All posts by Michelle Diehl

Fry It: Vocal Quirks of Americans

So, sometimes I know there’s something I want to address in this blog, but I can’t quite bring the idea to fruition. Whatever it is that is under my skin won’t evolve into anything clear and coherent to myself, leaving me unable to communicate anything clear and coherent about it to others.

Then, out of nowhere (and usually while doing something completely non-blog-related), the epiphany dawns, and boom–just like that–I have a grip on what’s been sizzling in the pan.

It’s called “vocal fry

Go ahead and follow the link. I’ll wait.

Yeah. This is a thing. It refers to a vocal quirk Americans (most often, but not only, women) have been embracing over the last few years. Vocal fry is the croak-y sound used to describe, say, Brintney Spears’ singing style, You can listen to what it sounds like here.

The truth is, I’ve been slow on the uptake. I mean, I’ve noticed it a lot, but never knew there was a word for it.  Vocal fry has evidently been a topic of public discussion in the US for at least the last year or two. So much so that a wave of pushback has taken hold, with some accusing those who call out or mock vocal fry as stretching to find just one more reason to pick apart and criticize every aspect of a woman’s behavior. (They have a valid point: I have spent the last half hour Google-searching some variation of “quirks of American male speech” and have come up with very little). EDIT: just found this one, lone gem of men frying it up, and here’s an article that suggests fry originated with British men in the 1960s

And yet…it really does stand out, especially when you spend most of your time in a fry-less environment. Both my kids (one girl, one boy) have asked me about it when they hear it when we’re in the US. We fry plenty of things here in Germany (hello, Wienerschnitzel!), but not our voices.

Germans, of course, have their own speech specialties. It’s well known that regional dialects here are so distinct that folks from different parts of the country sometimes  have a hard time understanding each other (is it a “Broetchen”? a “Weck”? a “Schrippe”? a “Rundstueck”? Ask for the wrong thing at the bakery, and you may well leave empty handed). The vocal melody  and use of speech softeners also varies regionally. But–and I say this as the mother of a twelve year old who often has a gaggle of giggling friends over chez Diehl–I have honestly not heard anything even resembling a vocal fry. I am very much hoping it stays that way.

I am going to place vocal fry in the same category as the rhetorical “sorry!” we Americans are so fond of (as are our English friends) as well as fry’s cousin, the vocal upswing (making statements sound like questions). Oh, and let’s not forget the “like” filler. The general heading of this category is titled “vocal tendencies I wish Ameicans would leave behind in middle school”.

To be fair, I wouldn’t mind seeing Germans add a softener or two in their speech repertoire, although I see signs of this already. For example, “Es waere schoen, wenn Sie [xyz] machen…” (“It would be great if you could do [xyz]…”) is a phrase I’ve encountered a time or two as a soft command. I’ve long gotten used to the more direct, utilitarian style of communication here, but the smiles and small talk that flow from Americans so naturally feel like a breath of fresh but familiar air when I’m back on US soil.

It is also important to mention that not every American uses vocal fry and upswing. It is prevalent enough that it has become a way to distinguish the likely American in a crowd, but for every three  “fry-ers” I can present a plain and assured talker who doesn’t sound like they need a throat lozenge.

And If I’m ever frying, for Pete’s sake, somebody please tell me.

Is a business partnership with the USA on your horizon? Book an intercultural and/or presentation training to maximize its success. Michelle promises to do her best to avoid funky vocal ticks.


Intercultural Communication in the Information and Digital Age

Information and technology overload is making us less informed.

Virtually any question we have is a few mouse clicks and a Google search away from an answer. Our social media newsfeeds hand-pick and deliver us headlines and analyses of events from around the world and even beyond it (Dear Parker Solar Probe: don’t forget to bring your strongest sunscreen…and take a selfie when you’re there!)

In the working world, technology from e-mail to digital messengers to WebEx to video conferencing connects us to our bosses, colleagues and customers on every continent. No passport or generous travel budget necessary, just a speedy internet connection.

Technology is great…except when it isn’t.

And yet, those answers we Google-search are often supplied by murky and dubious sources, social media newsfeeds are carefully controlled by algorithms that calculate our information preferences and select our headlines accordingly, and 24-hour news networks are often corporately owned and have their own intransparent news selection process. And that great digital technology for the office? I make a living hearing from clients about virtual messages that come across as too blunt, too wordy, too superficial, too „rude“, too friendly. Who knew a series of 0s, 1s and lots of wires could pack such an emotional punch?

At this point, we’ve all seen photos circulating of people sitting side by side, paying no attention to each other because they are engrossed in their Smart Phone universes. These along with laptops, tablets and ear buds have opened us up to a strange existence of keeping each other company in ignoring each other.

For sure the information age and the technology that brings it to us have their usefulness and benefits, so I’m not here to knock it. I’ve been a consumer of digital and social media long enough to see its bright and dark sides (and I am—ahem—still old enough to remember a life when none of it existed, at least not on a widespread scale).

While I genuinely enjoy the virtual conversations I can have at any time with folks from around the world, the convenience of not having to wrestle with awkward-sized newspapers and not having to wait for the news to come to me, I have also come to realize that so, so much is being lost in digital translation.

Folks who could discuss opposing viewpoints over a cup of coffee (or covfefe) and come out of the discussion with mutual respect and insight, if not agreement, are instead getting sucked down the black hole of comment threads, hurling expletives and other sentiments of ill will at each other. This stuff gets really personal and nasty. And the 24-hour information at your fingertips innovation makes face-to-face human interaction superfluous. You walked to your community library to do research? How cute!

So, consumption of infinite amounts of information alone does not make someone informed. In fact, it can swallow perspective and understanding. Even well-intended efforts to connect digitally often fail to capture nuance and para-language cues that are so essential to meaningful communiation. As a result, damage can be done to real-life relationships.

