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. Continue reading “When in Rome….then what?”
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?)”
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”
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”
So, how are you? Did you have a nice weekend? Is the family well and did you have no trouble finding a parking spot? Splendid.
I hope this was enough small talk for you because this is already the best I can do. I’m German and Germans don’t do small talk. It is not part of German business culture, in fact many Germans (myself included, I admit) consider it a waste of time. People from many other cultures consider this rude, in fact different expectations of small talk could seriously impair (even destroy) business relationships.
Continue reading “Small Talk”
I wanted to write about small talk this weekend, but the living cringing embarassment who is currently in the position of President of the United States has brought an interesting topic to my attention – handshakes. Who knew it could be so difficult! Well, the good news is – for an adult of at least average intelligence it’s not that difficult, but there are course different things to consider in different countries.
So let’s have a look at handshake etiquette. One thing valid all around the world is that you don’t refuse an offered handshake unless you are five or younger, or have so little social finesse that you shouldn’t be in a position requiring handshakes anyway. Continue reading “Handshakes are not that difficult!”
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!”
When I started to work in a company that recognized the importance of cross-cultural trainings (unfortunately, not every company does!), one part of my job was to prepare cross-cultural inhouse trainings for expats coming to work in the German firm. Having been fascinated with cross-cultural topics for quite a while, I had already done plenty of studying of relevant literature (I had also taken part in a cross-cultural training and had once more realized how German I was). One of the first intercultural specialists whose books I read was Geert Hofstede and there I stumbled upon the term “uncertainty avoidance”.
Now, those of you who are familiar with cross-cultural topics are also familiar with uncertainty avoidance. For those who don’t know the term yet: it’s how a culture deals with uncertainty, whether it tries to avoid it or embraces it, whether there is a need for rules and regulations. You will find plenty of good definitions everywhere on the internet.
Continue reading “Falling in Love with uncertainty avoidance”
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!”
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”