuccessful suicide attempts were enough for the country's labor minister, Xavier Dacros, to summon the CEO of France Telecom for a meeting as he was "extremely preoccupied by the situation" there. Unions called for Parliment to take action.

At France Telecom, 65% of its 100,000 employees have "civil-servant contracts," which basically means that they can't be fired even if they were caught embezzling company coffers or having sex with farm animals in the boardroom. As a result, the company can't fire dead-beat employees and instead has been asking them to change their traditional jobs repairing and installing fixed-line networks, for example, to working in call centers. Call centers? Scare le bleu! Such workers might have to even sell products such as cellphone contracts. Evidently some France Telecom workers would rather play Russian Roulette with a fully loaded handgun than accept such a fate.

"It has not been easy on the staff," a spokeswoman for France Telecom said. "We have asked them to enter a competitive market which is evolving very quickly." Poor precious darlings. We are not talking the Spartan 300 here, folks.

Since the company can't fire anyone and has nudged as many of its workers as it can into a cushy retirement paid mostly by the government, the company has tried to entice more workers to leave by helping them start their own businesses. The company is subsidizing everything from employee owned pizzerias to clothing boutiques. After the start-up fails, which most are likely to do, the employee ex-entrepreneur can rejoin the company at any time with a guaranteed job. And yet the union would have us believe that some workers would rather committ suicide than take this option.

According to a union spokesperson, the stress of learning a new trade, sometimes even in a new city (God forbid!), has proved too difficult for some of these delicate souls. Many workers, according to the union, don't have the necessary skills to work in call centers. Here again, I had to laugh out loud. And what skills might those be? How to operate a phone? Good phone etiquette? Some poor coolie in India can do it, but a Frog making ten times the amount that the Indian fellow does somehow just can't figure out how to do phone duty.

The union representative summed the issue up by saying, "Of course our company needs to restructure to function. But a business without compassion simply doesn't work."

Is this what the famous French joie de vivre has been reduced to, hanging yourself because you might have work in a call center? Maybe we shouldn't be so surprised by this French reaction to "workplace hardship;" we are talking, afterall, about a nation whose entire army deserted in the middle of WWI and that was a welcome mat for the German army in WWII.

Of course, this "issue" in all likelihood is just another piece of propaganda propagated by a union angling for more perks and benefits. Still, it says a lot about the French that the government and corporate establishment accept this claim so readily. No wonder the French economy has grown over the past 25 years at 50% less rate than the US economy. No wonder the French unemployment rate during that span has consistently been almost twice the US rate. Why would anyone want to hire such expensive crybabies?

France will alway be a lovely place to visit, but I sure wouldn't want to hire there.