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!
Welcome to the 2018 re-boot-aroo of your friendly neighborhood Intercultural Reflections Blog!
After some reflections of my own, I’ve decided to A-B-C- our way through the customs and peculiarities of doing business with Americans. And guess where I’m starting? Yep, with the letter “A”, as in, “At-Will Employment”. Enjoy!
At-Will Employment (or Employment-At-Will) is better known here in Europe as „hire and fire“. It is the principle that employees can be released from (or quit) their jobs at any time and for any reason—including for no reason. Good times.
In many states, employment-at-will also allows an employer to change the terms and conditions of an employment relationship–including wages– without prior notice to the employee. Exceptions to the right to fire at will are here . These exceptions notwithstanding, at-will employment is generally considered to be the overriding principle of employer-employee relations in the United States. The state of Montana is the only one which switches from at-will to a more German-style just-cause firing principle after a probationary employment period (no longer than six months) has been completed.
Why is this significant for movers and shakers in the German business world to know? For those working at any level of business cooperation with Americans, being aware of this key employment difference will help to shine a light on why Americans may operate as they do in a given business situation. If a U.S. counterpart seems to act in ways that are more immediately and concretely self-preserving than what seems to be in the overall, long-term and big-picture better interests of the company, the at-will employment doctrine is likely humming along in the background.
One example of this might be an employee’s reluctance to speak frankly and critically, especially to a superior. Another is a tendency to take actions before they have been meticulously planned out and discussed, since employees tend to be measured by short-term quantifiable results. A lack thereof puts an employee at risk of looking unproductive. And an unproductive employee is an easily replaceable one.
On a more concrete level, at-will employment means that employees can be let go and replaced if they are absent, including for short-term illness (self or family member). The Family and Medical Leave Act does provide some limited protections for longer-term illness, including that of family members.
Did you really think Americans *enjoy* going to work sick?
Ditto, by the way, for vacation time, even when a vacation allotment exists. Presence counts, and for many, the risk of being replaced is not worth the risk of enjoying some time off, no matter how well-deserved.
In contrast to Germany, American labor law is significantly more heavily skewed in favor of the employer/corporation, and Germans will need to account for this and all its implications on American work culture when doing business with the U.S.A.
German managers working Stateside will probably be surprised by the relative deference employees will show him/her, and may struggle to encourage open, critical and frank discussion from team members. Identifying, speaking out about and tackling problems with our superiors is not within our comfort zone. We would much rather highlight our achievements and „victories“ since our jobs so often depend on plentiful examples of such. German managers would do well to draw a line with employees about coming to work sick and will need to explicitly make it „safe“ for team members to take their allotted vacation time. An incentive or three to this end may even be necessary.
Regardless of what American labor law does or does not stipulate, the less at-will-y (my spell check is moving mountains to change that turn of phrase) you make your working relationships with Americans, the more likely you are to foster a sense of trust, loyalty and openness in your sphere of influence.
Is business cooperation with Americans on your company’s horizon? Speed through the ABC’s (and more) of business with the USA by booking an intercultural training today!
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.
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.
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.
Tis the season of festive lights, warm spiced wine and Christmas markets galore. In an earlier post, I sketched out a typical holiday celebration here in the land of three Christmas days (well, two-and-a-half).
As a tip of the Santa hat to the season, this time around I will introduce the language of the holidays in search of clues for how the German language puts its singular stamp on the festive vernacular.
Anecdotally, I know that Christmas cookie baking is as robust a tradition in the States as it is in Germany. I have seen the scrumptious photos on my social media newsfeeds (stop it, by the way–my waistline grows an inch with every view). Which is why it is a bit curious to me that the American English language hasn’t bestowed these special treats with their own name, as the Germans have.
I learned very early in my time here that “Plaetzchen” is the name for the hundreds of varieties of Christmas cookies that start appearing at holiday parties throughout the country this time of year. How did I learn? The same way I learned many an important word back in the early days here–I heard a friend use it (in this case, she asked if she should bring some “Plaetzchen” to a Christmas get-together I was organizing), was too afraid to lose face by asking what it meant, cooly played it off as if I already knew (surely it meant plates, which I already had plenty of) and–ruefully, so very ruefully–learned too late what I had turned away. Oh, the humanity. I’M SO SORRY JUTTA!
No need to bless me, I did not just sneeze. Rather, I cyber-articulated the very special word used to mean the act of giving and receiving Christmas gifts. As I mentioned last Christmas, the Bescherung takes place on what Americans call Christmas Eve. Fun Fact #1: “Gift” means “poison” in German. Please, no gift-giving here. Germans are swell folks. Fun Fact #2: “Eine schoene Bescherung!” is an ironic expression that translates to “a fine mess!”, or, as my dad might say, “a fine how-do-you-do!”
