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.

 

A Vacation from Business

Last week for the Fall school holidays, we took our fifth cruise—and our fourth through the Mediterranean. We don’t lack imagination, this is mostly due to logistics—cruises with itineraries leaving from northern Italy involve the least amount of getting-to-port travel hassles.

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I don’t love everything about cruising, and we probably ought to consider at least expanding our geographical horizons the next time. But what makes them so generally addicting is the cultural and language smorgasbord the passengers and crew comprise on our cruise line of choice (MSC, no paid endorsements here). Though an Italian line, on board announcements are made in five languages (Italian, French, Spanish, German and English). The ship’s captain even plowed through a „welcome“ message in every passenger-represented language on the cruise, including Chinese, Slovenian and Russian.

On English-language cruise review forums, I often see this listed as a negative. What also seems to catch some travelers by unpleasant surprise are the differing rules for forming lines–something that comes to spectacular, chaotic light during buffet and shore excursion rush hours (amongst Italians, the rule is: there ain’t no rules). Multilingualism amongst wait- , reception- and cabin staff leads to the inevitable communication snafus and increases the likelihood of misunderstandings, another bugaboo amongst some forum posters.

Perhaps weirdly, it is exactly these situations that appeal to me. An MSC cruise is a great little microcosm of the world and international relations, and I personally find the company does a commendable job of bending over backward to accommodate everyone, from food and drink selection to staging evening shows that are song-, dance- and acrobatics heavy in order to bypass language barriers.

The few times I feel myself getting frustrated over communication challenges, I quickly remind myself that I am no more entitled than anyone else in this world—or on the ship—to understand or be understood 100%. And I am definitely over myself when I listen to the truly linguistically otherworldly cruise directors rattle off the show introduction flawlessly five times (this time around, it was Massimo; the man deserves a bigger stage than the one he currently has.

This time around, we had dinner table mates—a family of four from Slovenia. With their limited English and our non-existent Slovenian, our dinner conversations were pretty limited. I did, however, manage to inadvertently swat the mom in the cheek while napkin twirling on Italian Night (what’s this? Take a cruise and find out!) In a small spurt of sheepish post-apology conversation, we managed to establish that she had spent time living near the farming village my mother was born in. It’s a Small World After All.

On the final evening, we all managed to have a to-the-point-of-hyperventilation laugh over a mysterious and rather dubious looking dessert (heads up: it’s called a „canollo“. If you can figure out how to eat it gracefully, please contact me and enlighten).

MSC has a distinctly Italian flair, and Italians know how to be festive. MSC quite lovingly takes their joie de vivre and applies it to a palette of international traditions. On October 31, the ship was adorned with Halloween decorations, and the bars served ghoulish seasonal libations. The animation team were costumed and making sure passengers young and old were in the spirit, culminating in a Halloween party on the pool deck.

Interestingly, there was a generous representation of North Americans on board, and a particular group of three middle aged women traveling together (do I still get to call people „middle aged“ and make it clear that they are older than me? A topic for another post) turned out to be my favorite. On Halloween, they waltzed into the dining room in full witch regalia. In an amusing role reversal, the waitstaff were taking selfies with THEM. „This is how we look without makeup!“ one quipped loudly. They proceeded to „trick“ the good natured waiter repeatedly throughout dinner.

Vacation tends to bring out the best in people (unless you’re in a buffet or excursion line during rush hour), and it’s lovely to see the passengers and crew working and playing together in good spirits. In fact, I think the next summit of world leaders should take place on an MSC cruise, with the singular goal of cutting loose and par-TAYing their differences away.

You think they’ll be on board with the idea?

Delivering Culturally Sensitive Presentations in English

Global working teams are an increasing reality in today’s business world. It is no longer unusual for members of the same project or even departmental team to be located simultaneously in California, Germany, Singapore and Ireland. Likewise, as companies seek to expand their reach beyond national borders, global customer acquisition is becoming standard operating procedure.

Presentation

Clearly, doing business globally presents complexities on many fronts. In this blog, I will zero in specifically on presentations, and how cultural awareness of your audience can ensure you get your message across as you intended.

1. Accomodate each other on the emotional – factual spectrum: German audiences like facts. Lots of them. A convincing presentation lays out the background as well as every data-supported aspect of a problem, building to the introduction of a sensible and well-grounded solution. The facts are the star of the show, the presenter is merely a vehicle for the message.

In contrast, American audiences are impatient with detailed background analyses and an abundance of data. Even if copius data are relevant for decision making, they will prefer to receive and digest this separately; an effective presentation moves the audience on an emotional level first and a factual one second. The central message can be bold, creative and risky. The American audience prefers presentations that are less about analysis and more about a call to action. A charismatic presenter with a big personality and a dramatic touch is looked upon positively.