Which brings me to why I do what I do, the way I do it.

Training and facilitating intercultual communication seminars scratches two itches at once (I don’t do anti-itch creams): it allows me to put together and deliver information essential for the good folks of Germany to be aware of cultural norms in the USA in order to develop a better understanding of their American business connections. Part of this also includes raising their awareness of German cultural norms that could be misinterpreted negatively—especially when communiction takes place digitally rather than face-to-face.

Secondly, the seminars are a vehicle for us all to listen and learn, through in-person, lively and nuanced discussion. I get to hear, see and feel how my participants interpret situations, as well experience the differing perceptions amongst Germans themselves (plus, there aren’t only Germans in the seminars). We all grow through this give and take, and no two trainings are ever the same. Except that we always laugh. A lot.

Intercultural trainings are a great way to learn not only the basics of cultural norms, but also to connect with the subtilties of human interaction and how culture exerts its subconcious influence. A successful seminar leaves you with the ability to see your American / German business partners from a different vantage point as well as equips you with ready-to-use strategies for how to undo—or at least loosen—communication knots that hinder smooth business relationships. It points you to how to maximize the advantages of your virtual global connections by keeping your human touch in the foreground. A day in a seminar ideally leaves you more knowledgeable, open-minded, understanding and understood, receptive and energized for your next global encounter. What are you waiting for?

Do not let unnecessary cultural misunderstandings–so often compounded by virtual communication limitations and information-overload-driven misperceptions–derail business success. If a German-American partnership is on your horizon–or is already in place but in need of some smoothing over–book an intercultural training now!

Hierarchy or structure: American (Mis?)perceptions of German Corporate Culture

How steep is your corporate hierarchy?

Does national culture play a role?

When reading web-based literature about the German corporate culture as experienced by Americans, one learns that US-colleagues are often struck by the ordered structure with respect to job duties and communication channels in German companies. This more defined structure, coupled with language barrier difficulties, seems to lead many Americans to believe that the German workplace has a steeper and stricter hierarchy than it actually does.

I should mention first that even the perception of corporate hierarchy varies amongst cultures. The American perception shows evidence of being colored by communication style within a company. For Statesiders, simply the German business custom of using last names—or even titles (i.e. “Frau Doktor”)—as well as the formal “Sie” with a supervisor or colleague feels hierarchical. This is because, regardless of decision-making power, Americans value a sense of egalitarianism in their communication style. Friendly (at times even effusive), open, casual and positive verbal interactions give Americans a sense of equality.

The more clearly structured tasks associated with the well-defined job titles in German corporate culture may also be misperceived by Americans as more “hierarchy”. Especially in larger companies in more traditional industries, German employees study or train for specific positions. This intense preparation—usually lasting a minimum of three years—leaves German employees highly qualified for positions in their chosen field. Of course, there is always an on-the-job learning curve even in Germany, though to a lesser extent than the average American counterpart will likely experience.

What this means by extension is that Germans tend to be more deeply specialized in their areas of expertise. As such, their professional assessments will factor into company decision-making regardless of where they fall on the corporate totem pole. Upper-level managers in Germany will still formulate strategy and take final decisions affecting this strategy, but not before a thorough collaboration and solid fact-gathering phase from his/her respective team of experts. Doing less would be considered unprofessional and possibly even reckless.

In contrast, this is where Americans working with German counterparts can tend to get impatient; we like our decisions to be made quickly and to follow a “chain of command” in their implementation. Being overly collaborative with subordinates is more likely to be viewed as indecisive and as weak leadership. Moreover, managers at the upper levels tend to cycle in and back out of companies comparatively frequently, sometimes even bringing in / taking away loyal employees with them.

Conversely, highly-placed managers in many German companies are more likely to have risen through the ranks at the company and are deeply immersed as experts in their industry (increasingly, Germans work for more than one company throughout their careers). German employees can also become attached to (or disgusted by) their managers, too, but their written contract and main identification (typically) is with the company. The fact that employee loyalty in US companies tends to center around the manager and not necessarily around the company surely leads to less direct questioning of managerial decisions and their potential impact on the overall company.

In Germany, employee interest and sense of ownership in a company’s direction and success is codified in German labor law by way of the co-determination laws, which empower a company’s workers at all levels to be involved in company decisions and to keep employee interests high on the corporate radar. If you care to delve deeper into the specifics of German co-determination laws, have a look here.

In contrast, American labor laws contain no provisions for co-determination; moreover, American worker membership in labor unions is much lower than in Germany. All of which is to say that, where hierarchy is concerned, workers of all levels in German companies enjoy a legal mechanism for having a voice in company decisions—especially as they affect employees—within the German corporate structure.

While it is true that At Will employment (“hire and fire”) allows American employees relatively unencumbered freedom to leave a company swiftly to take a position elsewhere–and that the new position may be higher ranking and thus allow for expanded decision-making power—one could make a credible argument that the right to co-determination regardless of company rank is the less hierarchical set-up.

In any case, social science ranks the USA and Germany on a similar level on the topic of hierarchy. The six-dimensional model of culture developed by Geert Hofstede shows that, in a side-by-side comparison, the two countries score 40 and 35, respectively, on the dimension of power distance (power distance means the acceptance of disparities in equality. The higher the number, the higher the acceptance). See the very interesting comparison on this and other dimensions here.

With all of this information as a foundation, here are some specific takeaways for Americans in a German workplace and vice versa:

For Americans:

-Americans, it is important to mention that younger generations of Germans have grown up in the era of globalization, and thus often communicate in a manner more familiar to you, especially with regard to first names. A bit of conversation amongst colleagues who know each other is also typical in Germany, but the working style is generally more concentrated and intense so casual chit-chat is kept comparatively to a minimum.