On a winter trip to Austria years (and years and years) ago, my underaged self somehow managed to nip a sip of this very traditional cozy winter drink at a Christmas Market. My taste for fine libations being unevolved as they were at the time, I thought it was disgusting. In fact, the steaming, sweet wine-y taste became a thing of lore, so nasty it was, and I was glad to have thousands of safe transatlantic miles between myself and “that stuff”. Ha!
For perhaps the specific purpose of schooling me to appreciate Gluehwein (which has nothing to do with glue, rest assured), the universe blew me across the ocean a decade later for a more permanent stay–smack dab in the middle of German wine country, no less. Now, of course, I savor the stuff and how it warms me from the inside out.
Ah, the mysterious ways of the world.
Let’s take a stab at how many Americans know what this refers to, with the clues that you can already eliminate a certain Boxer-playing Italian-American actor as well as a Warner Brothers cartoon character. Anyone…anyone….?
Now I’ll ask Germans a similar question: though you obviously know the holiday this refers to, do you know WHY it is called this? Anyone….anyone…..?
Time to break out the bubbly and claim your place at Times Square or the Brandenburg Gate…New Year’s Eve is upon us. As to the origin of the curious nomenclature embraced by Germany as well as several other European nations, I will quote Wikipedia directly, as there are big words and several numbers involved, and I’ve already had my first Gluehwein:
“Silvester (also spelled sylvester, szilveszter, or sylwester) is the day of the Feast of Pope Sylvester I, a saint who served as Pope of the Catholic Church from 314 to 335 and oversaw both the First Council of Nicaea and Roman Emperor Constantine I’s conversion to Christianity. The feast day is held on the anniversary of Sylvester’s death, 31 December, a date that, since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, has coincided with New Year’s Eve.”
As we head down the home stretch of the Advent season and of the year 2016, wherever in the world you are, I wish you peace, prosperity and many Plaetzchen.
If you want to avoid turning away delicious baked treats– and other language-barrier induced snafus–start 2017 off with an English Language course. And if you’re in the States, make this the year to learn a new langauge or freshen up what you learned in high school…it’s good brain training!
Ah, the hot-button topic of education…and the endless discussions of what is and what should be. The trend out of the States now seems to be lavishing praise on the utopian education system in Finland while throwing fifty shades of shade at the education-trend-of the-minute known as Common Core (I am supposed to capitalize that, right?)
Well, can’t help you there, folks. C.C. arrived on the scene after I left, and I don’t live anywhere near Scandanavia. What I can do is offer a comparison / contrast of school systems in the US and Germany– based on my experiences as a student and later guidance counselor in the former, and as a parent of school children in the latter– on a selected smattering of aspects. No “betters” and “worses”, only differences.
In Germany, there are generally speaking far fewer obstacles to entering a school building. While secondary entrances/exits do tend to be locked, main entrances remain open and unmonitored throughout the day. One time, when my son forgot his mid-morning snack at home, I brought it to him, expecting to hand it over to school personnel for delivery to his classroom. Instead, when I explained to the secretary why I was there, she told me I should bring it to the classroom myself. Much to my boy’s embarrassment, I did just that. Likewise, I have stopped into my daughter’s school a few times to relay various messages, again with barely a sideways glance from anyone else.
Thanks to the input of various parents of schoolchildren in the US, I have learned that, at a minimum, visitors must be buzzed into the building and announce themselves at the office. More urban schools have metal detectors and security presence. Lockdown drills occur at regular intervals, much like fire drills.
2. Freedom of student movement
Somewhat related to the first point, students at both the elementary and secondary level can visit the loo without bureaucracy in Germany. They are, of course, expected to return promptly and will get in trouble if they don’t, along the lines of having to write a “Strafarbeit” (i.e., “I will not linger in the loo” x 50), or at the secondary level having the infraction reflected in the class participation grade.
Although I cannot speak for how every school handles restroom visits in U.S. schools, I can say I remember being allowed to use the facilities simply with verbal permission in the elementary school. Ironically, the older we got, the more tightly controlled restroom visits were; in junior and senior high there was no roaming the halls–for potty breaks or otherwise–without a signed “pass”
3. Transportation to / from school
No car drop-off and pick-up lines here in Germany; most kids come to school in walking or bike groups. Secondary school kids who are attending a school outside their town of residence rely on normal public transportation (students are not assigned to secondary school according to district, another difference to the US, but man is this post starting to get wordy)
4. Helicopter parenting more discouraged
One major area where schools in Germany appear to be more successful than those in the U.S. is on the topic of handling so-called helicopter parents. When I worked as a school counselor in the States, parents were much more heavily involved in and informed about the details (and frankly, sometimes the minutiae) of their children’s academic endeavors. My experience with my own children here in Germany is that a higher degree of independence from parents is expected from students; starting in the secondary school, parental involvement in schoolwork is explicitly discouraged. This serves the purpose of helping students to develop a more realistic sense of their own abilities.
