Common Mistakes Expats Make…

Are you an American with a relocation to Germany in your future, or a German heading to the USA? Learn some pitfalls to avoid so that your adaptation to the new surroundings go as smoothly as possible. Below are some mistakes that are surprisingly easy to make (and in NO WAY based on any kind of personal experience *clears throat*)

Airplane engine
Banishing the kids to engine seats is not the *only* mistake you can make when relocating overseas!

Mistake #1: Failing to learn the language of your new country

Hindsight is always 20/20.

My mother was born in Austria and tried off and on throughout our childhood to speak German with my sister and me. Of course, I rebuffed her. I took a couple of years of German here and there in high school to round out my elective course load and again in the year before moving to—guess where!

But, as I learned quickly, a little bit of textbook work does not even begin to scratch the surface of what one needs to know to communicate in a foreign language. For one thing, even if you learn some useful phrases rotely, there’s still the pesky business of being able to decipher the response to your much-rehearsed statement / question.

Alas, I am here to confirm what can only be filed under „duh“: you should take every opportunity in advance to learn the language of your new country, and continue learning diligently after your arrival. Yes, grammar and vocabulary memorization is important, but also listen to and speak the language (find a conversation partner, watch movies, television, etc.). If you’re doing it right, you should feel mentally and physically exhausted by the end of the day.

Bottom line: no magic here. There is no way around the baby steps, embarassing mistakes, non-sequiter responses to questions you misunderstood, completely unintentional brushoffs and/or insults that all go with the territory. Even with diligence, your first year or 16 (ahem) will be full of moments where you will convince yourself and everyone around you that your I.Q. is half of what it actually is. Which is why it is important not to make…

Mistake #2: Leaving your sense of humor behind.

Yes, maybe you need to re-learn how to drive, fine-tune your table manners, train yourself anew on when and where and even–gasp–how to shop. Even in cultures as ostensibly similar as the USA and Germany, you will have more than your share of deer-in-headlight moments (bonus points if you actually stand around somewhere looking as agape as you feel.) German expats in the US and US expats in Germany will have to contend with new systems of sizes, measurements and currency. Until / unless you stick around long enough for the local units to become intuitive, you will need to go Zen with re-calculating while trying to accomplish the most mundane of tasks. Also knowing where to find everyday items (hint: no OTC meds at drug stores in Germany!) is on a steep learning curve. Have a laugh at the absurdity of it all and commit to viewing your new daily routines as an adventure.

Mistake #3: Arriving with a cliché-filled worldview

Don’t arrive in your new country with a mindset full of media-driven clichés or what you experienced at Disney World once.
Both the USA and Germany have many diverse regions with their own characteristics and specialties. Just as not all Americans are hamburger-chompin’ cowboys, not all Germans are drinking beer from a „Stein“ while eating sauerkraut and sausages while trying not to drip on their Lederhosen.

Okay, I am exaggerating. But, when consuming news about another country / region, it’s well worth remembering that news is highly selective and not entirely without an agenda. Reading an online version of a respected newspaper from the US media if you are in Germany or vice versa will go some ways in giving you a broader picture of what’s really capturing the nation’s attention (if you’re still brushing up on your German, try the English language version of the news magazine Spiegel Online or The Local Germany).

Mistake #4: Sticking to your own

Don’t only hang around with fellow expats. The obvious reason for this is that you will severely cutail your language learning progress if you stay in your native language. Additionally, local friends and acquaintances will be key in helping you learn various aspects of the culture by bringing you into the fold for celebrations, holidays, casual get-togethers, etc. Take the opportunity to listen to what people talk about, keep your ears and eyes open for special expressions, gestures, manners. What do folks find funny? What do they complain about? What are sore subjects best avoided? Observe, observe, observe. Become an insider and your adaptation rate will skyrocket.

That said, I empathize with the need to have conversations in your native tongue. It is totally OK to sniff around for fellow expats or international crowds whose lingua franca is English and /or German. The thing to remember is to keep communication within these circles positive, adventurous and open-minded. A group full of Debbie Downers who mainly complain about how the new home is not the old home will drag your expat experience into a much darker place than it needs to be. Keep it positive and supportive!

What other nuggets of wisdom do YOU have to share?

A great way to learn and exhange best practices, things to avoid and how to leverage cultural differences for maximum advantage is to book an intercultural training. Have fun while gearing up a truly global mindset!

Field Report #2: Spring Break, USA

Spring Break in the USA…Florida beaches, wet t-shirt contests, wild debauchery, fun in the sun.