-Also, Germans, in general, are more reserved around folks who are new to them, and effusiveness very often comes across as insincerity. My advice: if you are new in a German work environment, tone down the excessive praise, complimenting or personal information sharing until you have gotten to know your colleagues better (and even then, keep it dialed back!)

-Just because the German work environment is often more formal and structured (especially in larger companies) does not mean you are not an instrumental part of the “action”. On the contrary, you will be expected to have deep, substantive knowledge of your area, and this knowledge will drive the company forward and gain you respect from your colleagues and supervisors. Just don’t expect lavish praise; your expertise is a given!

-If you are interested in being an active voice in company matters, find out who your Workers’ Council reps are and pass constructive feedback along to them. If you are staying on with your company in Germany for the longer haul, you could even make yourself available for election to the Council itself.

For Germans:

-It is important to be aware that a casual and friendly communication style amongst colleagues in an American company is NOT a sign of lacking hierarchy. This is because rank within the company generally determines decision-making power, and the expectation (especially in larger companies) is that subordinates “get behind” and carry out an announced managerial decision. Criticism of a decision should be made with positive formulations and privately.

-Go Zen with quick managerial decision-making, and carry out these decisions as positively and swiftly as you are able. The longer you work with a manager and establish a positive and trusting bond, the more liberty you will have to offer constructive feedback before a decision is announced.

-If you are genuinely alarmed by a decision, express this privately and take a tone of sincere concern rather than of negativity or criticism.

-If you ARE the manager, understand that your employees expect expediency more than thoroughness. Find a couple of subordinates whose knowledge and experience you trust and make them your main sounding boards.

Corporate culture is, of course, determined by factors other than national culture. The size of the company, the industry and the individual personalities of the leadership and workforce will also determine how much “hierarchy” one encounters when working in partnership with international colleagues or on assignment abroad.

Hierarchy is but one factor that varies from culture to culture. If a business relationship with the USA is in your company’s future, schedule an intercultural training today to get ahead of deal-breaking misunderstandings.

Everybody’s Working for (part of) the Weekend

There are plenty of topics and happenings in this world of ours that serve to divide us nowadays. Crazy times, crazy times, these are. You know the one thing I’m pretty sure all of humanity can agree on? The wholesome goodness of those two days every week where the daily grind comes to a—well, grinding halt. Say it with me: the weekend. Yaassss, the weekend. And the next one is already here! And just LOOK AT THAT WEATHER!

With sunshine like this, the weekend can’t come soon enough (provided the sun sticks around, of course)!

Okay. Before I veer too far off-topic. The premise remains that everybody loves the weekend. No discussion. Blog entry finito.

Noooo, not yet. I wouldn’t dream of making things that easy for myself. I will devote some TLC today to how weekends are similar and different in my two home countries, the USA and Germany. Then it’s TGIF time for reals.

First, lets’s look at what’s similar: going out, sleeping in, meeting up, dressing down (like what I’m doing there?) shopping-till-dropping, gardening, cleaning, tidying, birthday party-throwing, soccer playing, binge-watching, hosing down the car, firing up the grill. Does this sound familiar? Anything missing? Certainly for Saturdays, relaxation may or may not have anything to do with the program both in Germany and the USA. Cramming all things necessity and pleasure into one day is a tall order.

(STOP THE PRESSES! The German hubs just had a peek-see over my shoulder and informed me that hosing down the car is not allowed here! A quick Google search has confirmed this. For environmental reasons –the chemicals from the soap can make their way into the ground water supply–car washing on your private property is mostly a no-no. I guess I wouldn’t know because I’m the gal who drives her car through the commercial car wash once—maybe twice– a year and that’s about it.)

Anyhoo, back to cramming everything all into one day…the weekend is two days, no? What can’t be done on Saturday can be checked off the to-do list on Sunday!

Well…not necessarily. In the States, it’s true that Saturdays and Sundays are almost equally commerce-heavy, save for slightly shortened opening hours for many businesses on Sunday. Some shopping juggernauts remain open 24-7. Exact laws regarding opening times are left to the states and local jurisdictions. Trivia for my US friends: there is one area where Sunday shopping is prohibited…can you guess where it is? (answer is at end of post)! But, as a rule, Sunday shopping is permitted—and exercised—across the country.

By contrast, in Germany, Sunday shopping is much more restricted. Though jurisdiction for laws regarding shop opening times have been handed over to the individual states (much like the USA), state and local governments have generally held to the no-shopping Sunday rule. Many areas designate a handful of Sundays throughout the year for „shopping Sundays“, and facilities such as airports and major train stations keep their shopping arcades open throughout the week.

The neighbor cat agrees: Sundays are for relaxing, not shopping. Meow!

Despite the relaxation of opening hour laws over the last decade, culturally, Sundays continue to enjoy their status as a day for relaxation, recreation and family. Facilities such museums, swimming pools, amusement parks and restaurants remain open to support said relaxation, recreation and family time. To the oft-asked question directed my way of „but what do you DO on Sundays if you can’t shop?“, here’s a sampling of a typical Sunday agenda:

1. Sleep in (I can still snooze till 10:00 with the best of ’em)
2. Enjoy a leisurely breakfast. This is the ONLY day of the week I MIGHT indulge in an „American breakfast“ of eggs, sausages, pancakes, muffins
3. Plan a Sunday-ish activity, such as a hike or bike ride. Where we live, we have the yuuuge advantage of being proximate to the Palatinate Forest, the Black Forest, the Odenwald (another forest-y area), many lakes, the Alsace region of France and, a perrenial American favorite, the town of Heidelberg. If we want to get our big-city culture on, we can make the under-an-hour hop to Frankfurt to enjoy the museum alley along the Main river (closer to home, Mannheim, Heidlberg and Speyer all have museums, too).

