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. Continue reading “When in Rome….then what?”

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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”

Willy Brandt – no moral ambiguity

I talked about German politicians with a British friend of mine today. We agreed that Germans are usually not drawn towards charismatic politicians and definitely not to loud, screaming ones (we made rather bad experiences with that kind). My friend said: “I think Germans want their politicians to be unobtrusive and just get their job done” and I agree. We don’t consider showy people to be efficient. There is another kind of politician we don’t accept – a morally ambiguous one. The only thing worse than a morally ambiguous one would be a morally despicable one. You know, the kind that plays down right-wing terror groups. Or one who sympathizes with them or is backed by them.

Continue reading “Willy Brandt – no moral ambiguity”

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”