5. Tougher grading
On a related note, giving kids a realistic sense of their abilities means not doling out “A’s” as frequently as teachers tend to in the States. The grading scale in Germany is 1=A, 2=B, 3=C, etc.; students here are quite happy with 2s and 3s; the top note is truly reserved for work of extraordinary quality.
6. More class cancellations
Something I really have to get used to here is Germany is the routineness of “Kursausfaelle”, or a class canceled for whatever reason on a given day. At the elementary school level, students will be redistributed to other parallel classes, but starting in secondary school, students may well find themselves with extra free time if the canceled class falls at the first or last periods. All mid-day classes will meet with a substitute teacher (who may or may not teach a lesson in the subject matter at hand).
Starting in grade 11, students may leave the premesis when a class is cancelled and return for the next period.
7. Separation after grade four
In Germany, elementary school spans grades one through four. Secondary schools run from grades five through ten or five through twelve (or thirteen), depending on which type of school you are attending. University-bound students go to Gymnasium and complete comprehensive end exams in either grade 12 or 13. Students who are working toward vocations that do not require a university degree go to Realschule, which ends at grade ten. There are a few chances throughout a child’s school career to move between schools.
Other school models exist as well, such as the “Gesamtschule”, where students of all academic levels attend the same school (like the American high school), Walldorf and/or Montessori schools, and private parochial schools.
8. Nine grades in one building
This type of school structure leads to the amusing phenomenon of students ranging from early tweens to young adults attending the same school. They are, of course, grouped together by grade level.
9. Much less mainstreaming
Having worked as a school counselor who sat in on many, many Individual Education Plan meetings, I can say that the United States is quite a bit more progressive in accommodating students with a constellation a special learning needs. There are signs of Germany catching up to a limited extent on this front, but the concept of “the least restrictive environment” appears not to be nearly the mandate here that it is in the States.
10. Shorter school day
The first grade school day runs from 8 a.m.-12 p.m.; after this it is gradually extended to 1 p.m. Students then take their lunch at home, where they also finish homework and move on to afternoon extracurricular activities. Many schools now have “all day” (generally till about 4 p.m.) programs of various models. In some states, these are free of charge, in others, they are not. In secondary schools, kids can join an array of school-run clubs; just don’t expect competitive sports to be amongst them. These are organized by various community sports clubs that have no connection to the school.
In grades eleven, twelve and thirteen, students have academic classes throughout the day, with breaks in between classes.
11. Distribution of school holidays The difference here between American and German schools is that in Germany, school holidays are distributed more evenly throughout the school year. This surely has led to the (mis)perception that we are constantly on vacation, but I digress. Consistent among all German states is that the summer holiday is six weeks. The start and end dates are staggered from state to state to avoid mass overcrowdings of German highways and airports accomodating vacationers.
Depending on your (German) state, Fall holidays will be either one or two weeks and fall (ha!) somewhere between mid- to late-October. Winter break is two weeks, “Fasching” break–falling anywhere from early February to mid-March, depending on the year, usually scores school kids two days off on a Monday and Tuesday. Following this comes spring break, falling to encompass the Easter holiday. Again, depending on your state, this will be one or two weeks. May and June include a smattering of traditional church holidays with funny names that result in a string of 3-4 day weekends.
The total number of 5-day weeks German kids are in school ranges by state between 37-41 (for reference, a 180 day, 5-day-a-week school year is 36 weeks).
12. Homecoming means dragging your fanny from school back to where your bread is buttered, and not much more For better or worse (pssst…my dirty little secret: Team Better), school in Germany is for classes and perhaps an extracurricular club or two (which meet once a week) and not much more. Once the academic portion of the program is over, the non-school dimension of life kicks in–community clubs (“Vereine”) or privately-run organizations (like dance schools, etc.) take the lead here. Perhaps this reflects the overall cultural proclivity of Germans to separate work from private spheres. Here you can find a comprehensive list of “Verein” offerings in Speyer alone (where I live). Vereine will often organize activities such as holiday parties, outings, dinners, dances, parade marchings, etc….i.e., the types of things schools (or school groups) take care of in the USA. Mascots are part of sports clubs, not of schools, in Germany. The closest thing German schools have to Prom is a “Graduation Ball”. My understanding is that the entire class attends date-free, and since students at that point are of legal beer and wine age, the kegs do flow. I’ll tell you all about it when we actually get to that point.