A family favorite destination is—don’t laugh—the Frankfurt Airport. Here, we can indulge our plane-spotting quirk, have a lovely walk along the trails around the airport’s perimeter AND mosey through the ever-expanding shopping arcades in the terminal itself. Plus, there’s a nifty airport train that shuttles between terminals, allowing a great view of the awaiting planes docked at the gates. I understand this might all sound weird to many folks, who may spend their career-driven weekdays living at airports and hotels. To each his own!

You’d be AMAZED how entertaining watching a plane de-icing can be on a dreary Sunday afternoon!

Soccer is a common Sunday activity, as are kiddo-related get-togethers. During the weather and light-challenged winter months, we often spend Sundays cooking, baking, reading, visiting museums, hitting the fitness studio (my husband, not me!), watching movies, visiting with friends, playing games, taking advantage of whatever „Shopping Sunday“ happens to be taking place in reasonable driving distance. I honestly don’t miss the shopping, or at least the stimulation of a well-lit and bustling shopping area, unless the weather is really cold and dreary. On those days, the airport works nicely in a pinch.

Another Sunday difference to the United States is that Germans are not big church goers, at least not on a regular weekly basis. The topic of religiosity and the role it plays in culture is outside the scope of this post, but a comparison of Christians to Christians (the dominant religion in Germany) in the USA and Germany indicates that only 13% of Germans self-reported as churchgoing, in contrast to 47% in the USA.

On a real-life level, aside from the fact that this means few Germans spend their Sunday mornings at church, it also means that the church in general plays a far smaller social role in the everyday lives of Germans. Rather, it’s the „Verein“ (club) culture that glues together townsfolk here socially. So, very little talk in these parts of the „church family“ or of various youth-group or other church social club activities.

While you’re not likely to find many Germans at the Sunday church service, you will find plenty at the bakery, stocking up on fresh Sunday-morning goodies. Sadly, the bakery pictured–the one a stone’s throw from our house and one of the last independently-owned in our town, closed its doors this week. Sniff, sniff.

So, with those last thoughts in mind, I will close out this post and declare the weekend in effect in…three…two…one…now! Have a great one!

Oh…the answer to the trivia question is Bergen County, New Jersey!

If you are doing business—or are about to business—with Americans, make booking an intercultural training your first priority on Monday morning!

The Right to Rejuvenate

Micronesia. Tonga. Kiribati. Marshall Islands. Nauru. Palau. The United States of America.

These countries all belong in a group together, but for what?

No, they don’t all enjoy year-round tropical beach weather. Just ask our friends along the U.S. North Atlantic coast who are digging out from the recent late-winter Nor’easter.

Hint: a goose egg appears in the columns “paid vacation days per five-day work week and “paid public holidays” next to these countries.
Well, I guess that was more than a hint. Subtlety was never my strong suit. My bad.

Since this is a blog that compares and contrasts the business cultures of the USA and Germany, here are the stats for Deutschland:

Paid vacation days per five-day work week: 20
Paid public holidays: Day of German Reunification (October 3) is a paid public holiday nationwide. Aside from this, it is up to each of the 16 German states to decide which public holidays will be paid. These days vary between 9-13, with Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg having the most.

Now that I’ve put the numbers out there, it is time for some clarification (For yuks, I’m giving myself bonus points for every word I use that remotely rhymes with “vacation”. One point for me!).
Those goose eggs do not mean that American workers do not everrrr get paid vacation. Rather, they indicate that such days are not mandated legally at the federal level. This reflects a deeply embedded cultural value that employers should have a maximum amount of freedom to determine how they regulate their own workplace.

That said, a Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows that 77% of employers in private industry granted employees both paid vacation days and paid public holidays. These numbers are murkier for part-time employees and employees of small enterprises. Anecdotally, based on the comments to numerous articles on the topic, the amount of paid vacation time employees get from their companies varies wildly, from none to five weeks. Some get the time without the pay.

Nothing like a long summer vacation to recharge everyone’s’ batteries and create a sense of family adventure!

What’s maybe even more interesting is that Americans—as a collective whole—seem to shrug their shoulders on the topic of paid vacation (a 2014 petition to compel the White House to take up the issue fell flat). Many of the various commenters wished for more time; several, however, indicated they would not know what to do with extra paid vacation time since they are not big travelers, for financial reasons or otherwise. Still others dreaded the work pileup, some feared being seen as “slackers” and thus feared repercussions for their jobs, while another contingent was bothered by the cognitive dissonance of being paid to do “nothing”.

The slacker fear is real, and points to a major distinction between the American and the German business culture. No, not that Germans are slackers. Whereas German employees enjoy contractual protections that make their job positions comparatively secure, Americans live under an “At Will” employment ethos, better known to Germans as “hire and fire”. In many American states, employers do not have to provide a reason to fire an employee, which means even valuable workers could theoretically be let go from one day to the next. The likelihood of this happening is up for debate, but the possibility alone is enough to put a damper on anyone’s extended-vacation spirits.

The perception that someone who is not at the work place is enjoying downtime or “doing nothing” is also, alas, a persistent one that echoes the Protestant work ethic as old as the founding of the country. Specifically, the first European settlers in America were Calvinist Protestants. Calvinists had a, well, special view of the role of work, which, arguably, remains detectable in our cultural fabric to this day. Digging deeper into this here is beyond the scope of the overall topic at hand, but this New York Times book review sheds some more light for those who are interested in how Calvinism may (or may not) still be influencing our business culture.

Has anything else rhymed with “vacation” yet? Man, I’m losing my rhyming mojo.

