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.
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!
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:
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)
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.
‘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!
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.
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!
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!”
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.
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. 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.”
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!
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!
Let’s face it…it’s not hard to love summer no matter where in the world you live. Still, Germany puts it’s unique footprint on the season in many ways, five of which I’ll highlight here.
1. Looooooong days.
It is very easy in the summer months to underestimate how late it is. Given that I grew up in Pennsylvania—considerably south of my current location of Speyer, Germany—it is no surprise that even after sixteen years, I am still shocked to realize that I’ve allowed my kids to frolic in the still well-lit dusk with the clock chiming 10:00 p.m. And it’s a good thing they have rolling metal window shutters in their bedrooms, or they would likely still be lying awake an hour later.
But, no complaints here. The long days and extended evenings allow plenty of time to take a leisurely stroll to the nearest…
Do you like German beer? Do you like lovely „open air“ settings? Do you like plunking down and chatting for hours with your companions while friendly, efficient waitstaff serve you a foamy, cold brew and calculate your party’s bill on a cardboard beer coaster? If the answer is yes, then garsh, you ought to experience a German Biergarten at least once in your life (and yes, there are plenty of non-alcoholic beverage alternatives as well). Every two years, you can expect your locale of choice to be equipped with an outdoor large screen so patrons can sip while not missing a minute of…
3. Soccer championships
Every alternating even year is either the European or World Cup Soccer Championship. This year, it is the former, taking place in the yard of our neighbor, France. For four jubilant weeks (or depressing, depending on how your team fares), locales, shopping malls, sporting venues and other places that accomodate crowds of varying size continuously broadcast the matches of the day (amusingly, these are referred to by Germans as „public viewings“, but rest assured that I have not observed a single open casket in the entirety of my time here).
Watching the soccer matches is a social event; during the World Cup two years ago, we had a go of hauling out our projector and hosting a small-scale viewing gathering a time or two (one of those times of course being the USA-Germany match). For those who have asked or wonder where my allegiance lies when Germany and the USA face off : I love my German eleven, but…..U-S-A! U-S-A!
The night Germany won the World Cup in 2014 was an unforgettable spontaneous, boisterous (and, to a certain extent, nerve-wracking) celebration, with folks rushing outside, setting off fireworks, honking car horns, and otherwise displaying all manner of exuberance and debauchery.
Fun fact: the first European Cup I lived through in Germany was in 1996, when Germany took the championship led by team capitain Juergen Klinsmann, now head trainer of the US National Team. Juergen and his teammates irreversibly infected me with the soccer bug. If there’s a cure, I want no part of it!
4. I want to ride my bicycle!
Summertime is kinder both to the waistline and the wallet in that a well-developed system of bike paths, coupled with pleasant weather and long days, makes hopping on the bike the transportation mode of first choice. Where I live, virtually any errand imaginable can be accomplished on two wheels (unless, of course, you just purchased a refrigerator). With the current amount of in-town constuction projects, it is also often the faster option for getting from point A to point B. Accomplishing daily tasks + saving on gas + burning calories + fresh summer air = win, win, win, win!
5. Schloss in Flammen (“Flaming Castles”)
Sounds alarming when translated word for word. In fact, this is a reference to the many castles that dot the German map being colorfully lit and surrounded by fireworks on select summer evenings. Because the only thing more magical that a European castle near a river is a castle near a river lit up in groovy colors. See what I mean here and here and here.
This list is anything but exhaustive, but it is time for me to throw open the back door, let the early summer air in, and finish watching the remaining minutes of the opening European Cup game. I wish you and yours a rip-roaring start to a summer filled with great times and even better weather!
Business doesn’t stop just because summer is here! If yours needs an introduction to American business practices and norms, book an intercultural training with me. We’ll still have fun along the way!
Are you an American with a relocation to Germany in your future, or a German heading to the USA? Learn some pitfalls to avoid so that your adaptation to the new surroundings go as smoothly as possible. Below are some mistakes that are surprisingly easy to make (and in NO WAY based on any kind of personal experience *clears throat*)
Mistake #1: Failing to learn the language of your new country
Hindsight is always 20/20.
My mother was born in Austria and tried off and on throughout our childhood to speak German with my sister and me. Of course, I rebuffed her. I took a couple of years of German here and there in high school to round out my elective course load and again in the year before moving to—guess where!
