German Schools, American Schools: 12 Key Differences

Ah, the hot-button topic of education…and the endless discussions of what is and what should be. The trend out of the States now seems to be lavishing praise on the utopian education system in Finland while throwing fifty shades of shade at the education-trend-of the-minute known as Common Core (I am supposed to capitalize that, right?)
Well, can’t help you there, folks. C.C. arrived on the scene after I left, and I don’t live anywhere near Scandanavia. What I can do is offer a comparison / contrast of school systems in the US and Germany– based on my experiences as a student and later guidance counselor in the former, and as a parent of school children in the latter– on a selected smattering of aspects. No “betters” and “worses”, only differences.

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First day of first grade (“Einschulung”) means one thing…little peanuts hobbling around with structured backpacks (“Schulranzen”) and a cone full of celebratory goodies (“Schultuete”)

1. Security:
In Germany, there are generally speaking far fewer obstacles to entering a school building. While secondary entrances/exits do tend to be locked, main entrances remain open and unmonitored throughout the day. One time, when my son forgot his mid-morning snack at home, I brought it to him, expecting to hand it over to school personnel for delivery to his classroom. Instead, when I explained to  the secretary why I was there, she told me I should bring it to the classroom myself. Much to my boy’s embarrassment, I did just that. Likewise, I have stopped into my daughter’s school a few times to relay various messages, again with barely a sideways glance from anyone else.
Thanks to the input of various parents of schoolchildren in the US, I have learned that, at a minimum, visitors must be buzzed into the building and announce themselves at the office. More urban schools have metal detectors and security presence. Lockdown drills occur at regular intervals, much like fire drills.

2. Freedom of student movement
Somewhat related to the first point, students at both the elementary and secondary level can visit the loo without bureaucracy in Germany. They are, of course, expected to return promptly and will get in trouble if they don’t, along the lines of having to write a “Strafarbeit” (i.e., “I will not linger in the loo” x 50), or at the secondary level having the infraction reflected in the class participation grade.
Although I cannot speak for how every school handles restroom visits in U.S. schools, I can say I remember being allowed to use the facilities simply with verbal permission in the elementary school. Ironically, the older we got, the more tightly controlled restroom visits were; in junior and senior high there was no roaming the halls–for potty breaks or otherwise–without a signed “pass”

3. Transportation to / from school
No car drop-off and pick-up lines here in Germany; most kids come to school in walking or bike groups. Secondary school kids who are attending a school outside their town of residence rely on normal public transportation (students are not assigned to secondary school according to district, another difference to the US, but man is this post starting to get wordy)

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No school premesis is complete without a generous bike parking lot.

4. Helicopter parenting more discouraged
One major area where schools in Germany appear to be more successful than those in the U.S. is on the topic of handling so-called helicopter parents. When I worked as a school counselor in the States, parents were much more heavily involved in and informed about the details (and frankly, sometimes the minutiae) of their children’s academic endeavors. My experience with my own children here in Germany is that a higher degree of independence from parents is expected from students; starting in the secondary school, parental involvement in schoolwork is explicitly discouraged. This serves the purpose of helping students to develop a more realistic sense of their own abilities.

5. Tougher grading
On a related note, giving kids a realistic sense of their abilities means not doling out “A’s” as frequently as teachers tend to in the States. The grading scale in Germany is 1=A, 2=B, 3=C, etc.; students here are quite happy with 2s and 3s; the top note is truly reserved for work of extraordinary quality.

6. More class cancellations
Something I really have to get used to here is Germany is the routineness of “Kursausfaelle”, or a class canceled for whatever reason on a given day. At the elementary school level, students will be redistributed to other parallel classes, but starting in secondary school, students may well find themselves with extra free time if the canceled class falls at the first or last periods. All mid-day classes will meet with a substitute teacher (who may or may not teach a lesson in the subject matter at hand).
Starting in grade 11, students may leave the premesis when a class is cancelled and return for the next period.

7. Separation after grade four
In Germany, elementary school spans grades one through four. Secondary schools run from grades five through ten or five through twelve (or thirteen), depending on which type of school you are attending.  University-bound students go to Gymnasium and complete comprehensive end exams in either grade 12 or 13. Students who are working toward vocations that do not require a university degree go to Realschule, which ends at grade ten. There are a few chances throughout a child’s school career to move between schools.
Other school models exist as well, such as the “Gesamtschule”, where students of all academic levels attend the same school (like the American high school), Walldorf and/or Montessori schools, and private parochial schools.

First day of secondary school
Grade 5 is a new beginning for school students, who move on to one of 2-3 forms of secondary school. No school cones full of goodies this time around!

