Tag Archives: business

Business ABC’s: Dates

This is a blog post about dates: no, not the kind you go out on after „swiping right“. Nope. That’s for someone else’s blog. Here, I’ll keep the focus on the more banal meaning, namely the measure of time. This may not yield as interesting around-the-water cooler stories, but there are some differences worth noting to avoid misunderstandings with your German or American counterparts, namely:

-In abbrieviating dates, the day comes first, followed by the month. If you show up on July 8th for a meeting in Germany set for 07.08, you’ll be waiting for quite some time, cooling your heels while wondering why Germans earned such a reputation for punctuality.

-Germans often make reference to the „Calendar Week“ („Kalender Woche“, or „KW“). There are 52 calendar weeks in a year, meaning that as of this post writing, we are in KW 32. Americans do not use this designation, which will explain the blank stare your American colleague Bob will give you when you tell him the deadline for (xyz) is „in KW 15“. Either give Bob an exact date, or tell him „the week of April 8“ (with April 8 being a Monday, the beginning of the work week).

-Anecdotally, I have come to realize that if it is Monday, and there is a meeting scheduled for Thursday, Germans will say, „I’ll see you at the meeting next Thursday“. This is a point of confusion for Americans, as we would likely interpret „next Thursday“ to be a week from Thursday. In this same sentence, folks from the USA would say „I’ll see you at the meeting THIS Thursday“. Sounds like I’m splitting hairs, doesn’t it? But I’ve actually become confused over this subtle difference in phrasing, so I reckon you could be too.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Americans, when you tell your German colleague that you will do something by or on (insert date here), your German colleague (let’s call him Gunther) will count on you to have whatever it is you have promised–yes, promised–by (insert same date here). So, you’d do well to make sure your initial time estimate is realistic and not overly optimistic, and if you run into time management trouble, tell Gunther exactly that as soon as said trouble becomes evident. Trust me. The way to Gunther’s heart is through his sense of your reliability, not through vague and unfulfilled assurances. Likewise, Bob needs to be open to Gunther’s sense of realistic communication and time estimation and ideally not set deadlines that are unachievable, or at least be open to Gunther’s feedback that a deadline of (xyz) is too optimistic. Remember that—even in this fast-paced business world—Germans are still naturally inclined toward thoroughness, in contrast to the more American „let’s tweak-it-as-we-go“ ethos. These differences will have an impact on what someone’s idea of a realistic deadline is.

-Last but not least: when starting a business relationship with Germans or Americans, it always pays to learn up front which dates you can scratch for business communications and events, namely bank holidays. For matters of urgency, it is sensible to have a Plan B in place in the event of unavailability of your transatlantic counterpart. Aside from the well-known holidays, Americans would do well to familiarize themselves with October 3 as well as the various church-related bank holidays scattered throughout the year (and which states are affected). Likewise, Germans might want to brush up on holidays like Memorial and Veteran’s Day, among others. Oh, and Americans need to remember that Germans get annual, legally mandated paid vacation time–and use it.

Have a missed something on the topic of dates? If so, feel free to leave a comment and set the record straight!

Business ABC’s: Communication

This post comes courtesy of the letter “C”, as in “communication”. When it comes to business between Germans and Americans, it is often this very topic that makes or breaks the relationship, which is why I’ll devote the entire entry to communication alone. Buckle up…

Germans and Americans are both low-context communicators, which means they both convey meaning explicitly through words. In a business context, when an American is in a position of higher power (such as a customer or a boss), communication can often be very direct, even brusque (I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to use „brusque“. Score!) This does not have to be the case, of course, but does tend to catch Germans by surprise when it happens since Americans have a reputation for effusiveness, optimism and positivity.

Which brings us to American communication style on a personal- or equal-footing business level. Here, we roll on more of a „feel good“ basis, using smiles, agreement, compliments and „can do-isms“. Underpinning this style is the belief that motivation flows from mutual positivity. The fancy-pants academic word for this is called „reciprocity“ (this study takes a deep dive into the details of the communication style differences of German and American teams). In fact, communication tools such as criticizing, complaining and using negative sentence constructions are received as unfriendly and counterproductive.

In problem-solving communications, even spending time at length in identifying and analyzing problems at their deepest roots can get a German working in an American team branded as too negative. The same study linked above showed that American teams spend comparatively little time on problem analysis, instead jumping much faster to the business of finding solutions, as this is a more positive, forward-looking activity. Anecdotally, a client who works in the IT-area of his company told me that whereas German team members tend to work to solve a problem („ein Problem loesen“), the American team members often want to „remove“ the problem („ein Problem beseitigen“). The subtle difference implied in the German terms is the difference between solving a problem in a more drawn-out, complex—but thus more permanent—manner and „spot cleaning“ a problem so that it is quickly set aside, or solved on a more temporary basis.

Americans also love their brainstorming sessions, where solutions are contributed and considered regardless of how feasible they may be (because „thinking outside the box“ as opposed to looking towards past tried-and-true solutions is valued more by Americans). As a German, if you find yourself in the midst of one of these sessions, resist the impulse to point out why something can’t or won’t work; again, you’ll be pigeon-holed as a negative party pooper (I’ve also been looking for a way to work in „party pooper“. I’m on a roll!)

Another part of the unwritten rules of communication is that praise and thanks are doled out more frequently among Americans than Germans. Every time I get to this part in my trainings, someone inevitably cringes, mainly because lots of folks here live by the credo „Nichts gesagt ist genug gelobt!“ (roughly translated, „If I haven’t said anything, consider yourself praised!“). It is, of course, a bit of an exaggeration, but not in comparison to American communication style!

