Category Archives: Work

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

How steep is your corporate hierarchy?

Does national culture play a role?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Americans:

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

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

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

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

For Germans:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Right to Rejuvenate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds like a win-win to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In response, Bob replies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Health and Illness in Germany and America

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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!

 

 

Field Report: Where Germans Struggle with American Business Practices

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???”

paper plateAt 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.

Bottom line:

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.

Bottom line:

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.

Bottom Line:

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.

Or, book an intercultural training to learn how your American counterparts tick!

Five Ways Your German Workplace Will Differ from Your American One

1. Colleagues may bring in baked goods to share on their birthday

Let’s start with the fun, fluffy stuff. Once, when I worked at a high school in the U.S.A., I was greeted in my office on my birthday with a beautiful home-baked birthday cake by my boss (I still remember, Pat!) Granted, this may have been over and above what many bosses do, however, it is generally the typical order of things in America for people bring treats to YOU, the birthday child (assuming, of course, people know it’s your birthday)

German American Office Birthday Party
Happy Birthday to ME! I give you, dear colleagues, the gift of a calorie bomb!

So, you can imagine my confusion after moving to Germany when office colleagues would bring in cake, muffins and the like, followed quickly by a round of collegial handshaking and wishes of „Alles gute zum Geburtstag!“ to the bearer of the treats. Wait, what? I have to bake for my own birthday? Not every adult continues to do this, but surprisingly many do (because cake). Fifteen years on, I have to admit to still being slow on the uptake when my day rolls around. Maybe when I turn 80 I will have finally caught on. Whether I will still be in condition to bake is another question.

2. „Hello, Ms. American Colleague“

Although this varies widely between and even within companies, the business etiquette default in Germany is still to use „Mr. or Ms. Lastname“ when addressing bosses, subordinates, and colleagues. Bottom line: an American working in a German office is always well advised to listen carefully to and adopt the formality level demonstrated, and to use the formal „Sie“ unless invited to do otherwise or unless the German counterpart starts off by using „Du“.

Likewise, Germans will need to go Zen with being on a first name basis with those up and down the chain of command. Though hierarchy definitely exisits in American offices, the use of first names is not a vehicle for displaying it.

3. You will get generous annual vacation allotment—and be expected to use it

German law mandates a minimum of twenty workdays (Monday-Friday) of vacation per year; many companies grant more time. On top of this, Germany has between 9-13 paid public holidays, varying from state to state. If vacation days go unused due to business reasons or sickness, they roll over into the next year till around March. After this point, they are forfeited.

Bottom Line: people take their vacations, and so should you.

In contrast, a 2013 study by Oxford Economics found that Americans forfeited about 169 million vacation days. With no federal mandate for paid vacations, managers have been slow to actively push their employees to take whatever allotment is granted by the company. Another legal aspect at play in America is At Will Employment, which allows both employer and employee to end a working relationship without notice and thus adds an element of job (or advancement) risk for those taking extended time off.

4. Coming to work sick is a no-go

Due again to federal laws governing paid sick leave, folks Do. Not. Come. To. Work. Sick. They do, however, need to obtain and present a valid physician’s note. For longer-term illnesses, an employee’s health insurance either helps pay some of the cost (for absences less than six weeks) or the whole cost (totalling 70% of an employee’s gross pay or 90% of the take-home pay for absences longer than six weeks).

The United States currently has no federal laws regarding paid leave due to illness.

Bottom Line: If you’re sick, visit your doctor, go home and take your herbal medicines.

5. You as an employee will have more involvement and influence in management matters.

Now to the heavier stuff, though this point brings us to a framework of laws too complicated to cover in detail in this post. Suffice it to say that the principle of co-determination (“Mittbestimmungsrecht“, say that ten times chewing gum while patting your head and rubbing your tummy) and the Works Constitution Act comprise the backbone of corporate law and the guiding principle behind industrial relations in Germany. Depending on the size of your company, your interests will be represented to management by a Works Council and / or by the presence of employee representatives at the supervisory and management board levels. Should you be elected by your colleagues as a representative on the Works Council, you will be receive regular trainings on the complexities of German Labor Law. Good times!

I am neither going to pretend that it is always smooth sailing between Works Councils and upper mangement, nor am I going to suggest that a 1:1 adoption of a similar structure would be feasible in an American corporate work environment. I will point to this interesting article that weighs the possibilities and pitfalls of doing so. For our purposes, it’s enough to say that in Germany co-determination is accepted, practiced and—for the most part—seems to work.

Adjusting to the German work environment (or an American one, if you’re from Germany) involves much more than operating in a new language. Before beginning your new assignment, book an intercultural training to get off on the right foot and to avoid unpleasant surprises.