Anyhoo, back to modern times: it’s not really that Americans dismiss out-of-hand the need for leisure time; it is very much that we stop short of seeing extended time away from the workplace as a necessary investment for keeping employees highly productive the rest of the time. Call it residual Calvinism, call it naked capitalism (you made me say naked!), call it Shirley…the sumpthin’ fer nuffin’ prism we Americans tend to filter things through while clutching our pearls is hard at play here. Never mind that employment, health and travel experts see this differently; deeply ingrained cultural norms are a [female dog] to change.

With this elegantly-formulated hypothesis in mind, I suggest that–for the time being anyway—the most realistic way to ensure paid vacation time for American employees is by way of private companies themselves. Here are some that are leading the way with particularly creative vacation incentives (yes, one company is Canadian…that didn’t slip past me. Does “Canadian” sufficiently rhyme with “vacation”, by the way?). It’s a great way for companies to attract—and retain—talent.

The devil on my shoulder is whispering that such incentives are often not extended to every level and type of worker and that not everybody is fortunate enough to be hired by goodie-stocked companies; Here’s where I sure diddly would love to see some (maybe state-level) incentives for businesses to offer their employees paid vacation. If the Feds were inclined to kick something in, so much the better. But now I reckon I’m really thinking outside the box. But give me props for doing pretzels to avoid suggesting anything resembling a mandate. Change in cultural perspective takes lots of time and baby steps.

Nuttin’ wrong with working the earth on your vacation time…especially if the kiddos do the hard labor!

So, why do I even care? I’m here in Germany, after all. But maybe that is why. Having lived here to the point of almost complete acclamation (the almost is significant, but not relevant here. But HEY, “acclamation” rhymes with vacation!), I’ve seen the systemic benefits of normalizing employees’ (or citizens’, depending on who’s court you believe the paid vacation ball to be in) right to pull away from the daily grind completely enough to truly slip into relaxed-person mode. And by “slip into relaxed-person mode”, I mean neither having to worry about answering a steady trickle of business-related e-mails at the beach nor about how to finance said break in the event it is not paid. Knowing that extended times away from the workplace are never out of reach, German employees are able to keep their noses to the grindstone that much more when they are on duty. And, brother, they do work intensely. My plentiful anecdotal observation is validated here.

It actually matters very little exactly how one chooses to spend one’s vacation time. There’s a joke here about spending one’s days in “Balkonia”, meaning lounging on the balcony. Ever diligent, some Germans do DIY home improvements or gardening work on their time “off”. We as a family often take the opportunity to indulge our wanderlust (like here, here and here), though we have our share of “staycations” as well. Whatever. The point is to disconnect digitally and mentally—like a detox for the soul—to get the energy flowing again. Employers benefit directly from the rejuvenation in elevated employee motivation and productivity.

Sounds like a win-win to me.

Doing business with Americans? Learn more about how U.S. culture influences the way Americans conduct business by booking an Intercultural USA training.

Teamwork and “Verbindlichkeit”: What Germans and Americans should know

On the heels of another intercultural training, Imma go ahead and devote some time to a topic that bubbles up again and again and again (and, for good measure, one more „again“) from the fine businessfolks of Germany regarding working with their American counterparts.

The word my German seminar participants use to describe this particular sticking point is „Verbindlichkeit“, which translates into English as „obligation“, „bindingness“ or „commitment“. Specifically, they often describe situations where they need something from the American colleague, ask politely–but probably pretty directly–for it, are told „Sure thing, I’ll get right on it“, or some variation thereof, and then…crickets. This triggers a cycle of repeated requests, repeated assurances that [xyz] is on the way, repeated lack of substantive response, and thus increasingly exasperated Germans.

If you’ll allow me to briefly go all social-scientific on you for a moment: cultural communication styles have been defined by my peep (I’ve never met the man) Edward T. Hall, who described „high context“ and „low context“ communication styles in various cultures. Basically, in high-context cultures, messages are conveyed less through words and more via mutually understood subtext based on what few words are used in a communication. If you are part of the cultural „in group“ (sounds kinda Junior High, doesn’t it?), you will catch the communication drift without it being explicitly stated in so many words. Conversely, low-context communication relies on the words of the message themselves to convey the exact and entire meaning of a message.

Assuming you’re still with me—please wipe off the drool and sit up straight—what this all means is: on the high-versus-low-context spectrum, both Americans and Germans fall on the low context end. Germans, however, tend to be even lower context than Americans. The words a German uses convey the exact and entire meaning and intent of a message, whereas Americans may rely a bit more on implicit messaging. Again, this all comes down to a matter of degree, but the small difference can be significant, as I am consistently learning.

So, what does this all mean for the introductory scenario? Let’s use as an example a German („Hans“) and an American („Bob“). The two are colleagues, working together from their respective home countries. Hans needs a document from Bob by the end of next week, and sends him a short e-mail to this end:

„Hello Bob, I need [document xyz] from you. Please send it to me soon.  Best regards, Hans“

In response, Bob replies:

„Hey Hans, Great to hear from you; how are you doing? I’ll shoot [document xyz] out to you ASAP. Have a great day. Bob“

Bless their hearts, Hans and Bob. They are both on course for the typical „He’s not doing what he said he would do“ versus „He keeps badgering me for [whatever]. I’ve got a billion things to do, he’s not my boss, I’ll get to it when I get to it!“ spin cycle.

By throwing in „soon“, Hans assumes it is clear to Bob that time is of the essence for sending the document, an assumption that seems to be confirmed by Bob’s „ASAP“ response. By adding some small but (to him) significant chit-chatty elements to his communication, Bob is trying to bring the business transaction to a more personal level; this mixing of business and personal is the American comfort zone. Given the choice, we Americans like to keep things upbeat; Hans’ initial request is too direct and directive. thus unintentionally eliciting a defensive (and possibly defiant) feeling in Bob. Any further requests from Hans are likely to exacerbate this dynamic and leave Hans feeling like he can’t take Bob at his word.