Well…not exactly, when you’re 20+ years out of college and travelling with your family of four in tow. Then Spring Break moves northward to that great state for lovers…Virginia. Which also has a beach. Whose skies are sunny but whose air is still cool-breezy and water still winter-chilled in the first days of spring. Not a booze cruise in sight.

Fortunately, with Colonial Williamsburg and suburban Washington, D.C. also on the itinerary, we were not doomed to spending our entire vacation figuring out what to do at the beach when credible beach weather is still about two months away.

In addition to visiting with too-rarely-seen family, I as always used the opportunity to re-immerse myself in the sights, sounds and rhythms of life in the U.S., paying close attention to where and how they differ from those in Germany.

This time around, I am going to let images do the talking for me. (Well, wordy captions will do the talking as well.) Wherever I experienced something typical of my beloved homeland, I clicked away. So, without further ado, I present a short and by-no-means-exhaustive list of “Yaaass, I’m back in the U.S.” images:

This is consistently one of my first food purchases when I'm back in the States. Why, oh why has this not caught on in Germany? Germans, feel the magic of chocolate peanut butter ice cream!!!
This is consistently one of my first food purchases when I’m back in the States. Why, oh why has this not caught on in Germany? Germans, feel the magic of chocolate peanut butter ice cream!!! (Picture bonus: there’s a reference to those funky and oh-so-American quarts and ounces!)
No one in the world does cake frosting like American supermarket bakeries. Just be sure you have a place to lie down once you fall into a sugar coma!
No one in the world does cake frosting like American supermarket bakeries. Just be sure you have a place to lie down once you fall into a sugar coma!
Okay Germans, what are these? Anyone...anyone? Why they are hush puppies and cornmeal muffins, staples of southern American restaurants. Lick those fingers!
Okay Germans, what are these? Anyone…anyone? Why it’s a cornmeal muffin and its deep-fried cousin, the hush puppy. Both are side dish staples of southern American restaurants. Lick those fingers!
WAIT! Before licking those fingers, make sure you sanitize them! Yes, we Americans are comparatively germ-o-phobic (no, that is not a reference to a fear of Germans!)
WAIT! Before licking those fingers, make sure you sanitize them! Yes, we Americans are comparatively germ-o-phobic (no, that is not a reference to a fear of Germans!). We love us some sanitizing wipes (and hand gels, and soaps, and sprays, etc., etc.)!
Interestingly, for all our germophobia, we are zen with that most communial of thirst quenching stations...the public drinking water fountain. Germans, WHY DON'T WE HAVE THESE? So much easier than schlepping around a water bottle!
Interestingly, for all our germophobia, we are Zen with that most communal of thirst quenching stations…the public drinking water fountain. Germans, WHY DON’T WE HAVE THESE? So much easier than schlepping around a water bottle!
In America, everything is awesome!!! Including household cleaning products that sanitize!
In America, everything is awesome!!! Including household cleaning products!
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Service with a name and a smile. “Kelly”, bless her heart, accomodating my husband’s allergies (is that a wink-y?)
Americans in Europe and Europeans in America have one thing in common: they spend half their vacation re-calibrating their sense of dimension. Extra large coffee, anyone?
Americans in Europe and Europeans in America have one thing in common: they spend half their vacation re-calibrating their sense of dimension. Extra large coffee, anyone?
I was determined to have my shaggy-haired son cut and coiffed at a good ol' American barber shop. No frills, no fuss, no appointments.
I was determined to have my shaggy-haired son cut and coiffed at a good ol’ American barber shop. No frills, no fuss, no appointments.
I couldn't resist, after my last blog post about we Americans and our disposable flatware. But, we're upping our game...we make it *look* real!
I couldn’t resist, after my last blog post about we Americans and our disposable flatware. But, we’re upping our game…we make it *look* real!
You have been duly warned: in the States, we are, um, generous with warning notices.
You have been duly warned: in the States, we are, um, generous with warning notices.

And, it wouldn’t be the USA without patriotism:

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On private homes, office buildings and elsewhere, Old Glory is almost always in sight. Pop quiz for the Europeans: how many stars and stripes does the American flag contain, and what do they stand for?
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In the U.S., it is common to see parking spaces reserved for military veterans, who hold a place of high esteem amongst the American population.

For the German traveller in the United States: have a bout of homesickness? We’ve got you covered:

You even need a coin for the shopping cart! But sorry: still can't help you with German bread!
You even need a coin for the shopping cart! But sorry: still can’t help you with German bread.
We'll even set you up on a "Rhine" river cruise!
We’ll even set you up on a “Rhine” river cruise! (running till 6:00 pm, a.k.a. 18:00)

Want to know the deeper cultural significance behind the images above? Book an intercultural training and you’ll be in the know!

