But there’s a sign!

In intercultural trainings, one term we work with is “rule-oriented” or “rule-based”. The meaning is simple: in a given situation, you check what the rule is, and that rule then determines your actions. Even if the rule might be a bit inconvenient, or in fact not that helpful for the problem solution, you stick to it. There is a much-used term in Germany for this: “Das haben wir schon immer so gemacht.” (“We always did it that way.”). So, there is a rule for it, we always used it and therefore there’s no reason to change it. It also means that a rule-based person wouldn’t like to bend or even break the rule, regardless of how much sense it would make in this situation.

Rule orientation often goes hand in hand with uncertainty avoidance. After all, if there’s a rule, you know exactly what to do – there’s no uncertainty. So it might not surprise you that Germany is a rule-based country. We have official laws for almost any imaginable situation (and some you wouldn’t imagine…) and one could say that they’re mostly adhered to. People might even tell you if you break a rule, even if it’s not an important one.

Continue reading “But there’s a sign!”

Have a nice day (not)

I’m currently reading a book in which the narrator moved to the UK from the US. One of her first observations in Britain was how ‘coolly’ people in shops treated the customers, compared to the US, and she especially missed being wished a nice day and wondered whether salespeople in the UK don’t care what kind of day their customers have.

That got me thinking about several things. First, it’s interesting that Americans coming to the UK notice a more reserved attitude to customer service. If there is already such a difference in American and British customer service, it shows what a deep culture shock Americans probably go through when confronted with German customer service.

The other thing the comment in that book make me think about was the “Have a nice day”-bit. I know that in the US this is a given. People are constantly wishing each other a nice day. I don’t think they are all terribly interested in what kind of day the other person is having, but it’s just one of these nice things to say to each other as a sign of being friendly. Unless it is said in the robotic obviously disinterested way I often heard it in the larger department stores in the US, I like hearing, “Have a nice day”. It has become much more popular in Germany as well and it has no more meaning than it has in the US (though when I still had my bookshop, I made a point of only saying it when I meant it). Continue reading “Have a nice day (not)”

German Humour – Yes it exists!

This is an article I wrote for the British Club of the Taunus Magazine, which is why I assumed a certain familiarity with the British comedy series “Keeping Up Appearances”. If you don’t know the series yet, I highly recommend watching it. And while I’m at it, I also recommend “Men Behaving Badly”, “Absolutely Fabulous”, “The Royle Family” and “Cold Feet”. 🙂

Many people look at me sceptically when I assure them that Germans do have a sense of humour. German humour seems to be a bit like Nessie or Bigfoot – one has heard that it exists, some people claim to have seen it, but its existence remains unproven and many consider it a myth. I well remember a hilarious South Park episode in which the Germans were voted to be the least funny people on earth and promptly showed up to prove how funny they were by presenting a technical gadget that made jokes. Continue reading “German Humour – Yes it exists!”

Customer Service

When I talk to American or British expats about how they like life in Germany, the feedback is pleasantly positive. But then, many people sigh, their expressions become glum and they add “Except for the lack of customer service.”

I always find it interesting that this is mentioned so frequently because I personally don’t think the customer service in Germany is all that bad. (Not anymore. There were times when one felt guilty for even entering a shop and bothering a salesperson with the impertinent wish to make purchases.). Still, generally my experiences with German customer service are positive. So when people mention a lack of customer service, I now ask them what exactly they are missing. The replies showed me that, like almost always in cross-cultural encounters, it’s a matter of different expectations. A British lady said that she regularly (about twice a week) shopped at a bakery and that the saleswoman was bound to recognize her. Still, the British lady never received a personal word or any other sign of recognition. An American lady missed the cheerful “How are you?” she was used to hearing when entering shops in the US. She was greeted in (smaller) German shops as well, but less cordially.

I have a good American friend with German parents, Alyssa. She is not only an excellent cross-cultural trainer, but has lived abroad for many years and so has a lot of cross-cultural first-hand experience. We often chat about customer service. Like all other Americans I talked to, she finds it severely lacking in Germany. She has a keen eye for cultural peculiarities and an entertaining way of telling about her experiences. So I enjoy listening to her and often have to chuckle. But usually the conversations end with me asking “So, why was that bad customer service? It sounds normal to me.” Continue reading “Customer Service”

An Evening in Spain

After I had successfully established inhouse cross-cultural trainings at work, some of our European colleagues from international assignment departments were interested in adopting my model. In those cases, I adapted my training presentation to the respective country, checked it with my European colleague and then went to the country to discuss the training with my colleague there and do the first training in co-training with her or him.

It was always fun to do this. The fact that my model was of interest to other countries was of course very rewarding. Traveling and seeing new locations was interesting and the colleagues I worked with were all very nice. Usually, we went out in the evening after work and that was enjoyable.

The time I went to Spain was also a good learning experience for me. I already knew and liked my Spanish colleague, Laura, but I didn’t yet know how our cultural backgrounds would influence our working together. Continue reading “An Evening in Spain”

Cross-cultural aware-what?

Most people grow up among others who have similar patterns of behaviour, concepts of what’s polite and what isn’t. You don’t need to wonder about whether a five-minute delay requires an apology, is an acceptable time or is even early. You know the traditions on holidays, when to give a gift and when not, how to address others and whether to greet someone with a bow, a handshake or a cheek kiss. In short – you know the rules, and everyone around you plays according to the same rules. When you go on vacation, you might chuckle about the behaviour of the locals or utter in frustration “That’s so typical for the British/Italians/French…!”

Many people can get through their whole life like this, never having to think about the rules because they always live in cultural surroundings they know. More and more people however spend some years of their lives in other countries or even move there permanently. Others travel abroad for business or work in international teams. Chances are, if you are one of those people, you at one time thought, “Whoa, they’re playing by different rules! And I don’t know them!” And there you are, right in the middle of the wide field of cross-cultural awareness. Continue reading “Cross-cultural aware-what?”