But, as I learned quickly, a little bit of textbook work does not even begin to scratch the surface of what one needs to know to communicate in a foreign language. For one thing, even if you learn some useful phrases rotely, there’s still the pesky business of being able to decipher the response to your much-rehearsed statement / question.
Alas, I am here to confirm what can only be filed under „duh“: you should take every opportunity in advance to learn the language of your new country, and continue learning diligently after your arrival. Yes, grammar and vocabulary memorization is important, but also listen to and speak the language (find a conversation partner, watch movies, television, etc.). If you’re doing it right, you should feel mentally and physically exhausted by the end of the day.
Bottom line: no magic here. There is no way around the baby steps, embarassing mistakes, non-sequiter responses to questions you misunderstood, completely unintentional brushoffs and/or insults that all go with the territory. Even with diligence, your first year or 16 (ahem) will be full of moments where you will convince yourself and everyone around you that your I.Q. is half of what it actually is. Which is why it is important not to make…
Mistake #2: Leaving your sense of humor behind.
Yes, maybe you need to re-learn how to drive, fine-tune your table manners, train yourself anew on when and where and even–gasp–how to shop. Even in cultures as ostensibly similar as the USA and Germany, you will have more than your share of deer-in-headlight moments (bonus points if you actually stand around somewhere looking as agape as you feel.) German expats in the US and US expats in Germany will have to contend with new systems of sizes, measurements and currency. Until / unless you stick around long enough for the local units to become intuitive, you will need to go Zen with re-calculating while trying to accomplish the most mundane of tasks. Also knowing where to find everyday items (hint: no OTC meds at drug stores in Germany!) is on a steep learning curve. Have a laugh at the absurdity of it all and commit to viewing your new daily routines as an adventure.
Mistake #3: Arriving with a cliché-filled worldview
Don’t arrive in your new country with a mindset full of media-driven clichés or what you experienced at Disney World once.
Both the USA and Germany have many diverse regions with their own characteristics and specialties. Just as not all Americans are hamburger-chompin’ cowboys, not all Germans are drinking beer from a „Stein“ while eating sauerkraut and sausages while trying not to drip on their Lederhosen.
Okay, I am exaggerating. But, when consuming news about another country / region, it’s well worth remembering that news is highly selective and not entirely without an agenda. Reading an online version of a respected newspaper from the US media if you are in Germany or vice versa will go some ways in giving you a broader picture of what’s really capturing the nation’s attention (if you’re still brushing up on your German, try the English language version of the news magazine Spiegel Online or The Local Germany).
Mistake #4: Sticking to your own
Don’t only hang around with fellow expats. The obvious reason for this is that you will severely cutail your language learning progress if you stay in your native language. Additionally, local friends and acquaintances will be key in helping you learn various aspects of the culture by bringing you into the fold for celebrations, holidays, casual get-togethers, etc. Take the opportunity to listen to what people talk about, keep your ears and eyes open for special expressions, gestures, manners. What do folks find funny? What do they complain about? What are sore subjects best avoided? Observe, observe, observe. Become an insider and your adaptation rate will skyrocket.
That said, I empathize with the need to have conversations in your native tongue. It is totally OK to sniff around for fellow expats or international crowds whose lingua franca is English and /or German. The thing to remember is to keep communication within these circles positive, adventurous and open-minded. A group full of Debbie Downers who mainly complain about how the new home is not the old home will drag your expat experience into a much darker place than it needs to be. Keep it positive and supportive!
What other nuggets of wisdom do YOU have to share?
A great way to learn and exhange best practices, things to avoid and how to leverage cultural differences for maximum advantage is to book an intercultural training. Have fun while gearing up a truly global mindset!
Spring Break in the USA…Florida beaches, wet t-shirt contests, wild debauchery, fun in the sun.
Well…not exactly, when you’re 20+ years out of college and travelling with your family of four in tow. Then Spring Break moves northward to that great state for lovers…Virginia. Which also has a beach. Whose skies are sunny but whose air is still cool-breezy and water still winter-chilled in the first days of spring. Not a booze cruise in sight.
Fortunately, with Colonial Williamsburg and suburban Washington, D.C. also on the itinerary, we were not doomed to spending our entire vacation figuring out what to do at the beach when credible beach weather is still about two months away.