There are other topics I could touch on here, such as the use / misuse of standardized testing, teacher accountability and homeschooling (which is not practiced here in Germany), but these warrant posts unto themselves, and I need to gather more information on both ends before I wade into such potentially touchy territory.
Whew…loooong post! This could easily fill an intercultural seminar for educators, but for now it’s Saturday and school’s out for the weekend!
Let’s face it…it’s not hard to love summer no matter where in the world you live. Still, Germany puts it’s unique footprint on the season in many ways, five of which I’ll highlight here.
1. Looooooong days.
It is very easy in the summer months to underestimate how late it is. Given that I grew up in Pennsylvania—considerably south of my current location of Speyer, Germany—it is no surprise that even after sixteen years, I am still shocked to realize that I’ve allowed my kids to frolic in the still well-lit dusk with the clock chiming 10:00 p.m. And it’s a good thing they have rolling metal window shutters in their bedrooms, or they would likely still be lying awake an hour later.
But, no complaints here. The long days and extended evenings allow plenty of time to take a leisurely stroll to the nearest…
Do you like German beer? Do you like lovely „open air“ settings? Do you like plunking down and chatting for hours with your companions while friendly, efficient waitstaff serve you a foamy, cold brew and calculate your party’s bill on a cardboard beer coaster? If the answer is yes, then garsh, you ought to experience a German Biergarten at least once in your life (and yes, there are plenty of non-alcoholic beverage alternatives as well). Every two years, you can expect your locale of choice to be equipped with an outdoor large screen so patrons can sip while not missing a minute of…
3. Soccer championships
Every alternating even year is either the European or World Cup Soccer Championship. This year, it is the former, taking place in the yard of our neighbor, France. For four jubilant weeks (or depressing, depending on how your team fares), locales, shopping malls, sporting venues and other places that accomodate crowds of varying size continuously broadcast the matches of the day (amusingly, these are referred to by Germans as „public viewings“, but rest assured that I have not observed a single open casket in the entirety of my time here).
Watching the soccer matches is a social event; during the World Cup two years ago, we had a go of hauling out our projector and hosting a small-scale viewing gathering a time or two (one of those times of course being the USA-Germany match). For those who have asked or wonder where my allegiance lies when Germany and the USA face off : I love my German eleven, but…..U-S-A! U-S-A!
The night Germany won the World Cup in 2014 was an unforgettable spontaneous, boisterous (and, to a certain extent, nerve-wracking) celebration, with folks rushing outside, setting off fireworks, honking car horns, and otherwise displaying all manner of exuberance and debauchery.
Fun fact: the first European Cup I lived through in Germany was in 1996, when Germany took the championship led by team capitain Juergen Klinsmann, now head trainer of the US National Team. Juergen and his teammates irreversibly infected me with the soccer bug. If there’s a cure, I want no part of it!
4. I want to ride my bicycle!
Summertime is kinder both to the waistline and the wallet in that a well-developed system of bike paths, coupled with pleasant weather and long days, makes hopping on the bike the transportation mode of first choice. Where I live, virtually any errand imaginable can be accomplished on two wheels (unless, of course, you just purchased a refrigerator). With the current amount of in-town constuction projects, it is also often the faster option for getting from point A to point B. Accomplishing daily tasks + saving on gas + burning calories + fresh summer air = win, win, win, win!
5. Schloss in Flammen (“Flaming Castles”)
Sounds alarming when translated word for word. In fact, this is a reference to the many castles that dot the German map being colorfully lit and surrounded by fireworks on select summer evenings. Because the only thing more magical that a European castle near a river is a castle near a river lit up in groovy colors. See what I mean here and here and here.
This list is anything but exhaustive, but it is time for me to throw open the back door, let the early summer air in, and finish watching the remaining minutes of the opening European Cup game. I wish you and yours a rip-roaring start to a summer filled with great times and even better weather!
Business doesn’t stop just because summer is here! If yours needs an introduction to American business practices and norms, book an intercultural training with me. We’ll still have fun along the way!
Spring Break in the USA…Florida beaches, wet t-shirt contests, wild debauchery, fun in the sun.
Well…not exactly, when you’re 20+ years out of college and travelling with your family of four in tow. Then Spring Break moves northward to that great state for lovers…Virginia. Which also has a beach. Whose skies are sunny but whose air is still cool-breezy and water still winter-chilled in the first days of spring. Not a booze cruise in sight.