 

 

Field Report: Where Germans Struggle with American Business Practices

February was a short month chock full of trainings. In addition to giving me the chance to add push pins to my „places visited“ German map, I as always came away with valuable observations from my seminar participants regarding cultural differences that make an impression. Here were three recurring themes…

“We paid an arm and a leg to attend this event and they’re giving us paper plates???”

paper plateAt even rather fomal business events in the USA (trade fairs,
conventions, meetings etc.) for which attendees often pay a hefty participation fee, catered food is often served on paper plates with plastic flatware and paper linens. Cardboard, styrofoam or plastic cups are on hand for warm beverages; cold drinks such as cola and juice are drunk directly from the can or (single-serving sized) bottle. For Germans, this is an unusual setup.

Explanation: American pragmatism. Diposable dishes mean, quite simply, faster clean-up. On a more environmental note, some areas of the country—such as California—are in the midst of a water shortage and thus tight restrictions on water usage apply.

Bottom line:

For Germans: No disrespect to international guests intended; it’s American pragmatism in action.

For Americans: In addition to making a more professional impression with your business guests, use of „real“ dishes and flatware can be the more environmentally-friendly option, especially with modern energy- and water efficient appliances. Win-win!

“Where are their business cards???”

Americans—even business contacts– are quick to connect over social media

With the USA being the founding point of many social media platforms, it is no surprise that Americans enjoy (and are adept at) using multiple digital channels to communicate and promote all things professional and personal. Germans—a much more private bunch, digitally and otherwise—have been slower to warm up to this share everything, everywhere with everyone ethos. One comment I’ve heard a few times from Germans over the past few months is that even casual business acquaintences from the USA reach out for a connection over Facebook and Instagram, leaving them feeling, well…a bit outside of their comfort zone.

Bottom line:

For Germans: This „friending“ and „connecting“ is an extension of the long-standing openness and small talk culture of Americans. More than Germans, Americans are accustomed to and comfortable with blurring the lines between the professional and the personal; being granted access to snippets of our co-workers’ / counterparts’ lives via photos and what-I-did-this-weekend posts enhances the professional working relationship. Especially if you live an ocean away and have limited face-to-face contact, allowing connections over social media may help your American colleague feel more comfortable with and connected to you. It’s fine to keep your posts minimal and „small talk-y“ in nature; with all our connections on all those platforms, we don’t have time for lengthy, heavy posts anyway! (Not to mention we aren’t likely to understand them if you choose to post in German!)

For Americans: Tread gently with your German counterparts; although the digital revolution and globalization are steadily closing the gap, Germans on the whole still don’t have the comfort level with social media sharing that Americans take for granted. Try connecting first over a more business-oriented site; hold off on more „social“ social media until your relationship is better established.

“So many references to baseball…what do they mean???”

The consensus amongst you is that most Americans are openly appreciative and complimentary of your wonderful English skills and make a point of speaking clearly with you. The tendency seems to be that the better your English is, the more for granted your American counterparts take your ability to understand and express everything as we native speakers do—including idiomatic phrases (often sports-related, i.e., “a ballpark figure”), regional accents/dialect and emotional subtext.

Bottom Line:

If an American has taken apparent offense to or misunderstood something you’ve said—and you feel equally baffled by the reaction (or vice-versa)—DO take the immediate opportunity to emphasize that maybe how you expressed yourself wasn’t quiiiiiite how you intended to be taken. Gently—humorously, if the situation allows—remind your counterpart that operating in a foreign language is a constant work in progress, and that Germans tend to be a comparatively to-the-point bunch in any language.

Bottom-bottom line (does this exist?):

So many cultural differences, so little time…stay tuned for future posts highlighting other every day stumbling blocks, and how to prevent them before a misstep occurs.

Or, book an intercultural training to learn how your American counterparts tick!

Go International in 2016!

The New Year 2016 is underway, and it is time for companies to set new business goals and budgets.
If your enterprise is seeking to expand its international presence this year, we would be happy to do our part to make your transition to the global stage a smooth one by offering you our Intercultural Training USA, Presenting for an American Audience, Negotiating with Americans and/or Conflict Management in International Teams seminars!

Don’t let your business get caught flat-footed by underestimating the importance of knowing how other cultures tick; the success of your joint ventures depends on clear communication and heightened understanding of your international counterparts. With the USA being a coveted region for global business expansion, a thorough knowledge of how Americans approach daily work tasks, communicate, negotiate and present (and expect from others’ presentations) is of paramount importance.

Book one of our trainings now, and take the first step toward ensuring global success! Our seminars are highly interactive, informative, eye-opening and, yes–entertaining . Register for one of our open seminars or for an in-house, customized-to-your-needs training.

