When in Rome….then what?

During some trainings with expats coming to Germany, the participants ask me “How German will I need to become?”. They have a slightly panicked expression in their eyes, because becoming 100 % German apparently isn’t everybody’s dream.

It is a valid and important question, regardless of the country you go to. How much will you need to adapt, where will you need to adapt, how difficult will it be? A training participant not considering these issues would worry me a bit. The answer to these questions is: “It depends.” There is no required or minimum adaptation percentage. As always, when human beings are involved, there can’t be a definite answer. In every culture there will be some rules you should absolutely adhere to if you want to be successful (on a professional and personal level) there. In some cases, it will be helpful for you to stick to cultural norms, but it won’t harm your success if you don’t – though it might make some things more complicated for yourself. In some instances you simply won’t be able to fully adapt to another culture – the rules might be too complex or force you too far out of your comfort zone. In other instances your different approach might just be what your host culture needs. The important thing is to remain true to yourself. If a culture requires you to behave completely against your nature, you won’t be perceived as authentic and you will end up feeling miserable. That culture then might just not be the best culture for you to work and/or live in.

This is why knowing a culture’s rules and the differences to your own culture is helpful, but a mere first step. One company I used to work for switched from regular intercultural trainings to letting their expats do a little online programme on their own. Six-digit salaries are no problem, generous housing allowance, private school fees, cost of living allowances and the resulting tax for these benefits – no problem either. A good one- or two-day intercultural training? Waste of money, apparently. Actually, letting expats do an online programme without any trainer contact is a bigger waste of money as it won’t be beneficial. The participant will walk away with a few dos and don’ts , will know about the main cultural differences between home and host country, but won’t know how to use this knowledge, won’t have learned about awareness, won’t have thought about how to adapt, how much adaptation is required and how much adaptation will be individually possible.

Let’s use German culture as an example. In some instances knowing the difference to one’s own country can be sufficient. Take punctuality. Someone from a culture with a more relaxed attitude towards time will understand that in Germany 9 am means 9 am and that being punctual is essential. It’s something that is comparatively easy to adjust to.

Another aspect of Germany work culture is the lack of hand holding and praise. German team leaders won’t come and inquire how things are going. To constantly hover over the desk of an employee signals lack of trust in Germany. In other cultures it signals caring. In Germany the motivating message of not hovering is: “I know you are a capable person and I trust you to do your work correctly and to notify me in case of any potential problems.” Most German employees would be highly annoyed if their supervisor came to ask how things are going all the time, because that would give the message: “I don’t trust you to take care of your work, I’d rather keep an eye on you.” This “no news is good news” approach is also used with regard to feedback. If you do your job well, you won’t necessarily be praised. If you do something wrong, you will most definitely hear it.
Many of my training participants are highly relieved to hear about this. There were quite a few cases where the lack of attention from the team leader made my training participants believe that they were doing a bad job. “I don’t know if it’s me of if it’s a cultural thing,” is a sentence I hear frequently in trainings. Knowing that it’s not you but the culture can go a long way to solving several adaptation issues.

However, most of the time you don’t only need to get the message, you need to give a message and that’s where the mere knowledge about cultural differences isn’t always sufficient. This is often the case where it touches values or where the reason for the difference is not known.

One value issue I often notice in Germany trainings is, of course, communication. As you probably know (or can read here) Germans are the most direct communicators of the world. We don’t usually care about the sandwich approach, we tend to focus on the bad news (no need to point out what’s going well, focus on the things that need to be fixed = efficiency) and we care for content over style. No liking a suggestion can be worded in very different ways. Americans tend to say “Maybe we could discuss this,” or – if they really hate it – “I’m not comfortable with this idea.” Less direct communicators might give a “Maybe”, “Interesting thought” or “Good idea. Have you also considered….”. Very indirect cultures might give you the qualified yes (“Yes, if…” or “Yes, provided we….”) or sound quite enthusiastic but then just won’t implement it. Germans will say: “I don’t like it” or (an actual quote that reduced an American to stunned, hurt silence): “This adds absolutely nothing to the solution.”
For Germany, this is an acceptable, efficient way of communicating. For most other cultures, it is rude. So, knowing about this direct style of communication won’t help because adapting it could pose an unsurmountable problem. Who wants to be rude on purpose after all? How direct is too direct, even in Germany? How far can you leave your comfort zone?
This is an issue in almost all of my Germany trainings. I had a participant from Brazil who was quite distressed because reaching the German level of directness seemed impossible for her. “I simply cannot be that rude,” she said. The factual knowledge that certain phrases are not considered rude in Germany is not helpful in that situation, as they are considered rude by her and she won’t be able to turn this feeling off. She is not a computer on a new operating system, she is a human being. Telling her “Oh, don’t worry, you won’t be seen as rude,” doesn’t alleviate her problem and a good trainer should take this seriously. Exploring how far she could change her communication style is one important option. How would she voice dislike with an issue? Would it be sufficient to be understood in Germany? Gradually trying out more direct wording and seeing if habit and the reaction of others help with changing the communication style is another good way. Realizing that one does not have to “become German” and finding a compromise in how to express things is yet another method. Eventually, the “it depends” comes into play and that is why a good training includes actual conversation with a real trainer, discussing the individual situation, the comfort zone and coping mechanisms.

