October 3 – German Reunification

I remember how I spent October 3, 1990. It was the first time that this day was a holiday – the actual day of the reunification of East and West Germany. There was a Mass at church, to celebrate this reunification after forty-five years of separation. The church was crowded – usually it only was that well-attended on Christmas. The mood was cheerful. A young woman in front of the me carried a little child in her arms. Once in a while the child turned around to stare at me with large eyes. I smiled at it, I wanted to smile at the whole world on that day.

In the afternoon, the typical rattling of a Trabi could be heard even before the small East German car turned into our street. The Trabi – officially called Trabant – makes a unique sound that everybody who grew up in East Germany or was there a few times will recognize. Our relatives from Gera in East Germany had arrived for a visit – the West and East parts of our family united on this special day.

Just one year before, such a visit would have been impossible. While West Germans could travel to East Germany (after undergoing a lot of paperwork), East Germans could only come to West Germany if they were over 65 or if they got a permit to attend a special family event there.

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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.

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Famous Germans – Friedrich Ebert

Many German towns have a Friedrich-Ebert-Street. There is also a number of schools, even a foundation, named after Friedrich Ebert. So who was this man whose name is remembered so widely?

In short – the first man to ever be head of a German democracy. But of course there is far more to tell. Continue reading “Famous Germans – Friedrich Ebert”

“How are you?” – “Ah, well you know, actually I haven’t been well and last week I….”

A while ago, I held a little speech about German culture for new members of the British Club of the Taunus. Later, at lunch, some of us chatted a bit about German culture. One of the British ladies said “You can never ask a German ‘How are you?’ because they then give you their whole health history.”

It made us all chuckle, but it’s somewhat true. I say “somewhat”, because to some extent the “How are you? – Fine. How are you? – Fine.” dialogue has gotten some hold in Germany by now, especially with younger people. But when I talk to expats about German culture, I always make a point of telling them that in Germany “How are you?” or “How do you do?” is not a greeting. It’s seen as an inquiry about one’s well-being and will be answered as such. Ask a German – especially an elder one – how he is and you will likely be informed about things you never wanted to know. Most Germans like to talk about health or lack thereof. I have one neighbour, a very old lady, who always gives me a detailed description of her current health status, even if I say nothing more than “Good morning.” Continue reading ““How are you?” – “Ah, well you know, actually I haven’t been well and last week I….””

How the 2006 World Cup changed Germany

I used not to care about the World Cup for most of my life, and when one wasn’t interested in it, one hardly noticed it happening – at least this is the way it used to be in Germany. Then, in 2006, Germany was the host for the World Cup. With a reserve that was not so uncommon for Germans towards their country, I found the motto “Die Welt zu Gast bei Freunden” (English version: “A time to make friends”) a tad too much, too optimistic, too, well….un-German.

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Germans and their cars

Some time ago, my friend Susanne from Leipzig wrote me a mail and mentioned that they have a new car. Of course I asked what car it was. Before she told me the brand, she wrote “I hardly dare telling you”, because she knew I had very strong reservations about the brand she chose.

And there you are right in the middle of the Germans and their cars. For most Germans, a car is far more than just a mode of transport. A while ago, on the news, they had a bit about the rising petrol prices and the fact that while Germans heartily complained about the rises (justly so!), they still tended to buy high-powered cars. The economic cars weren’t all that popular, but the cars with a lot of PS were. The reporter talking about this then said “For Germans, cars are an emotional issue.” He’s right. I once had a friend who was quite tough, but even he admitted that when he had to take his trusty old car to the scrap yard, he parked in a lonely street for ten minutes and cried before bringing the car away.

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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?”

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Falling in Love with uncertainty avoidance

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.

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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.

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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)”