Smiiiile! (or….maybe don’t?)

Some days ago I went to my manicurist for a manicure, a latte macchiato and a nice chat (yes, it’s a hard life, I know). When I entered, two women sitting at the other manicure table looked at me and gave me beaming smiles. I stopped and through my mind raced a worried thought: “Do I know these ladies? I’ve never seen the one lady and the other just started working here, I think I saw her once for two minutes. So, if I don’t know them, why are they smiling at me like I’m their long-lost sister? What’s wrong with them?” Your reaction to my reaction will probably depend on your own culture – are you from a culture where there is a lot of smiling or one where, like in Germany, smiles are used more sparingly?

Don’t worry, we do smile in Germany. Even at strangers – my favourite cashier at Rewe always greets people with a nice smile. But we don’t smile as often as people from some other countries do and a smile (outside of customer service) connotates some familiarity. If you smile too much (also meaning the degree of the smile) at people you don’t or hardly know, they might be bewildered. The explanations of why some cultures smile more than others are varied and sometimes even contradictory, but there are some interesting reasons of why people (don’t) smile. Continue reading “Smiiiile! (or….maybe don’t?)”

If at first you don’t succeed…you’re probably not German

Last year, I read an article about failure workshops in a German business magazine. If you are American, you’ll probably start yawning or laughing right now. Failure workshops, so what? No big deal, we have them all the time. Well, in Germany, it is a big deal. Cultures have different approached towards failure. Let’s compare Americans and Germans here. In the US, failure is part of life. You can’t change anything if you are afraid of failure and if you do fail – so what, you’ll just start over again. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. It goes very well with the high tolerance for uncertainty and the inherent American optimism. Things will work out eventually is the American point of view. Failure is considered essential for progress, because failure helps you to learn from your mistakes, to see what can be improved. Thomas Edison phrased it very positively (and American): “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Continue reading “If at first you don’t succeed…you’re probably not German”

Germans don’t care for sandwiches

A while ago, my friend Susanne emailed me a link to this article as we talk about different feedback cultures quite a lot. “Ah, my old friend, the sandwich approach!” I emailed back. If you are a faithful reader of my blog, you might remember two previous articles (Without Compliments and “But I told you!”) which mentioned the approach and some German reactions to it. The article Susanne now sent to me was an interesting read from an intercultural perspective as it gave a very German (and very exclusively German) viewpoint on why the sandwich approach is a “communication madness”. This German viewpoint might enlighten some expatriates working with or for Germans as to why Germans don’t care for the sandwich approach. Continue reading “Germans don’t care for sandwiches”

Peach and Coconut

Today, this interesting article was on my Twitter feed, reminding me that I meant to write an article on peaches and coconut for a while. What do fruit have to do with frustrations of the expat life, you might ask now.

I’ll introduce this topic as I usually do in my trainings: picture a peach and a coconut. Which one do you think is the German? And which one do you think is the American? (This works with other cultures as well , but these are the two I use most frequently). If your answer is: coconut is the German, peach is the American, you are right (nothing to do with impeachment, by the way, even though that would be lovely at the moment). When I ask why people come to this conclusion, the answer is invariably: because Germans have such a hard shell / are unapproachable / are so reserved. And yes, that is the correct answer, or at least part of it. Continue reading “Peach and Coconut”

Das haben wir schon immer so gemacht

If you don’t know what this sentence means, but want to work in Germany, please memorize the meaning quickly, because you might be hearing it often. It means “We have always done it this way!” and it’s a popular reply to suggested changes.

Germans are not extremely fond of change. I have many training participants who were sent to Germany to implement change and they often look at me with the resigned expression of a dog that has been in an animal shelter for too long and knows nobody will adopt him. (And that is before they start talking about the Betriebsrat and sink into utter despair).

So now you know. Germans don’t do change. Because, you know, we have always done it this way. Before you call your management and tell them that you won’t go through with that assignment to Germany, relax. It’s not that bad. We do change. But in our own way and the more you know about this way, the easier it will be (Easier. Not easy. It will never be easy).

Continue reading “Das haben wir schon immer so gemacht”

“But I told you!” – “No, you didn’t. Or did you?”

Whenever I tell the ladies in the British Club: “I would write it like this…” or “I would just say…”, they give me the look. The look is both wary and resigned, the unspoken message being: “Your way of communicating is too direct, we don’t do things that way.” (Of course they wouldn’t actually say it to me, but I’ve learned to read the look 😉 ). The direct way is considered rude in Britain, even though some British people told me that sometimes the situation created by not talking openly can be rather burdensome. (Of course I then ask: “Why don’t you just talk about it then?” and get the look again.) Continue reading ““But I told you!” – “No, you didn’t. Or did you?””

With(out) Compliments

Last week it happened again. I was talking to someone from Britain. I made a compliment and her reply was “Oh, you’re just being nice.” As always when this happens, I was a bit… irritated is too strong, rather: taken aback. Of course as a good interculturalist I know why this happens, but still…

Now, what am I talking about? I’m talking about the British and to some extent American way of replying to compliments with comments like “Oh, you’re just saying that / you don’t mean that / you’re just being nice.” For the British, this is part of not showing off. Even if they consider your compliment completely warranted, they would never say so. Visit your chum, the Earl of Soandso, in his beautifully kept Elizabethan stately home and say “What a lovely house!” and the answer is likely to be “This old hut? Well, at least it keeps the rain off.”

Continue reading “With(out) Compliments”

Customer service once more

Some time ago, I did a presentation in a training Alyssa (whom you might remember from my first entry about customer service) held. We were chatting with the lady who took the training and I said something about customer service (as a German, I like to be right, so now I keep pointing out good customer service to Alyssa). She turned to our client and said “Tell her, tell her!”

Yes, you guessed it, the client had a “bad customer service in Germany” experience. Apparently, Alyssa also likes to be right… And I have to give her that, it really was a bad customer service experience, in fact there were two experiences. However, what really got to me was that this bad customer service resulted from ineffiency. Yes, you read correctly. Not rudeness, no lack of cordiality, but (it hurts me to write this) inefficiency. It taught me a lot about myself – if someone tells me about having experienced bad customer service as a result of a lack of friendliness, I’m not particularly bothered. I don’t approve of it, of course, but I don’t think it’s that bad. But inefficient customer service – yes, that bothered me a lot.

Continue reading “Customer service once more”

Be Nice!

Communication is a difficult thing, even among people of one culture, and even more so between those of different cultures. One first needs to understand the context, the unspoken signals, the motivation, and that can be quite a task.

I noticed that when I encountered the American “Be Nice” mentality. Now, don’t think that I’m not nice. I am. Sometimes.

In fact, my mother put a lot of importance on good manners, such as not pointing at people, not screaming in public, being honest, not resting the elbow on the table while eating or being nice.

I soon noticed the problem with “being honest” and “being nice”. As a young teenager, I vowed to always say the truth, no matter what. Then, my grandmother gave me a birthday present, one of those big T-shirts that could also be worn as dresses, the front decorated with a picture in the garish colours popular at the time (a lot of pink, turquoise and purple). The picture was adorned by the word “Hollywood” in golden sequins (it was the late 80s!). Usually, when I got a gift I didn’t like, I smiled, said “thank you” and pretended to like it. This time, in line with my new honesty policy, I thanked my grandmother, but said that it wasn’t quite my taste. The temperature in the room dropped about 10 degrees and my mother told me quite a lot about being polite. My defense was “But I was just saying the truth. Do you want me to lie?”

Continue reading “Be Nice!”

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)”