Do you first need to brush up your business English in order to communicate confidently with your native English-speaking counterparts? We can help you here too!
From our office to yours, we wish you a successful, healthy and prosperous year 2016 and look forward to working with you soon!

Trees! Lights! Food! Christmas!

Currently, my social media is awash with pictures of Christmas trees. Lots of them. As usual, U.S.-folks are outdoing themselves with decorations and lights on their floor-to-ceiling, full-bodied trees (can trees be “full bodied”? I don’t know. Full figured, maybe?) By now, virtually all self-respecting Americans who celebrate Christmas have had their tree-trimming parties and are relaxing with a glass of eggnog on the La-Z-Boy.

Domhof Christmas
A Speyer landmark, the Domhof Christmas tree.

This is the first year everrrr that our nuclear family of four is celebrating Christmas at our own home (well, at our landlord’s home, but whatever). No flights to the USA or over the river and through the woods to the rural outreaches of Frankfurt. Although we will miss family time, I am excited to finally start some of our own Yuletide traditions (and not getting out of my pajamas for three days straight). And, we get to HAVE A TREE. I am so ready to put it up, wrap it in light strands (I’ll be cursing like a sailor during that part; let’s fast forward), add some baubles, throw open our shutters and give the tour groups of old town Speyer something to ooohh and aaahh at.

Me: (to German-to-his-core husband): Let’s get our tree and have a decoration evening this weekend!

Husband: Um, no. That’s bad luck. NOBODY DOES THIS. Except stores.

Me: But, we’re a German-American household! Let’s put it up just a few days before Christmas!

Husband: Seriously, nobody does this. It is bad luck. The tree comes into the house on Christmas (otherwise known to Americans as Christmas Eve). Then we decorate it, then the kids go away for a few minutes while the Christkind (the Christ child) brings the presents.

Hmmpf.

Kipferl und Quentin
Our ghostly son checking out the vanilla kipferl.

The truth is, I know the drill after celebrating about 10 Christmases here. This is indeed exactly how it is done in German households. Festivities (generalization alert!) unfold roughly in this manner:

December 24: Decorate tree, open gifts, sit down for a late dinner (many German households serve a simple dish; potato salad, carp, fondue or raclette are popular traditional fare). Break into the libation cabinet. Shuffle off to bed.

December 25: Sleep in. Then, start preparations for Christmas feast of roast pork, duck or goose (or duck-duck-goose). The main thing: lots of meat (or fish).    Start feeling the first inklings of cabin fever. Break into libation stash. Shuffle off to bed.

December 26: Don’t even think of heading out to the mall…we’re still on holiday schedule. Specifically, the “Second Christmas Day”. By now you are eating leftovers. Cabin fever is in full tilt. Take a walk, read a book, start plotting a spontaneous city getaway to take advantage of post-Christmas sales. Or, you know, hang out with your family (the libation cabinet is still in easy reach). Admire your now three-day-old Christmas tree. Shuffle off to bed, with visions of open stores dancing in your head.

Notice what (or who) is missing in the joyous festivities. A certain jolly, rotund, chimney fetishist (that was uncalled for, wasn’t it?). No Santa here, folks. St. Nikolaus does make the rounds, but on December 6. And he fills boots with, well, holiday booty. Old tradition calls for tangerines, nuts and chocolate. New tradition calls for iPhones, iPads and wads of cash. But again, I digress.

So, I will have to find a way to craftily weave in my American traditions with the German ones. The current compromise on the table regarding the tree is to put it up outside—with lights—and haul it in on Christmas Eve. I will also, ahem, stand my ground on opening at least a portion of our already minimal presents on the morning of the 25th.

Weihnachtsmarkrt
Speyer Christmas market

Good-natured snark aside, I really do enjoy the way the holidays are celebrated here. I love Christmas Markets, which for me are a completely acceptable substitute for overblown holiday light displays (though I get a kick out of touring competitive light-display neighborhoods when I’m in the States). And I LOVE that consumerism comes to a crashing halt for two-and-a-half days.

And, hey, we might not have Santa, but at least we don’t have the creepy Krampus skulking around. You (you now meaning Austrians–which you aren’t, but who’s counting) just keep those there creatures in the Alps where they belong

Gluehwein Speyer
From our family to yours, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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Five Ways Your German Workplace Will Differ from Your American One

1. Colleagues may bring in baked goods to share on their birthday

Let’s start with the fun, fluffy stuff. Once, when I worked at a high school in the U.S.A., I was greeted in my office on my birthday with a beautiful home-baked birthday cake by my boss (I still remember, Pat!) Granted, this may have been over and above what many bosses do, however, it is generally the typical order of things in America for people bring treats to YOU, the birthday child (assuming, of course, people know it’s your birthday)

German American Office Birthday Party
Happy Birthday to ME! I give you, dear colleagues, the gift of a calorie bomb!

