Howdy, and welcome to the Thank-Goodness-It’s-Spring (on the calendar, anyway) edition of Intercultural Reflections
I will continue A,B,C-ing my way through the American business landscape…today’s blog comes courtesy of the letter „B“, as in…
Benefits: Germans may be surprised to learn that some of the job benefits they take for granted—and are even codified in labor law—are not a requirement (and thus sometimes not on offer) for their American counterparts.
For example, paid maternity and sick leave are not mandated by federal law. Companies of over 50 employees are required to give their workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid family and medical leave provided the employee has worked for that company for 12 months and for at least 1,250 hours during that period.
Up until 2015, employers were not mandated to offer health insurance to employees. The Obama-era Affordable Care Act health legislation changed this; today companies with more than 50 employees face penalties for failing to provide health insurance. This mandate is being fought against in Congress.
Although companies wishing to attract the best and brightest employees are starting to offer paid vacation benefits, no federal law mandating such exists. That’s right…in the USA, there are zero days of paid vacation guaranteed to employees. According to a study by Ohio University, large businesses offer 86% of their employees paid vacation, whereas 69% of small businesses offer such. Also according to the study, full-time workers fare much better than part-time workers, at a rate of 91% and 35%, respectively, receiving paid vacation.
Believe it or not, Americans don’t clamor for mandated paid vacation as vigorously as you would expect. Read more about that here.
Bullying: Throwing this in here because the German term is the English-language-sounding „mobbing“. Though this term also exists with the same meaning in the American workplace, it is much less commonly used than „bullying“, so you might draw some blank stares if you try to use it with Americans.
In any case—bullying or mobbing–is bad, baaaaaad…don’t do it!
Board of Directors: Officially, the term for this category would be „Corporate Governance“. But that wouldn’t fit under „B“ then, would it?
This is a complicated topic that can be explained thoroughly in 70 short pages , but garsh, that would just overextend your and my attention span for this blog’s purposes, wouldn’t it?
Short version: German company boards are governed by a so-called two-tiered system: a management board and a separate supervisory board. This system is focused on maintaining the long-term health of a company and balancing the viewpoints and needs of all its stakeholders.
In the USA, the Board of Directors and the Supervisory Board are most often chaired by the CEO. The main focus of a company is on serving the interests of shareholders. Unlike in the German two-tiered system, there is no federal-level legislation specifically guiding the company’s structure.
Brainstorming: This term was first coined by US advertising executive Alex Osborne and refers to the free flow of ideas as a way to solve problems. The four essential elements of brainstorming are to: „generate as many ideas as possible; defer judgment on all ideas; generate wild ideas; build on each other’s ideas.“
While German employees also practice variations of brainstorming, it is safe to say that „generating wild ideas“ is not—as a rule—part of the German comfort zone. They prefer to look at what has worked in the past and systematically craft a solution from there. Their American counterparts, in contrast, have a less friendly relationship with solutions from bygone eras, even if they were not failures. Newer is better!
So, that’ll „B“ it for today’s post…have a restful weekend and I’ll „C“ you next time!
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.
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.
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:
-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.
-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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
‘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.
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.
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!
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.
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)
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.
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.
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!
Fostering U.S. – German understanding, post by post!