8. Nine grades in one building
This type of school structure leads to the amusing phenomenon of students ranging from early tweens to young adults attending the same school. They are, of course, grouped together by grade level.

9. Much less mainstreaming
Having worked as a school counselor who sat in on many, many Individual Education Plan meetings, I can say that the United States is quite a bit more progressive in accommodating students with a constellation a special learning needs. There are signs of Germany catching up to a limited extent on this front, but the concept of “the least restrictive environment” appears not to be nearly the mandate here that it is in the States.

10. Shorter school day
The first grade school day runs from 8 a.m.-12 p.m.; after this it is gradually extended to 1 p.m. Students then take their lunch at home, where they also finish homework and move on to afternoon extracurricular activities. Many schools now have “all day” (generally till about 4 p.m.) programs of various models. In some states, these are free of charge, in others, they are not. In secondary schools, kids can join an array of school-run clubs; just don’t expect competitive sports to be amongst them. These are organized by various community sports clubs that have no connection to the school.
In grades eleven, twelve and thirteen, students have academic classes throughout the day, with breaks in between classes.

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Both our kiddos attended “Ganztagschule”, a cost-free offering from the school that extends the day till 4 p.m. The program includes a warm lunch (which we do pay for), homework time and a variety of activities.

 

11. Distribution of school holidays
The difference here between American and German schools is that in Germany, school holidays are distributed more evenly throughout the school year. This surely has led to the (mis)perception that we are constantly on vacation, but I digress. Consistent among all German states is that the summer holiday is six weeks. The start and end dates are staggered from state to state to avoid mass overcrowdings of German highways and airports accomodating vacationers.
Depending on your (German) state, Fall holidays will be either one or two weeks and fall (ha!) somewhere between mid- to late-October. Winter break is two weeks, “Fasching” break–falling anywhere from early February to mid-March, depending on the year, usually scores school kids two days off on a Monday and Tuesday. Following this comes spring break, falling to encompass the Easter holiday. Again, depending on your state, this will be one or two weeks. May and June include a smattering of traditional church holidays with funny names that result in a string of 3-4 day weekends.
The total number of 5-day weeks German kids are in school ranges by state between 37-41 (for reference, a 180 day, 5-day-a-week school year is 36 weeks).

12. Homecoming means dragging your fanny from school back to where your bread is buttered, and not much more
For better or worse (pssst…my dirty little secret: Team Better), school in Germany is for classes and perhaps an extracurricular club or two (which meet once a week) and not much more. Once the academic portion of the program is over, the non-school dimension of life kicks in–community clubs (“Vereine”) or privately-run organizations (like dance schools, etc.) take the lead here. Perhaps this reflects the overall cultural proclivity of Germans to separate work from private spheres. Here you can find a comprehensive list of “Verein” offerings in Speyer alone (where I live). Vereine will often organize activities such as holiday parties, outings, dinners, dances, parade marchings, etc….i.e., the types of things schools (or school groups) take care of in the USA. Mascots are part of sports clubs, not of schools, in Germany. The closest thing German schools have to Prom is a “Graduation Ball”.  My understanding is that the entire class attends date-free, and since students at that point are of legal beer and wine age, the kegs do flow. I’ll tell you all about it when we actually get to that point.

There are other topics I could touch on here, such as the use / misuse of standardized testing, teacher accountability and homeschooling (which is not practiced here in Germany), but these warrant posts unto themselves, and I need to gather more information on both ends before I wade into such potentially touchy territory.

Whew…loooong post! This could easily fill an intercultural seminar for educators, but for now it’s Saturday and school’s out for the weekend!

 

Pulling off an American -Style Road Trip in Europe

So, in my last blog entry, I extolled the virtues of summer in Germany. I am happy to confirm that we have enjoyed our long summer days (now–sniff, sniff–showing visible signs of shortening again) riding our bicycles while popping in at the occasional Biergarten. We cheered the German national soccer team on to the semi-finals of the European Cup, where it lost in a hard-fought match to Cup host France, who subsequently lost in the final to Portugal.

Stadium Bordeaux
We arrived in Bordeaux, France on the heels of the European Cup soccer championship. It was in this stadium that the German national team defeated Italy in a nerve-wracking 11-meter shootout, Serenity had returned by the time we arrived.

The strong finishes of the French and Portuguese teams were good news for us, as shortly after the tournament’s finish we set out on our annual summer road trip, this time routed through France, Spain and Portugal. We figured there would be plenty of carry-over jubilation, good vibrations, and just an overall fun-in-the-sun atmosphere. We weren’t disappointed.

