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”
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).
Some days ago, I had to be in East Frankfurt at 9.30 am. As a good uncertainty avoider, I checked how long the drive would take (20 minutes) and added some time for the morning rush hour and looking for a parking space (30 minutes – hey, if I avoid uncertainty, I do it thoroughly). So I left 50 minutes before I had to be there. Of course, there was hardly any traffic and more than enough convenient parking spots (anybody living in Frankfurt knows that this is unusual), so when I arrived, I was 30 minutes early.
On another occasion, I had to go to downtown Frankfurt for a training. That time it was difficult to find parking and so I parked in a semi-legal spot. I had the choice between facing the danger of getting a parking ticket (or even getting towed) and being late. Good German that I was, I decided to risk the parking ticket.
Why am I telling you this? To show how important punctuality is in Germany. Continue reading “Being on time”
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.
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.
Most people grow up among others who have similar patterns of behaviour, concepts of what’s polite and what isn’t. You don’t need to wonder about whether a five-minute delay requires an apology, is an acceptable time or is even early. You know the traditions on holidays, when to give a gift and when not, how to address others and whether to greet someone with a bow, a handshake or a cheek kiss. In short – you know the rules, and everyone around you plays according to the same rules. When you go on vacation, you might chuckle about the behaviour of the locals or utter in frustration “That’s so typical for the British/Italians/French…!”
Many people can get through their whole life like this, never having to think about the rules because they always live in cultural surroundings they know. More and more people however spend some years of their lives in other countries or even move there permanently. Others travel abroad for business or work in international teams. Chances are, if you are one of those people, you at one time thought, “Whoa, they’re playing by different rules! And I don’t know them!” And there you are, right in the middle of the wide field of cross-cultural awareness. Continue reading “Cross-cultural aware-what?”