So, you can imagine my confusion after moving to Germany when office colleagues would bring in cake, muffins and the like, followed quickly by a round of collegial handshaking and wishes of „Alles gute zum Geburtstag!“ to the bearer of the treats. Wait, what? I have to bake for my own birthday? Not every adult continues to do this, but surprisingly many do (because cake). Fifteen years on, I have to admit to still being slow on the uptake when my day rolls around. Maybe when I turn 80 I will have finally caught on. Whether I will still be in condition to bake is another question.

2. „Hello, Ms. American Colleague“

Although this varies widely between and even within companies, the business etiquette default in Germany is still to use „Mr. or Ms. Lastname“ when addressing bosses, subordinates, and colleagues. Bottom line: an American working in a German office is always well advised to listen carefully to and adopt the formality level demonstrated, and to use the formal „Sie“ unless invited to do otherwise or unless the German counterpart starts off by using „Du“.

Likewise, Germans will need to go Zen with being on a first name basis with those up and down the chain of command. Though hierarchy definitely exisits in American offices, the use of first names is not a vehicle for displaying it.

3. You will get generous annual vacation allotment—and be expected to use it

German law mandates a minimum of twenty workdays (Monday-Friday) of vacation per year; many companies grant more time. On top of this, Germany has between 9-13 paid public holidays, varying from state to state. If vacation days go unused due to business reasons or sickness, they roll over into the next year till around March. After this point, they are forfeited.

Bottom Line: people take their vacations, and so should you.

In contrast, a 2013 study by Oxford Economics found that Americans forfeited about 169 million vacation days. With no federal mandate for paid vacations, managers have been slow to actively push their employees to take whatever allotment is granted by the company. Another legal aspect at play in America is At Will Employment, which allows both employer and employee to end a working relationship without notice and thus adds an element of job (or advancement) risk for those taking extended time off.

4. Coming to work sick is a no-go

Due again to federal laws governing paid sick leave, folks Do. Not. Come. To. Work. Sick. They do, however, need to obtain and present a valid physician’s note. For longer-term illnesses, an employee’s health insurance either helps pay some of the cost (for absences less than six weeks) or the whole cost (totalling 70% of an employee’s gross pay or 90% of the take-home pay for absences longer than six weeks).

The United States currently has no federal laws regarding paid leave due to illness.

Bottom Line: If you’re sick, visit your doctor, go home and take your herbal medicines.

5. You as an employee will have more involvement and influence in management matters.

Now to the heavier stuff, though this point brings us to a framework of laws too complicated to cover in detail in this post. Suffice it to say that the principle of co-determination (“Mittbestimmungsrecht“, say that ten times chewing gum while patting your head and rubbing your tummy) and the Works Constitution Act comprise the backbone of corporate law and the guiding principle behind industrial relations in Germany. Depending on the size of your company, your interests will be represented to management by a Works Council and / or by the presence of employee representatives at the supervisory and management board levels. Should you be elected by your colleagues as a representative on the Works Council, you will be receive regular trainings on the complexities of German Labor Law. Good times!

I am neither going to pretend that it is always smooth sailing between Works Councils and upper mangement, nor am I going to suggest that a 1:1 adoption of a similar structure would be feasible in an American corporate work environment. I will point to this interesting article that weighs the possibilities and pitfalls of doing so. For our purposes, it’s enough to say that in Germany co-determination is accepted, practiced and—for the most part—seems to work.

Adjusting to the German work environment (or an American one, if you’re from Germany) involves much more than operating in a new language. Before beginning your new assignment, book an intercultural training to get off on the right foot and to avoid unpleasant surprises.

 

A Vacation from Business

Last week for the Fall school holidays, we took our fifth cruise—and our fourth through the Mediterranean. We don’t lack imagination, this is mostly due to logistics—cruises with itineraries leaving from northern Italy involve the least amount of getting-to-port travel hassles.

DSCN1775

I don’t love everything about cruising, and we probably ought to consider at least expanding our geographical horizons the next time. But what makes them so generally addicting is the cultural and language smorgasbord the passengers and crew comprise on our cruise line of choice (MSC, no paid endorsements here). Though an Italian line, on board announcements are made in five languages (Italian, French, Spanish, German and English). The ship’s captain even plowed through a „welcome“ message in every passenger-represented language on the cruise, including Chinese, Slovenian and Russian.