Fortunately, with Colonial Williamsburg and suburban Washington, D.C. also on the itinerary, we were not doomed to spending our entire vacation figuring out what to do at the beach when credible beach weather is still about two months away.
In addition to visiting with too-rarely-seen family, I as always used the opportunity to re-immerse myself in the sights, sounds and rhythms of life in the U.S., paying close attention to where and how they differ from those in Germany.
This time around, I am going to let images do the talking for me. (Well, wordy captions will do the talking as well.) Wherever I experienced something typical of my beloved homeland, I clicked away. So, without further ado, I present a short and by-no-means-exhaustive list of “Yaaass, I’m back in the U.S.” images:
And, it wouldn’t be the USA without patriotism:
For the German traveller in the United States: have a bout of homesickness? We’ve got you covered:
Want to know the deeper cultural significance behind the images above? Book an intercultural training and you’ll be in the know!
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???”
At 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.
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.
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.
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.
Currently, my social media is awash with pictures of Christmas trees. Lots of them. As usual, U.S.-folks are outdoing themselves with decorations and lights on their floor-to-ceiling, full-bodied trees (can trees be “full bodied”? I don’t know. Full figured, maybe?) By now, virtually all self-respecting Americans who celebrate Christmas have had their tree-trimming parties and are relaxing with a glass of eggnog on the La-Z-Boy.
This is the first year everrrr that our nuclear family of four is celebrating Christmas at our own home (well, at our landlord’s home, but whatever). No flights to the USA or over the river and through the woods to the rural outreaches of Frankfurt. Although we will miss family time, I am excited to finally start some of our own Yuletide traditions (and not getting out of my pajamas for three days straight). And, we get to HAVE A TREE. I am so ready to put it up, wrap it in light strands (I’ll be cursing like a sailor during that part; let’s fast forward), add some baubles, throw open our shutters and give the tour groups of old town Speyer something to ooohh and aaahh at.
Me: (to German-to-his-core husband): Let’s get our tree and have a decoration evening this weekend!
Husband: Um, no. That’s bad luck. NOBODY DOES THIS. Except stores.
Me: But, we’re a German-American household! Let’s put it up just a few days before Christmas!
Husband: Seriously, nobody does this. It is bad luck. The tree comes into the house on Christmas (otherwise known to Americans as Christmas Eve). Then we decorate it, then the kids go away for a few minutes while the Christkind (the Christ child) brings the presents.
The truth is, I know the drill after celebrating about 10 Christmases here. This is indeed exactly how it is done in German households. Festivities (generalization alert!) unfold roughly in this manner:
December 24: Decorate tree, open gifts, sit down for a late dinner (many German households serve a simple dish; potato salad, carp, fondue or raclette are popular traditional fare). Break into the libation cabinet. Shuffle off to bed.
December 25: Sleep in. Then, start preparations for Christmas feast of roast pork, duck or goose (or duck-duck-goose). The main thing: lots of meat (or fish). Start feeling the first inklings of cabin fever. Break into libation stash. Shuffle off to bed.
December 26: Don’t even think of heading out to the mall…we’re still on holiday schedule. Specifically, the “Second Christmas Day”. By now you are eating leftovers. Cabin fever is in full tilt. Take a walk, read a book, start plotting a spontaneous city getaway to take advantage of post-Christmas sales. Or, you know, hang out with your family (the libation cabinet is still in easy reach). Admire your now three-day-old Christmas tree. Shuffle off to bed, with visions of open stores dancing in your head.
Notice what (or who) is missing in the joyous festivities. A certain jolly, rotund, chimney fetishist (that was uncalled for, wasn’t it?). No Santa here, folks. St. Nikolaus does make the rounds, but on December 6. And he fills boots with, well, holiday booty. Old tradition calls for tangerines, nuts and chocolate. New tradition calls for iPhones, iPads and wads of cash. But again, I digress.
So, I will have to find a way to craftily weave in my American traditions with the German ones. The current compromise on the table regarding the tree is to put it up outside—with lights—and haul it in on Christmas Eve. I will also, ahem, stand my ground on opening at least a portion of our already minimal presents on the morning of the 25th.
Good-natured snark aside, I really do enjoy the way the holidays are celebrated here. I love Christmas Markets, which for me are a completely acceptable substitute for overblown holiday light displays (though I get a kick out of touring competitive light-display neighborhoods when I’m in the States). And I LOVE that consumerism comes to a crashing halt for two-and-a-half days.
And, hey, we might not have Santa, but at least we don’t have the creepy Krampus skulking around. You (you now meaning Austrians–which you aren’t, but who’s counting) just keep those there creatures in the Alps where they belong
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 to 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?