A German presenting to a mixed or American audience will need to strive to make a bigger emotional impact. Data and facts need to be kept to a minimum, and the main message needs to come sooner rather than later in the presentation. Involving the audience is another strategy for keeping attention and inspiring action. A good place to start to see how presenters play to emotions to get the message across can be found here.

Americans presenting to Germans will need to reign in the charisma and come to the presentation armed with factual details. Starting the presentation with a bold or risky proposal will strain credibility and not inspire the way it would with an all-American audience. German audience members will ask detailed questions and look critically at your conclusions; keep in mind that this is a sign of respect for the subject matter. Do not become flustered or discouraged and answer the questions as thoroughly as possible.

If you are German or American presenting to a mixed audience, bring detailed data in the form of a handout while keeping the presentation itself concise and the slides clean and easy to follow. Strike a balance between emotional and factual; avoid being too charismatic or too dry.

2. Accomodate each others’ attention spans: As you might guess, Germans—with their thirst for background and data—have a longer attention span for detailed presentations This attention dissipates quickly if you come across to them as a „Selbstdarsteller“ (self-promoter) and will be difficult to win back. Conversely, an American audience needs to have their attention grabbed quicky, and a business presentation needs to be as concise as possible while still covering the essentials clearly. Americans love TED talks —presentations by speakers who are well-known in their respective field or who have compelling stories. The talks clock in at under 20 minutes and use visual media sparingly.

3. Use clear, non-idiomatic language: Since this post deals with English-language presentations, obviously this point is directed to English native speakers. We often use idiomatic expressions in private and business conversations without batting an eyelash (did you catch that?). Loading your presentation with idioms—consciously or not—will confuse your audience and cloud your message. If you are not sure how infiltrated your language is with expressions, record yourself rehearsing your presentation and play it back. If you find yourself usings these expressions, make sure you find more clear and concrete alternative phrases.

Knowing how to tailor your presentations to meet the cultural expectations of your audience is an indispensible step to doing successful international business. Schedule a presentation training to make sure your message connects with your audience.

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.

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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.

Out with the Bachelor’s Degree, in with the Apprenticeship!

Last week during one of my trainings, I complimented a woman on her nearly-flawless English. She related how she had lived in the U.S. for ten years while married to her military husband. As she talked about her experiences and impressions from her time there, she mentioned that she had held several jobs over the decade, from shopping cart attendant to cashier tJob Trainingo dialysis administrator.

Wait….what?! The first two seem to fit together, but where did the dialysis administration come in?

She went on to say that she had undergone a six week training program…and then was sent out „on the field“. The other Germans in the group were pretty shocked. Dialysis administration here would be part of a more comprehensive and thorough medical assistant training apprenticeship that would take at least a couple of years. Sticking real patients with real (and long!) needles and other medical procedures would require much more in-depth training.

This anecdote highlights the significant difference in how Germany and America approach education and job training. In America, school students for the most part are kept together under one roof (although there are varying levels of the core classes). At most, students training for a vocation do a half day for up to three years at a vocational-technical school while attending their high school the other half of the day for their core academic courses. The training is not typically done in connection with any company looking to groom its next group of skilled company workers.

In contrast, depending on which path a school student chooses (starting in the 5th grade), more vocationally-inclined school students can attend a Realschule until grade 10; after this, they apply to a company or public sector office for an apprenticeship (Ausbildungsplatz). During the two- to three-and-a-half year period, they take theory classes related to the vocation for part of the week, and work at the company the other part. By the time the apprenticeship is over, the company has a highly trained worker who can integrate seamlessly into the full-time work environment. Oh, and apprenticeships are paid!

Recently, the U.S. federal government, in cooperation with American-based German companies and community colleges, has started introducing German-style dual-program apprenticeships in the United States. In 2014, the Obama administration pledged $100 million to apprenticeship programs, with more federal funds planned in the years to come. It is an expensive proposition, that much is certain. If the program expands on a larger scale, it will surely require philosophical and structural changes within the participating companies and community colleges, not to mention a change in the Bachelor’s-degree-is-the-best-way mindset of high school students and their families.

Ultimately, the investment will be worth it if it helps the United States turn out the next generation of workers equipped with the most up-to-date skill sets needed in a rapidly evolving marketplace. To send these freshly-minted apprenticeship graduates into the world without the albatross of crushing student loan debt is a significant bonus. The time for a dual-program apprenticeship system has arrived for the United States. Now will we embrace it?

Check out my intercultural training to learn more about the differences between the U.S. and Germany.

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.