Trust me–The way to Hans’ Herz is not through the „how’s it goings“ but through treating your spoken (or written) word as a promise. That’s his comfort zone.

Since it is always easier to prevent a knot than to undo one (I throw the full weight of my parental shoe-tying career behind this statement), I offer the following suggestions to Hans and Bob:

For Hans:
1. Dude. Go Zen with short but sweet conversational flourishes in your e-mail and telephone style. I get it—time is money—also for Americans. But again, we mix personal and business more than the average German, and this is definitely an example where higher context counts. A spoonful of small talk makes the medicine go down.

2. Low-context master that you are, WERK it by letting Bob know from the first request when (as in, exact date, feel free to build in some buffer) and why you need what you need. Big bonus points if you can smoothly and subtly convey how he benefits from doing his part.

3. Assuming you have built in the buffer, if you haven’t heard from him by the original set date, send Bobby-boy a friendly but clear reminder that you urgently need [xyz] for reason [abc].* This would be an opportune time to start considering whether there are other channels through which you can get the needed information. Call it Project Bob Workaround.

(*Here’s where I should mention that another common piece of feedback from my German friends is that the „urgent“ exclamation point e-mail symbol is vastly overused by American counterparts. I would advise doing away with it and instead highlighting the deadline in bold text. Consider using „Action Required: Document [xyz]“ in your subject line)

Although time zone differences can make it challenging, a phone call is sometimes a better way to do business with rapport-loving Americans. Just please don’t accidentally call Bob at 3:00 a.m. He won’t like that.

4. Still all smiles but no documents from Bob? Here are your options:

a. Get Bob on the phone. Perhaps he will be more responsive via this somewhat less disembodied channel;

b. Failing this, put Project Bob Workaround into action (assuming that’s an option), or;

c. Take the Bobster on an escalator ride by CC’ing his supervisor.
I know that feels icky. Keep the message as matter-of-fact, goal-oriented and non-accusatory as possible („I need this document by the end of the day tomorrow at the latest [for this reason]. Bob, are you the da man or is there someone else who handles this? Thanks!“ (substituting, of course, „contact person“ for „da man“)

5. In the happy event that Bob comes through for you, do NOT neglect to thank and praise him: „Awesome, exactly what I needed! Thanks a million!“. Yes, even if he’s just doing a routine, expected task of his job, even if you had to pull teeth to get it. Upbeat, positive communication is the name of the higher-context game here and is more likely than not to have a motivating effect on Bob for future teamwork.

Alrighty then, Bob. I’ve got some words of cultural wisdom for you too:

1. Bob, meet Reciprocity. Reciprocity, meet Bob. Okay, now that we have that formality in the bag, let’s zoom in on what it means. Friendly, down-on-the-farm communication style is your sweet spot. Mine, too…totally get it. Wish it were the global norm. But, like I shared earlier, Germans like it a whole lot when you say what you mean and mean what you say. Their fluffy, cozy emotional featherbed is when the words you say match your actions to a T. Rapport-building chit-chat is fine but does not replace the elixir of low contextuality (that sounds a little Barry White, doesn’t it? I need to crank up a soundtrack). You know what the payoff is, though? The more you stick to your word, the more chill Hans gets. Before you know it, you’ll be clinking beer steins at the Hofbrauhaus and humorously speculating exactly who invited David Hasselhoff to the Berlin Wall all those years ago.

2. Doing business globally is becoming the new normal. Intellectually, you know this. In practice, we as Americans need to up our game on the cultural awareness front. Did you know that WalMart—WalMart!–was a yuuuuge floparoo in Germany? Google it. Basically, it came down to a woeful lack of intercultural homework and of really trying to find the pulse of German consumers and of standard business practices.

I’m not blaming you for that, Bob. Not your fault. But what I can probably say about you is that close, collaborative, smooth teamwork with folks an ocean and several time zones away is not intuitive for you. That’s okay. The USA is geographically pretty isolated and shares a border with only two other countries, one of which is arguably sufficiently similar to it culturally and language-wise.

You, Bob, are a man who likes his orders to come from someone on-site, or at least regional. You have your own to-do list, thank you very much, and direct directives issued via cyberspace chafe like strappy sandals on sweaty feet (do you own a pair of strappy sandals, Bob?). But, this is the workplace of today as well as the future. You and Hans—all the way yonder– are rowing the boat together. And, I’ve already advised Hans to loosen up. I got you covered.

3. Bob, back to the topic of say-what-you-mean-mean-what-you-say. Don’t tell Hans things you think he wants to hear. It’s entirely possible that he has asked for something that—for whatever reason—is not within your capacity to deliver on. Or maybe the deadline is not realistic for you. Whatever the case may be, say exactly that to Hans. Trust me, he’ll appreciate that so much more than an assurance you will not be able to stick to. It would be swell if you could connect Hans with someone who can provide what he needs (and please do not do this by simply clicking the „forward“ button on Hans’ request to an entire distribution group. What happens is, everyone ends up ignoring it), or give him a realistic date when he can expect whatever he needs from you (and then honor this).

4. Remember, always, that though Hans is surely communicating with you in English, it is not his native language. Seriously, could you conduct business in German? Most likely not, I reckon. So, please give Hans a break and lay off colloquial expressions that he’s not likely to have learned (Bob:„Hans, give me a ballpark figure“ Hans:    ). In exchange, if you’re lucky, Hans may teach you some groovy German words to toss around at your next neighborhood BBQ.

Like any productive relationship, it’s the give-and-take–in this case, fueled by intercultural savvy–that will make the engine of global teamwork run smoothly.  If a German-American business relationship is in the cards for you or your company, book an intercultural training to avoid the pitfall before you stumble into them.

Health and Illness in Germany and America

From unsettled stomachs to stuffy noses to bronchial maladies to stress…here in Germany, there’s a tea, bath liquid or spray for everything that ails you.