In work life one doesn’t have too much choice with regard to the behaviours one needs to adapt. If you need to successfully lead a German team or negotiate with Germans, adaptation is crucial. In private life it might be more relaxed, people are often more forgiving of idiosyncrasies or might even find some differences interesting. It also depends on the circles you move in – you can stay in the expat bubble and not worry about adaptation in private life (and forego the valuable experience of really living in another country), you can mix with more internationally minded locals (as would be the case in cities like Frankfurt) or you might be among people with little knowledge of and/or tolerance for other cultures. Each situation requires a different degree of adaptation and again it is your individual decision of how far you want to or can adapt. One example is the approach towards open communication in friendships. In Germany, it is seen as a plus to address things you don’t like. It is considered honest and it provides the opportunity to discuss said things and remedy them. In Germany friends will tell each other if there is a problem with the friendship. One of my best friends and I noticed that discussing issues actually strengthens our friendship. We can discuss things rationally, we can show each other that we take worries and issues seriously and that we have ways to deal with them. It’s not fun to discuss problematic topics, but afterwards we feel better and we have yet another proof that our friendship is not just a fair-weather friendship.
This approach does not work well with people from cultures with indirect communication. In one case I lost a friend over this and until I learned more about that friend’s culture I didn’t even realize why I lost the friendship because the reason was not communicated. Several of my training participants find the German “put it on the table”-approach unacceptable. I regularly ask them how they handle problems in friendships and it’s either: 1. say nothing and after a while it will be fine or 2. say nothing and gradually end the friendship if the problem is too big. They told me that talking about the problem would make them too uncomfortable.

So, what to do if you are from an indirect culture and are friends with a German and there is a problem? Here, values are touched on both sides. You would consider the German’s wish to discuss it as a stab into your comfort zone and maybe even as rude. Your German friend would consider your evasion of the topic as dishonest. Both might end up seeing the other’s behaviour as a lack of consideration for their own feelings. When I was in the situation, I thought extensively about what I could do. I was hurt by a friend’s behaviour, but I knew that this friend would not appreciate discussing the situation. I, however, was too hurt to pretend everything was fine, especially as the little occasions were adding up. I know there was no intent behind the hurtful behaviour, but probably thoughtlessness. With a German friend, I would have just said “There is something that has been on my mind for a while. Your behaviour xy hurt me, because…”. Most of my German friends would then probably say: “Oh, wow, I didn’t realize that, sorry. I’ll pay attention to it in the future.” (And in fact that is just what happened recently with my very good German friend. She also made a point to add: “Let me know if it happens again. I don’t want to hurt you.”). Or the German friend might disagree and then it could be discussed in order to reach an agreement or to end the friendship. Yes, of course that happens as well, but the first option is the most common one between real friends.
However, I knew that would not work with my friend from an indirect culture. So my options were to get over it and pretend things were fine (as mentioned before: not a viable option in this case), or risk discussing it, even though I knew it would make her uncomfortable. I chose somewhat of a compromise by mentioning the issue in an email rather than confronting her in a conversation. It gave her the choice of how to proceed. She chose to proceed the indirect way – waiting quite some time before replying, replying to everything except this issue and trying to create the next meeting in a way that would make discussing issues difficult.
If you are wondering why I’m telling you about my life and friendships in such detail: here is the example why knowing about differences doesn’t necessarily mean you can adapt to them. I know that this reaction was in line with my friend’s culture, but it still was not a reaction I could be happy with. In Germany this reaction would translate as: “I now know I hurt you, but your feelings don’t matter enough for me to discuss this.” I have enough experience with indirect communicators to know that this was not the message given to me. Maybe the message was “I understand your point and will change the behaviour”, but maybe it was “I heard your message, but I don’t agree” or it was “I don’t want to think about your message”. In any case the message is: “I won’t come out of my comfort zone.”
Which is fine. I tried to offer a compromise, made a step out of my comfort zone, but that was probably still too far away from the other person’s comfort zone. However, I don’t want to adapt further here, as it would take me too far away from my values as well. Friends should be comfortable with each other and if they can’t be, for whatever reason, then maybe they are not meant to be friends. Sometimes the adaptation process can only take you so far and that is why it is a constant process of evaluating your comfort zone and how far it stretches.

There are examples where both cultures can move towards each other sufficiently to create marvelous results. I personally think that is one of the biggest advantages of working with people from other cultures. One such example is instigating change in Germany. I wrote an article about it and it is another frequent topic in my trainings. Germans don’t like change, that’s a fact. There are reasons for it and knowing the reasons behind behavioural patterns goes a long way towards adapting to or at least working with them. If change is introduced with sufficient respect for German culture and change issues, it can be very successful. Successful projects like this, successful international mergers, successful intercultural friendships find a way of respecting all involved parties’ cultures, comfort zones, fears, values and make it easier for everybody to gradually move outside of one’s comfort zone. It’s a process that takes time, understanding, knowledge and tact. It is highly individual and also depends on how far these comfort zones are away from each other and how much they stretch.

So – you don’t have to become German to live in Germany, you don’t have to become British to live in the UK. But you will need to adapt to varying degrees which depend on many factors. It’s a learning process, but one that can be rather exciting and rewarding.

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