On English-language cruise review forums, I often see this listed as a negative. What also seems to catch some travelers by unpleasant surprise are the differing rules for forming lines–something that comes to spectacular, chaotic light during buffet and shore excursion rush hours (amongst Italians, the rule is: there ain’t no rules). Multilingualism amongst wait- , reception- and cabin staff leads to the inevitable communication snafus and increases the likelihood of misunderstandings, another bugaboo amongst some forum posters.

Perhaps weirdly, it is exactly these situations that appeal to me. An MSC cruise is a great little microcosm of the world and international relations, and I personally find the company does a commendable job of bending over backward to accommodate everyone, from food and drink selection to staging evening shows that are song-, dance- and acrobatics heavy in order to bypass language barriers.

The few times I feel myself getting frustrated over communication challenges, I quickly remind myself that I am no more entitled than anyone else in this world—or on the ship—to understand or be understood 100%. And I am definitely over myself when I listen to the truly linguistically otherworldly cruise directors rattle off the show introduction flawlessly five times (this time around, it was Massimo; the man deserves a bigger stage than the one he currently has.

This time around, we had dinner table mates—a family of four from Slovenia. With their limited English and our non-existent Slovenian, our dinner conversations were pretty limited. I did, however, manage to inadvertently swat the mom in the cheek while napkin twirling on Italian Night (what’s this? Take a cruise and find out!) In a small spurt of sheepish post-apology conversation, we managed to establish that she had spent time living near the farming village my mother was born in. It’s a Small World After All.

On the final evening, we all managed to have a to-the-point-of-hyperventilation laugh over a mysterious and rather dubious looking dessert (heads up: it’s called a „canollo“. If you can figure out how to eat it gracefully, please contact me and enlighten).

MSC has a distinctly Italian flair, and Italians know how to be festive. MSC quite lovingly takes their joie de vivre and applies it to a palette of international traditions. On October 31, the ship was adorned with Halloween decorations, and the bars served ghoulish seasonal libations. The animation team were costumed and making sure passengers young and old were in the spirit, culminating in a Halloween party on the pool deck.

Interestingly, there was a generous representation of North Americans on board, and a particular group of three middle aged women traveling together (do I still get to call people „middle aged“ and make it clear that they are older than me? A topic for another post) turned out to be my favorite. On Halloween, they waltzed into the dining room in full witch regalia. In an amusing role reversal, the waitstaff were taking selfies with THEM. „This is how we look without makeup!“ one quipped loudly. They proceeded to „trick“ the good natured waiter repeatedly throughout dinner.

Vacation tends to bring out the best in people (unless you’re in a buffet or excursion line during rush hour), and it’s lovely to see the passengers and crew working and playing together in good spirits. In fact, I think the next summit of world leaders should take place on an MSC cruise, with the singular goal of cutting loose and par-TAYing their differences away.

You think they’ll be on board with the idea?

Delivering Culturally Sensitive Presentations in English

Global working teams are an increasing reality in today’s business world. It is no longer unusual for members of the same project or even departmental team to be located simultaneously in California, Germany, Singapore and Ireland. Likewise, as companies seek to expand their reach beyond national borders, global customer acquisition is becoming standard operating procedure.

Presentation

Clearly, doing business globally presents complexities on many fronts. In this blog, I will zero in specifically on presentations, and how cultural awareness of your audience can ensure you get your message across as you intended.

1. Accomodate each other on the emotional – factual spectrum: German audiences like facts. Lots of them. A convincing presentation lays out the background as well as every data-supported aspect of a problem, building to the introduction of a sensible and well-grounded solution. The facts are the star of the show, the presenter is merely a vehicle for the message.

In contrast, American audiences are impatient with detailed background analyses and an abundance of data. Even if copius data are relevant for decision making, they will prefer to receive and digest this separately; an effective presentation moves the audience on an emotional level first and a factual one second. The central message can be bold, creative and risky. The American audience prefers presentations that are less about analysis and more about a call to action. A charismatic presenter with a big personality and a dramatic touch is looked upon positively.

A German presenting to a mixed or American audience will need to strive to make a bigger emotional impact. Data and facts need to be kept to a minimum, and the main message needs to come sooner rather than later in the presentation. Involving the audience is another strategy for keeping attention and inspiring action. A good place to start to see how presenters play to emotions to get the message across can be found here.

Americans presenting to Germans will need to reign in the charisma and come to the presentation armed with factual details. Starting the presentation with a bold or risky proposal will strain credibility and not inspire the way it would with an all-American audience. German audience members will ask detailed questions and look critically at your conclusions; keep in mind that this is a sign of respect for the subject matter. Do not become flustered or discouraged and answer the questions as thoroughly as possible.

