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?”
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”
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”
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?””
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”
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….””
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!”