In addition to visiting with too-rarely-seen family, I as always used the opportunity to re-immerse myself in the sights, sounds and rhythms of life in the U.S., paying close attention to where and how they differ from those in Germany.
This time around, I am going to let images do the talking for me. (Well, wordy captions will do the talking as well.) Wherever I experienced something typical of my beloved homeland, I clicked away. So, without further ado, I present a short and by-no-means-exhaustive list of “Yaaass, I’m back in the U.S.” images:
And, it wouldn’t be the USA without patriotism:
For the German traveller in the United States: have a bout of homesickness? We’ve got you covered:
Want to know the deeper cultural significance behind the images above? Book an intercultural training and you’ll be in the know!
February was a short month chock full of trainings. In addition to giving me the chance to add push pins to my „places visited“ German map, I as always came away with valuable observations from my seminar participants regarding cultural differences that make an impression. Here were three recurring themes…
“We paid an arm and a leg to attend this event and they’re giving us paper plates???”
At even rather fomal business events in the USA (trade fairs,
conventions, meetings etc.) for which attendees often pay a hefty participation fee, catered food is often served on paper plates with plastic flatware and paper linens. Cardboard, styrofoam or plastic cups are on hand for warm beverages; cold drinks such as cola and juice are drunk directly from the can or (single-serving sized) bottle. For Germans, this is an unusual setup.
Explanation: American pragmatism. Diposable dishes mean, quite simply, faster clean-up. On a more environmental note, some areas of the country—such as California—are in the midst of a water shortage and thus tight restrictions on water usage apply.
For Germans: No disrespect to international guests intended; it’s American pragmatism in action.
For Americans: In addition to making a more professional impression with your business guests, use of „real“ dishes and flatware can be the more environmentally-friendly option, especially with modern energy- and water efficient appliances. Win-win!
“Where are their business cards???”
Americans—even business contacts– are quick to connect over social media
With the USA being the founding point of many social media platforms, it is no surprise that Americans enjoy (and are adept at) using multiple digital channels to communicate and promote all things professional and personal. Germans—a much more private bunch, digitally and otherwise—have been slower to warm up to this share everything, everywhere with everyone ethos. One comment I’ve heard a few times from Germans over the past few months is that even casual business acquaintences from the USA reach out for a connection over Facebook and Instagram, leaving them feeling, well…a bit outside of their comfort zone.
For Germans: This „friending“ and „connecting“ is an extension of the long-standing openness and small talk culture of Americans. More than Germans, Americans are accustomed to and comfortable with blurring the lines between the professional and the personal; being granted access to snippets of our co-workers’ / counterparts’ lives via photos and what-I-did-this-weekend posts enhances the professional working relationship. Especially if you live an ocean away and have limited face-to-face contact, allowing connections over social media may help your American colleague feel more comfortable with and connected to you. It’s fine to keep your posts minimal and „small talk-y“ in nature; with all our connections on all those platforms, we don’t have time for lengthy, heavy posts anyway! (Not to mention we aren’t likely to understand them if you choose to post in German!)
For Americans: Tread gently with your German counterparts; although the digital revolution and globalization are steadily closing the gap, Germans on the whole still don’t have the comfort level with social media sharing that Americans take for granted. Try connecting first over a more business-oriented site; hold off on more „social“ social media until your relationship is better established.
“So many references to baseball…what do they mean???”
The consensus amongst you is that most Americans are openly appreciative and complimentary of your wonderful English skills and make a point of speaking clearly with you. The tendency seems to be that the better your English is, the more for granted your American counterparts take your ability to understand and express everything as we native speakers do—including idiomatic phrases (often sports-related, i.e., “a ballpark figure”), regional accents/dialect and emotional subtext.
If an American has taken apparent offense to or misunderstood something you’ve said—and you feel equally baffled by the reaction (or vice-versa)—DO take the immediate opportunity to emphasize that maybe how you expressed yourself wasn’t quiiiiiite how you intended to be taken. Gently—humorously, if the situation allows—remind your counterpart that operating in a foreign language is a constant work in progress, and that Germans tend to be a comparatively to-the-point bunch in any language.
Bottom-bottom line (does this exist?):
So many cultural differences, so little time…stay tuned for future posts highlighting other every day stumbling blocks, and how to prevent them before a misstep occurs.