‘Tis the season AFTER the season. The one where lights, decorations, cookies, carols and resolutions give way to sniffles, body aches, congestion, fevers and –if you’re really lucky–eruptive digestive tracts with projectile capabilities that not even the most beefed up national defense can hold a candle to (nor would I recommend trying to hold a candle to it, for a variety of reasons).

As folks file back into classrooms and offices, said venues become Ground Zero for long winter months’ worth of the time-honored pass-the-virus game.

Alas, illness is universal, and the United States of Norovirus and “Germ”any are sadly not exempted from the yearly ritual of misery. There are, however–as with so many other aspects of life–several cultural differences in how illness is defined, viewed and treated. Let’s grab our blankets, tissues and hot tea and have a look-see (and please remember to sneeze into the crook of your arm to avoid keyboard contamination)

One difference is at the most fundamental level: the collective ‘tude toward the germ itself. Although Americans are not quite at the point of popularizing everyday use of surgical masks, we sure diddly-do rely on our hand sanitizers. Although many restrooms and medical offices in Germany furnish sanitizer dispensers alongside soap at the sink, common areas of public venues in the States–from supermarkets to hotels to stadiums to office building lobbies–are much more likely to have gel or wipe sanitizing stations.
If you ask every German and American to empty their handbag or pockets (which could be easily misinterpreted, so let’s keep this theoretical), you are likely to see far fewer Purell bottles produced from Germans. It is simply not the go-to accessory like lipstick and a wallet that it seems to be for us Statesiders. The occasional old fashioned hand washing–maybe increased in frequency during the heavy contagion months–suffices for Germans.

Ha! I did manage to unearth some sample-sized bottles of German hand sanitizer. It DOES exist…just not as abundantly as its U.S. counterparts.

By way of contrast, German sensibilities where microbes are concerned seem to be more attuned to the feet. Here, it is much more common to remove shoes at the front door to avoid tracking in all manner of nasty critters, visible and invisible. This commonly extends to visitors (that they should remove shoes, not that they are nasty critters), with those thoughtful Germans even often having extra sets of “house shoes” (i.e. slippers) for guests. In kindergartens and some elementary schools, it’s off with the “street shoes” and on with the slippers once inside the building.

I try to play by the rules of a German household by encouraging street shoes–with all their microbes–to stay at the entryway. A bit deceptive about this photo is the implication that I conscientiously follow the second Golden Rule–slippers on…the tiles are cold!

So, suppose that despite the vigilant hand sanitizing and shoe changing, illness has taken hold. What can we expect in terms of treatment and standard procedure?

If we are talking about the onset of cold or flu-ish symptoms, expect a German to throw a warm scarf around the neck, drink herbal tea and rest. A trip to the Apotheker (pharmacist) for a consultation regarding gentle treatment (often plant-based syrup or tablets) may also occur at this point. Sports and exercise go on hold, as does work if symptoms escalate to moderate to severe.

This is not a go-to-work-sick culture; in fact, doing such will earn you frowns instead of accolades. Around this time of year, many employees get “Krankgemeldet” by way of an “Arbeitsunfaehigkeitsbescheinigung” (just saying that word can put you in the hospital). Translation: they obtain a certificate from the doctor verifying illness to officially excuse their absence. This document is required by the employer by the third sick day at the latest and is necessary to trigger salary payment via insurance should an illness extend beyond six weeks (up till that point an employee receives his/her full salary as paid by the company).
At this point, it should be noted that given these modern and business-intense times, German managers increasingly log into the office from home when they are under the weather.

An American with the same cold or flu-ish symptoms is more likely to stumble to the OTC section of Walmart, Walgreen’s  or Walsomethingorother to grab a box of whatever has a long list of unpronounceable ingredients that promises to knock away debilitating symptoms so you can rest and finally get back in the swing of things already.
As far as absence from the workplace is concerned, we Americans are a funny and somewhat contradictory bunch. On the one hand, no one relishes the idea of a highly symptomatic colleague coming in and spreading sick germs (here’s where the sanitizing kicks into high gear). On the other hand, “powering through” one’s illness at work is regarded as a sign of grit and determination. Surely also a crucial factor in this sick-to-work habit is that the United States does not mandate companies to offer sick pay at the federal level; ill employees need to rely on state laws, city ordinances or individual company policy to determine how absence due to illness affects their paycheck. Unpaid sick days are to a certain extent protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
All of this to say that grit and stoicism may have something to do with it, but it’s not the whole picture.

And now for some completely random-ish items relating to health that struck me as unique in my early years here in Germany:

-Germans hold much more to weather-temperature-health connection beliefs. For instance, sitting on cold surfaces or failing to wear a long enough winter coat could lead to bad kidneys! Wet hair in the cold is an invitation to a week sick in bed! Bare feet on cold tiles? Where are your house shoes! Also, before moving here, I had no idea how many afflictions could be caused by a small draft.

-I was alarmed by the number of folks here who reported to suffer or to have suffered from “angina” Turns out this is a reference to “angina tonsillaris”, otherwise known to Americans as tonsillitis. No defibrillators necessary.

-A commonly prescribed treatment here in Germany for chronic conditions of varying degrees and types is a “Kur” (resort therapy), which involves an extended stay at a facility that offers healing (or preventative) therapies in locations along the German coast or in mountainous regions that offer fresh air. Stays can last up to six weeks, are often covered by insurance (if sufficiently justified by a physician) and are an acceptable medical excuse for extended work absence. Respiratory ailments, circulatory problems and burnout are common conditions treated by resort therapy.

It is my sincere wish that you make it through the winter season in robust health. As for me, it’s time to put on my warm socks, drink a cup of relaxation tea…and maybe sneak a dollop of hand sanitizer.