We are no strangers to road trips. Last summer’s adventure took us through the American south, from Virginia to Florida and back. Both journeys were memorable–if gas guzzling–affairs. Not surprisingly, road trips through Europe have some key differences from those in the USA. Here, listed in no particular order, are four that pop into mind:

  1. Tolls, tolls and tolls: In German, “toll” means “great!”. But I am using the English sense of the word, and it’s not such a great thing. Like interstate turnpikes in the U.S., many European countries collect cash or credit card payments at toll booths. France, Spain and Portugal seem to have their own version of an EZ Pass payment system as well. But, for the vacationer who does not wish to invest in a country-specific pass, cash or credit cards it is. What always strikes me about traveling through France and Spain is how frequently toll booths pop up. More than the expense itself (we paid roughly 200 euros worth of tolls in 3 weeks), it is the seemingly constant interruption of the driving “groove” itself that grates on the nerves. To make things extra interesting, France seems to like funneling five lanes into two, resulting in aggravating bottlenecks and sudden, unpredictable maneuvers by drivers looking to wiggle their way into the most favorable position.

2.  Hotel room size: Here I simply must give U.S. hotels the advantage for being consistently more spacious, as well as offering real beds (as opposed to fold-out sofas) to the kiddos. This is a general truth of hotel room sizes in Europe; you can count on them being up to a third smaller than the average size of their American counterpart. Otherwise, cleanliness and amenities are comparable.

3. Bring your translators: An obvious perk to road tripping in the U.S. is that we face no language barriers. I’m not gonna lie…being enveloped by your mother tongue does wonders for your sense of intelligence. And, it just feels good. By the same token, making your way through the day in a foreign language (especially one you essentially don’t speak) adds a sense of adventure to the proceedings. We also got by primarily using English, though in these situations, I feel a bit sheepish doing so, especially when I hear the reception personnel switching between three or four languages effortlessly. In the rare cases where no one in the transaction is multilingual, simple caveman-like grunting punctuated by gesticulation and exaggerated facial expressions will usually do the trick. Or at least it will be entertaining.

4. Be prepared to behold the juxtaposition of modern and ancient: Let’s face it…the USA is a comparatively young country. Medieval echos? Nothing to see here!
In contrast, Europe is an ecclectic mashup of various ancient empires and cultural influences. And yet, time marches along, and the trappings of modern life pulsate alongside the historic. I love the contrast, and it is something truly unique and fascinating.

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Like our U.S. road trips, the one this summer took us through a variety of regions, climates, cuisines and iconic sites. So, without further ado, I hand over the blog controls to the photography department:

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Volvic, Puy-de-Dôme. Ever enjoy a bottle of Volvic water? This scene should look familiar.
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Ah, yes…how can I forget this key difference. Our French friends exercise their right to answer nature’s call in these thoughtfully provided, um, alleyway “troughs”…otherwise known as “Urinoirs”

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From the often cloud-covered temperate climate and lush green vegetation, Spain’s northern coast has a look and feel more similar to Ireland than the more central and southern regions of Spain. Plus, the Basque language spoken here bears no resemblance to any other world language.

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Church Santiago de Compotela
Trekkers from around the world make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
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…but even spiritual pilgrims need their refreshments
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…as well as their foot massages. Aaahhhh!
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Vigo, Spain is a lovely seaside town that serves as the gateway to…
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The gorgeous Cies Islands, a nature reserve with lush forest and heavenly beaches. No cars allowed!
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Unspoiled nature.

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There is more to Portugal than the Algarve. The northern Atlantic coast offers gems like Viana do Castelo…
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…and the wonderful Porto. A must-visit for wine and port lovers.
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A multi-layer bridge connects the two banks of Porto. Designed by a student of Gustav Eiffel. The influence is unmistakable.
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The ubiquitous Sandeman
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Colorful, tiled facades define Portuguese buildings.
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Want a bird’s eye view? Check!
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Coimbra, near Lisbon, boasts Portugal’s most prestigious university. Colorful and welcoming, but so very hot in August!
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The colors of Coimbra
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Lisbon
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Lisbon’s famous historic trolley. Tooooo crowded to venture into during high tourist season.
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More typical tiled facades
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Looking downhill to the water
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A low-grade but long incline (or decline, depending on the direction). Lisbon is situated on seven hills. We felt every single one of them! Comfortable footwear a must.
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Belem Tower
Salamanca 1
The trek back eastward to Germany cuts through Spain’s interior. Salamanca is a beautiful stopover. Ancient and atmospheric, a university town with an old-but-young vibe. A must-see.