If you are German or American presenting to a mixed audience, bring detailed data in the form of a handout while keeping the presentation itself concise and the slides clean and easy to follow. Strike a balance between emotional and factual; avoid being too charismatic or too dry.

2. Accomodate each others’ attention spans: As you might guess, Germans—with their thirst for background and data—have a longer attention span for detailed presentations This attention dissipates quickly if you come across to them as a „Selbstdarsteller“ (self-promoter) and will be difficult to win back. Conversely, an American audience needs to have their attention grabbed quicky, and a business presentation needs to be as concise as possible while still covering the essentials clearly. Americans love TED talks —presentations by speakers who are well-known in their respective field or who have compelling stories. The talks clock in at under 20 minutes and use visual media sparingly.

3. Use clear, non-idiomatic language: Since this post deals with English-language presentations, obviously this point is directed to English native speakers. We often use idiomatic expressions in private and business conversations without batting an eyelash (did you catch that?). Loading your presentation with idioms—consciously or not—will confuse your audience and cloud your message. If you are not sure how infiltrated your language is with expressions, record yourself rehearsing your presentation and play it back. If you find yourself usings these expressions, make sure you find more clear and concrete alternative phrases.

Knowing how to tailor your presentations to meet the cultural expectations of your audience is an indispensible step to doing successful international business. Schedule a presentation training to make sure your message connects with your audience.

Six examples of culture defining language

Time magazine recently featured an article about a young woman’s culture shock after a dramatic relocation. In the book recounting her defection from North to South Korea, „In Order to Live: a Young Girl’s Journey to Freedom“, Yeonmi Park describes the expected—and unexpected—challenges of adjusting to her new, adopted culture.

In one passage, she recalls, „… I was 15 years old with the equivalent of a second grade education, and I didn’t even possess the language to express concepts such as liberty, individuality, or love for anything other than the Leader.“

She spent her first months in South Korea devouring any book she got her hands on: „I found that as my vocabulary became richer my thoughts were getting deeper, my vision wider, and my emotions less shallow. [emphasis added] I could literally feel my brain coming to life, as if new pathways were firing up in places that had been dark and barren.“

Park’s experience underscores—among many other things– how tightly anchored language syntax is to socio-cultural norms, even when in her case the basic language, Korean, was the same in her original and adopted home countries.

Language, whether it is vocabulary, grammar or gender-assignment of inanimate objects, gives away clues about what a culture values, how it views a concept (for example, in the Japanese language, the word „crisis“ is represented by two symbols–“danger „ and „opportunity“), and how information in a partucular scenario is interpreted.

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Today, I’ll have a look at the vocabulary element, honing in on differences in business cultural norms between the U.S. and Germany as reflected in the American English and German languages. Although the culture gap between the two countries is not nearly as dramatic as the one Park described, there is still plenty of cultural subtext bubbling under many vocabulary words that lead not only to translation challenges but also cultural misunderstandings.

On the flip side, looking at these words more closely offers an opportunity to gain insight into your counterpart’s culturally-influenced way of thinking. Below are six business-related words in German and / or English that invite a closer look into their culturally-rooted message:

1. „Feierabend“: The Germans incorporate the concept of celebration („feiern“) and evening („Abend“) to designate the end of the working day. My German-English translation dictionary (dict.leo.org, by the way) offers the American English eqivalent: quitting time.

Here we see pretty starkly the German value of „work to live“; the end of the working day is expressed in terms of anticipation of the best part to come, the part where you get to go home and enjoy life. In American English, „quitting“ seems slightly suggestive of giving up; it is oriented toward the working portion of the day with no indication of what the rest of the day holds. It aligns pretty cleanly with the American tendency to follow a more „live to work“ ethos.

2. „Kollege / Kollegin“ (male and female colleague, respectively), „Arzt / Ärztin“ (doctor, again gender differentiated), „Chef / Chefin“ (boss, same pattern as those before), etc.: In fairness to Germans, they are not the only ones to do this; many European languages embed grammatical gender distinctions. Though there is a movement afoot to introduce gender neutral language , anecdotally I can say such a change will take a long time to be accepted, let alone internalized. In typical German fashion of wanting to have as many facts about something (or someone) as possible in order to know exactly what to expect up front, many people I have (informally, as always) polled have expressed their wish to keep this language element exactly as it is, danke schön.

