Category Archives: Language

Fry It: Vocal Quirks of Americans

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

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

It’s called “vocal fry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Health and Illness in Germany and America

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

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

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

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

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

health-blog-3
Ha! I did manage to unearth some sample-sized bottles of German hand sanitizer. It DOES exist…just not as abundantly as its U.S. counterparts.

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

health-blog-2
I try to play by the rules of a German household by encouraging street shoes–with all their microbes–to stay at the entryway. A bit deceptive about this photo is the implication that I conscientiously follow the second Golden Rule–slippers on…the tiles are cold!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Language of the Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    3. Gluehwein

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

    4. Silvester

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

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

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

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

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

    adventskranz

Common Mistakes Expats Make…

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

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

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

Hindsight is always 20/20.

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

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

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

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

Mistake #2: Leaving your sense of humor behind.

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

Mistake #3: Arriving with a cliché-filled worldview

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

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

Mistake #4: Sticking to your own

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

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

What other nuggets of wisdom do YOU have to share?

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

Six examples of culture defining language

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

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

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

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

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

blur-old-antique-book-medium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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