Germans, you really are going to have to go Zen with giving American colleagues (especially those reporting to you) a semi-regular dose of the verbal feel-goods. Some of this has to do with our communication style, some of it has to do with a generally lower level of job security in the USA that leaves folks needing a higher level of assurance that they are appreciated and doing good work. Do not be insincere; just lob a few simple praise goodies someone’s way when they have accomplished something positive, even if it that something is reasonably expected from their job duties. Bonus points: say it with a smile.

So, in true American fashion, I will stop dwelling on the problem (or „issue“, as we like to call it) and leave you with some ready-to-use solutions (or set-asides?) for how to communicate with American colleagues:

-While you can spend time gnawing at the deepest root of a problem in the privacy of your own cubicle, in the presence of colleagues, come in with your most well-thought-out but quickly (-ish) implemented solutions. If you can package these to at least sound new or innovative, so much the better.
-When your colleagues offer „out there“ solutions, try to keep your mind open, and in good German form, think of ways to make out-of-the-box solutions implementable. Somewhere in the middle is always a good place to meet.

-Avoid negatives in your language whenever possible („That won’t work“, „That’s the wrong approach“, „We can’t do that“)

-Become friends with „great!“, „thanks!“ „nice job!“, „really appreciate it!“ and, if you’re really feeling wild and crazy, „awesome!“.

So, that’s the scoop for today. In short, keep it positive, forward-looking, and say it with a smile.

Really appreciate your attention…it was great (awesome!) blogging to you again!

If a business relationship with Americans is on your horizon, book an intercultural training to get up to speed on communication style, among other aspects of business with the USA.

From Benefits to Brainstorming: Business ABC’s

Howdy, and welcome to the Thank-Goodness-It’s-Spring (on the calendar, anyway) edition  of Intercultural Reflections

I will continue A,B,C-ing my way through the American business landscape…today’s blog comes courtesy of the letter „B“, as in…

Benefits: Germans may be surprised to learn that some of the job benefits they take for granted—and are even codified in labor law—are not a requirement (and thus sometimes not on offer) for their American counterparts.

For example, paid maternity and sick leave are not mandated by federal law. Companies of over 50 employees are required to give their workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid family and medical leave provided the employee has worked for that company for 12 months and for at least 1,250 hours during that period.

Up until 2015, employers were not mandated to offer health insurance to employees. The Obama-era Affordable Care Act health legislation changed this; today companies with more than 50 employees face penalties for failing to provide health insurance. This mandate is being fought against in Congress.

Although companies wishing to attract the best and brightest employees are starting to offer paid vacation benefits, no federal law mandating such exists. That’s right…in the USA, there are zero days of paid vacation guaranteed to employees. According to a study by Ohio University, large businesses offer 86% of their employees paid vacation, whereas 69% of small businesses offer such. Also according to the study, full-time workers fare much better than part-time workers, at a rate of 91% and 35%, respectively, receiving paid vacation.

Believe it or not, Americans don’t clamor for mandated paid vacation as vigorously as you would expect. Read more about that here.

Bullying: Throwing this in here because the German term is the English-language-sounding „mobbing“. Though this term also exists with the same meaning in the American workplace, it is much less commonly used than „bullying“, so you might draw some blank stares if you try to use it with Americans.
In any case—bullying or mobbing–is bad, baaaaaad…don’t do it!

Board of Directors: Officially, the term for this category would be „Corporate Governance“. But that wouldn’t fit under „B“ then, would it?

This is a complicated topic that can be explained thoroughly in 70 short pages , but garsh, that would just overextend your and my attention span for this blog’s purposes, wouldn’t it?

Short version: German company boards are governed by a so-called two-tiered system: a management board and a separate supervisory board. This system is focused on maintaining the long-term health of a company and balancing the viewpoints and needs of all its stakeholders.

In the USA, the Board of Directors and the Supervisory Board are most often chaired by the CEO. The main focus of a company is on serving the interests of shareholders. Unlike in the German two-tiered system, there is no federal-level legislation specifically guiding the company’s structure.

Brainstorming: This term was first coined by US advertising executive Alex Osborne and refers to the free flow of ideas as a way to solve problems. The four essential elements of brainstorming are to: „generate as many ideas as possible; defer judgment on all ideas; generate wild ideas; build on each other’s ideas.“

While German employees also practice variations of brainstorming, it is safe to say that „generating wild ideas“ is not—as a rule—part of the German comfort zone. They prefer to look at what has worked in the past and systematically craft a solution from there. Their American counterparts, in contrast, have a less friendly relationship with solutions from bygone eras, even if they were not failures. Newer is better!

So, that’ll „B“ it for today’s post…have a restful weekend and I’ll „C“ you next time!

As always, if you need to zip through the alphabet of cultural differences at a speedier pace, book an intercultural training with yours truly!

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!

Go International in 2016!

The New Year 2016 is underway, and it is time for companies to set new business goals and budgets.
If your enterprise is seeking to expand its international presence this year, we would be happy to do our part to make your transition to the global stage a smooth one by offering you our Intercultural Training USA, Presenting for an American Audience, Negotiating with Americans and/or Conflict Management in International Teams seminars!

Don’t let your business get caught flat-footed by underestimating the importance of knowing how other cultures tick; the success of your joint ventures depends on clear communication and heightened understanding of your international counterparts. With the USA being a coveted region for global business expansion, a thorough knowledge of how Americans approach daily work tasks, communicate, negotiate and present (and expect from others’ presentations) is of paramount importance.

Book one of our trainings now, and take the first step toward ensuring global success! Our seminars are highly interactive, informative, eye-opening and, yes–entertaining . Register for one of our open seminars or for an in-house, customized-to-your-needs training.

Do you first need to brush up your business English in order to communicate confidently with your native English-speaking counterparts? We can help you here too!
From our office to yours, we wish you a successful, healthy and prosperous year 2016 and look forward to working with you soon!

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.

 

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.