3. KW („Kalenderwoche“, translates to calendar week): Yes, I know the year has 52 weeks. I do. And yet, after 15 years here I still can’t train the brain to internalize the concept that KW 34 is (or was in 2015) the week of August 17-24. True to the German business value of efficiency, the KW is very logical and tidy, gathering up seven days and packaging them into one simple, measurable unit. Don’t bother trying to use this system to arrange personal meet-ups; once they have left the office, Germans appear to shed their orientation to this unit of time measurement.

4. krank geschrieben: While many Americans power stoically through cold and flu season sniffing and sneezing at their desks, their German counterparts are likely to be „krank geschrieben“ (sick, as attested by a doctor’s note). German law requires a doctor’s attest by the third day of a work absence due to illness, and German employees avail themselves readily of the opportunity this affords them to recover from their ailment. The paid sick leave allottment in Germany is six weeks (at full salary) and is separate from vacation allotment. Americans „call in sick“ on rare occasion, but the process is less formalized as there is no federal law governing paid sick leave (or vacation days, for that matter).

5. „Happy“, „Excited“, „Thrilled“, „Awesome“: all have direct translations into German. The catch here is that they are rarely words a German would toss around in a business context; they are generally considered to be much too effusive; Germans still tend to toe a stricter line—at least linguistically– between personal and professional. „Happy“ would likely be expressed as „Zufrieden“ (satisfied). And, hey, if you get a „Sehr Zufrieden“ (very satisfied), well, you may have just gotten a standing O.

6. „At-Will Employment“: the German translation dictionary offers no equivalent on the initial hitlist; after scrolling down to the dicussion forum section, one user offered „Jederzeit kündbares Arbeitsverhältnis“ (work relationship that can be ended at any time). More robust employee protection laws in Germany render such a term unnecessary. In contrast to the USA, where employers and employees alike tend to view at-will employment as positive (it allows maximum flexibility for both sides should the need arise), Germans place a premium on employment stability. After successfully fulfilling a 3-6 month „Probezeit“, a German employee can generally count on his/her position being secure.

Don’t let yourself be caught off guard by concepts that cannot be neatly defined in translation dictionaries; before beginning your international business endeavor, invest in an intercultural awareness training to gain deeper understanding of the culture behind the language of your potential business partner. The deeper your understanding, the higher your chances of success with the cooperation.

Out with the Bachelor’s Degree, in with the Apprenticeship!

Last week during one of my trainings, I complimented a woman on her nearly-flawless English. She related how she had lived in the U.S. for ten years while married to her military husband. As she talked about her experiences and impressions from her time there, she mentioned that she had held several jobs over the decade, from shopping cart attendant to cashier tJob Trainingo dialysis administrator.

Wait….what?! The first two seem to fit together, but where did the dialysis administration come in?

She went on to say that she had undergone a six week training program…and then was sent out „on the field“. The other Germans in the group were pretty shocked. Dialysis administration here would be part of a more comprehensive and thorough medical assistant training apprenticeship that would take at least a couple of years. Sticking real patients with real (and long!) needles and other medical procedures would require much more in-depth training.

This anecdote highlights the significant difference in how Germany and America approach education and job training. In America, school students for the most part are kept together under one roof (although there are varying levels of the core classes). At most, students training for a vocation do a half day for up to three years at a vocational-technical school while attending their high school the other half of the day for their core academic courses. The training is not typically done in connection with any company looking to groom its next group of skilled company workers.

In contrast, depending on which path a school student chooses (starting in the 5th grade), more vocationally-inclined school students can attend a Realschule until grade 10; after this, they apply to a company or public sector office for an apprenticeship (Ausbildungsplatz). During the two- to three-and-a-half year period, they take theory classes related to the vocation for part of the week, and work at the company the other part. By the time the apprenticeship is over, the company has a highly trained worker who can integrate seamlessly into the full-time work environment. Oh, and apprenticeships are paid!

Recently, the U.S. federal government, in cooperation with American-based German companies and community colleges, has started introducing German-style dual-program apprenticeships in the United States. In 2014, the Obama administration pledged $100 million to apprenticeship programs, with more federal funds planned in the years to come. It is an expensive proposition, that much is certain. If the program expands on a larger scale, it will surely require philosophical and structural changes within the participating companies and community colleges, not to mention a change in the Bachelor’s-degree-is-the-best-way mindset of high school students and their families.

Ultimately, the investment will be worth it if it helps the United States turn out the next generation of workers equipped with the most up-to-date skill sets needed in a rapidly evolving marketplace. To send these freshly-minted apprenticeship graduates into the world without the albatross of crushing student loan debt is a significant bonus. The time for a dual-program apprenticeship system has arrived for the United States. Now will we embrace it?

Check out my intercultural training to learn more about the differences between the U.S. and Germany.