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Intercultural Communication in the Information and Digital Age

Information and technology overload is making us less informed.

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

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

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Technology is great…except when it isn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Health and Illness in Germany and America

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

 

Pulling off an American -Style Road Trip in Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salamanca 2

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

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The five best things about summer in Germany

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

1. Looooooong days.

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

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

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

2. Biergarten

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

3. Soccer championships

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

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

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

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

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

4. I want to ride my bicycle!

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

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

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

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Yay…summer’s here!

 

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

Welcome to intercultural reflections!

Hello and Guten Tag,

My name is Michelle Diehl. I am an American living in Germany who teaches a variety of business skills, including German – American intercultural understanding to many, many fine professionals here in Germany. Thanks to the thoughtful contributions of my training participants, each seminar brings me to an even higher and more nuanced level of understanding, and I hope to continue the enlightening dialogue through this blog.

The goal is to provide insight to Diehl_009readers about how their American or German counterparts tick, in order to bolster the chances for successful business relations all around. I will contribute my observations and experiences, but that will make the blog only half complete. The more input and insight coming in from readers, the more fully-dimensional our picture of the intercultural dynamic will be.

Blog entries will be posted on a regular basis. Learn more about my intercultural trainings.