Salamanca 2

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Eastward bound through Madrid…
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A nature oasis in the city, Retiro Park, Madrid.
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Row, row, row your boat on a sweltering day in Madrid.
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Sights and scenes, Madrid
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My eye tends to wander to the eccentric and colorful rather than the grand.
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Plaza Mayor, Madrid
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Mercado San Miguel, Madrid.
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Spectacular sunny skies, sweltering August heat.
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I can’t resist those storefronts.

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The five best things about summer in Germany

Let’s face it…it’s not hard to love summer no matter where in the world you live. Still, Germany puts it’s unique footprint on the season in many ways, five of which I’ll highlight here.

1. Looooooong days.

It is very easy in the summer months to underestimate how late it is. Given that I grew up in Pennsylvania—considerably south of my current location of Speyer, Germany—it is no surprise that even after sixteen years, I am still shocked to realize that I’ve allowed my kids to frolic in the still well-lit dusk with the clock chiming 10:00 p.m.  And it’s a good thing they have rolling metal window shutters in their bedrooms, or they would likely still be lying awake an hour later.

Dusk ann Biergarten
A twofer picture: Speyer at around 10:00 p.m., with the inviting lights of our favorite Biergarten illuminating the background. Ahhh…those summer nights!

But, no complaints here. The long days and extended evenings allow plenty of time to take a leisurely stroll to the nearest…

2. Biergarten

Do you like German beer? Do you like lovely „open air“ settings? Do you like plunking down and chatting for hours with your companions while friendly, efficient waitstaff serve you a foamy, cold brew and calculate your party’s bill on a cardboard beer coaster? If the answer is yes, then garsh, you ought to experience a German Biergarten at least once in your life (and yes, there are plenty of non-alcoholic beverage alternatives as well). Every two years, you can expect your locale of choice to be equipped with an outdoor large screen so patrons can sip while not missing a minute of…

3. Soccer championships

Every alternating even year is either the European or World Cup Soccer Championship. This year, it is the former, taking place in the yard of our neighbor, France. For four jubilant weeks (or depressing, depending on how your team fares), locales, shopping malls, sporting venues and other places that accomodate crowds of varying size continuously broadcast the matches of the day (amusingly, these are referred to by Germans as „public viewings“, but rest assured that I have not observed a single open casket in the entirety of my time here).

Watching the soccer matches is a social event; during the World Cup two years ago, we had a go of hauling out our projector and hosting a small-scale viewing gathering a time or two (one of those times of course being the USA-Germany match). For those who have asked or wonder where my allegiance lies when Germany and the USA face off : I love my German eleven, but…..U-S-A! U-S-A!

The night Germany won the World Cup in 2014 was an unforgettable spontaneous, boisterous (and, to a certain extent, nerve-wracking) celebration, with folks rushing outside, setting off fireworks, honking car horns, and otherwise displaying all manner of exuberance and debauchery.

World Cup Win
A grainy smartphone shot in the wee hours after Germany won the World Cup in 2014. Joyous pandemonium!

Fun fact: the first European Cup I lived through in Germany was in 1996, when Germany took the championship led by team capitain Juergen Klinsmann, now head trainer of the US National Team. Juergen and his teammates irreversibly infected me with the soccer bug. If there’s a cure, I want no part of it!

4. I want to ride my bicycle!

Summertime is kinder both to the waistline and the wallet in that a well-developed system of bike paths, coupled with pleasant weather and long days, makes hopping on the bike the transportation mode of first choice. Where I live, virtually any errand imaginable can be accomplished on two wheels (unless, of course, you just purchased a refrigerator). With the current amount of in-town constuction projects, it is also often the faster option for getting from point A to point B. Accomplishing daily tasks + saving on gas + burning calories + fresh summer air = win, win, win, win!

5. Schloss in Flammen (“Flaming Castles”)
Sounds alarming when translated word for word. In fact, this is a reference to the many castles that dot the German map being colorfully lit and surrounded by fireworks on select summer evenings. Because the only thing more magical that a European castle near a river is a castle near a river lit up in groovy colors. See what I mean here and here and here.

This list is anything but exhaustive, but it is time for me to throw open the back door, let the early summer air in, and finish watching the remaining minutes of the opening European Cup game. I wish you and yours a rip-roaring start to a summer filled with great times and even better weather!

Zoe jumping
Yay…summer’s here!

 

Business doesn’t stop just because summer is here! If yours needs an introduction to American business practices and norms, book an intercultural training with me. We’ll still have fun along the way!

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*)

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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!

.

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?