If you plan on doing business with Americans, or even just visiting in your private time, you would be well advised to understand the cultural differences to Germany regarding illness, health care and/or basic vocabulary for a productive doctor’s visit. Book an intercultural training or English language course today. Be well!



The Language of the Holidays

Tis the season of festive lights, warm spiced wine and Christmas markets galore. In an earlier post, I sketched out a typical holiday celebration here in the land of three Christmas days (well, two-and-a-half).

As a tip of the Santa hat to the season, this time around I will introduce the language of the holidays in search of clues for how the German  language puts its singular stamp on the festive vernacular.

Christmas Cookies–or Plaetzchen–are taken VERY seriously in Germany. This bad boy has almost 300 pages of recipes.
  1. Plaetzchen

    Anecdotally, I know that Christmas cookie baking is as robust a tradition in the States as it is in Germany. I have seen the scrumptious photos on my social media newsfeeds (stop it, by the way–my waistline grows an inch with every view). Which is why it is a bit curious to me that the American English language hasn’t bestowed these special treats with their own name, as the Germans have.
    I learned very early in my time here that “Plaetzchen” is the name for the hundreds of varieties of Christmas cookies that start appearing at holiday parties throughout the country this time of year. How did I learn? The same way I learned many an important word back in the early days here–I heard a friend use it (in this case, she asked if she should bring some “Plaetzchen” to a Christmas get-together I was organizing), was too afraid to lose face by asking what it meant, cooly played it off as if I already knew (surely it meant plates, which I already had plenty of) and–ruefully, so very ruefully–learned too late what I had turned away. Oh, the humanity. I’M SO SORRY JUTTA!

    My own little Dr. Oetker, making his great-grandmother proud by baking his first-ever batch of Oma Julie’s Vanilla Crescents (“Vanille Kipferln”), a family favorite.
  2. Bescherung

    No need to bless me, I did not just sneeze. Rather, I cyber-articulated the very special word used to mean the act of giving and receiving Christmas gifts. As I mentioned last Christmas, the Bescherung takes place on what Americans call Christmas Eve.
    Fun Fact #1: “Gift” means “poison” in German. Please, no gift-giving here. Germans are swell folks.
    Fun Fact #2: “Eine schoene Bescherung!” is an ironic expression that translates to “a fine mess!”, or, as my dad might say, “a fine how-do-you-do!”

    No holiday / winter season is complete without Gluehwein, best enjoyed in a dedicated mug and–of course–freshly-baked Plaetzchen.

    3. Gluehwein

    On a winter trip to Austria years (and years and years) ago, my underaged self somehow managed to nip a sip of this very traditional cozy winter drink at a Christmas Market. My taste for fine libations being unevolved as they were at the time, I thought it was disgusting. In fact, the steaming, sweet wine-y taste became a thing of lore, so nasty it was, and I was glad to have thousands of safe transatlantic miles between myself and “that stuff”. Ha!
    For perhaps the specific purpose of schooling me to appreciate Gluehwein (which has nothing to do with glue, rest assured), the universe blew me across the ocean a decade later for a more permanent stay–smack dab in the middle of German wine country, no less. Now, of course, I savor the stuff and how it warms me from the inside out.
    Ah, the mysterious ways of the world.

    4. Silvester

    Let’s take a stab at how many Americans know what this refers to, with the clues that you can already eliminate a certain Boxer-playing Italian-American actor as well as a Warner Brothers cartoon character. Anyone…anyone….?
    Now I’ll ask Germans a similar question: though you obviously know the holiday this refers to,  do you know WHY it is called this? Anyone….anyone…..?

    Time to break out the bubbly and claim your place at Times Square or the Brandenburg Gate…New Year’s Eve is upon us. As to the origin of the curious nomenclature embraced by Germany as well as several other European nations, I will quote Wikipedia directly, as there are big words and several numbers involved, and I’ve already had my first Gluehwein:
    Silvester (also spelled sylvester, szilveszter, or sylwester) is the day of the Feast of Pope Sylvester I, a saint who served as Pope of the Catholic Church from 314 to 335 and oversaw both the First Council of Nicaea and Roman Emperor Constantine I’s conversion to Christianity.[1] The feast day is held on the anniversary of Sylvester’s death, 31 December, a date that, since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, has coincided with New Year’s Eve.”

    Silvester (New Year’s Eve) in Germany means a multitude of private firework displays, sparklers  in one hand and sparkly in the other, and raucous revelry. Just don’t plan on driving anytime soon after the stroke of midnight–thick smoke renders visibility to near zero.

    As we head down the home stretch of the Advent season and of the year 2016, wherever in the world you are, I wish you peace, prosperity and many Plaetzchen.

    If you want to avoid turning away delicious baked treats– and other language-barrier induced snafus–start 2017 off with an English Language course. And if you’re in the States, make this the year to learn a new langauge or freshen up what you learned in high school…it’s good brain training!


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.

first day of school
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)

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.

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.


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:

Volvic, Puy-de-Dôme. Ever enjoy a bottle of Volvic water? This scene should look familiar.
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”


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.




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



There is more to Portugal than the Algarve. The northern Atlantic coast offers gems like Viana do Castelo…
…and the wonderful Porto. A must-visit for wine and port lovers.
A multi-layer bridge connects the two banks of Porto. Designed by a student of Gustav Eiffel. The influence is unmistakable.
The ubiquitous Sandeman
Colorful, tiled facades define Portuguese buildings.
Want a bird’s eye view? Check!
Coimbra, near Lisbon, boasts Portugal’s most prestigious university. Colorful and welcoming, but so very hot in August!
The colors of Coimbra
Lisbon’s famous historic trolley. Tooooo crowded to venture into during high tourist season.
More typical tiled facades
Looking downhill to the water
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.
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

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