Tag Archives: Language

The Language of the Holidays

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.

plaetzchen
Christmas Cookies–or Plaetzchen–are taken VERY seriously in Germany. This bad boy has almost 300 pages of recipes.
  1. Plaetzchen

    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!

    vanillekipferln
    My own little Dr. Oetker, making his great-grandmother proud by baking his first-ever batch of Oma Julie’s Vanilla Crescents (“Vanille Kipferln”), a family favorite.
  2. Bescherung

    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!”

    gluehwein
    No holiday / winter season is complete without Gluehwein, best enjoyed in a dedicated mug and–of course–freshly-baked Plaetzchen.

    3. Gluehwein

    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.

    4. Silvester

    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.[1] 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.”

    new-year-sparkler
    Silvester (New Year’s Eve) in Germany means a multitude of private firework displays, sparklers  in one hand and sparkly in the other, and raucous revelry. Just don’t plan on driving anytime soon after the stroke of midnight–thick smoke renders visibility to near zero.

    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!

    adventskranz

Common Mistakes Expats Make…

Are you an American with a relocation to Germany in your future, or a German heading to the USA? Learn some pitfalls to avoid so that your adaptation to the new surroundings go as smoothly as possible. Below are some mistakes that are surprisingly easy to make (and in NO WAY based on any kind of personal experience *clears throat*)

Airplane engine
Banishing the kids to engine seats is not the *only* mistake you can make when relocating overseas!

Mistake #1: Failing to learn the language of your new country

Hindsight is always 20/20.

My mother was born in Austria and tried off and on throughout our childhood to speak German with my sister and me. Of course, I rebuffed her. I took a couple of years of German here and there in high school to round out my elective course load and again in the year before moving to—guess where!

But, as I learned quickly, a little bit of textbook work does not even begin to scratch the surface of what one needs to know to communicate in a foreign language. For one thing, even if you learn some useful phrases rotely, there’s still the pesky business of being able to decipher the response to your much-rehearsed statement / question.

Alas, I am here to confirm what can only be filed under „duh“: you should take every opportunity in advance to learn the language of your new country, and continue learning diligently after your arrival. Yes, grammar and vocabulary memorization is important, but also listen to and speak the language (find a conversation partner, watch movies, television, etc.). If you’re doing it right, you should feel mentally and physically exhausted by the end of the day.

Bottom line: no magic here. There is no way around the baby steps, embarassing mistakes, non-sequiter responses to questions you misunderstood, completely unintentional brushoffs and/or insults that all go with the territory. Even with diligence, your first year or 16 (ahem) will be full of moments where you will convince yourself and everyone around you that your I.Q. is half of what it actually is. Which is why it is important not to make…

Mistake #2: Leaving your sense of humor behind.

Yes, maybe you need to re-learn how to drive, fine-tune your table manners, train yourself anew on when and where and even–gasp–how to shop. Even in cultures as ostensibly similar as the USA and Germany, you will have more than your share of deer-in-headlight moments (bonus points if you actually stand around somewhere looking as agape as you feel.) German expats in the US and US expats in Germany will have to contend with new systems of sizes, measurements and currency. Until / unless you stick around long enough for the local units to become intuitive, you will need to go Zen with re-calculating while trying to accomplish the most mundane of tasks. Also knowing where to find everyday items (hint: no OTC meds at drug stores in Germany!) is on a steep learning curve. Have a laugh at the absurdity of it all and commit to viewing your new daily routines as an adventure.

Mistake #3: Arriving with a cliché-filled worldview

Don’t arrive in your new country with a mindset full of media-driven clichés or what you experienced at Disney World once.
Both the USA and Germany have many diverse regions with their own characteristics and specialties. Just as not all Americans are hamburger-chompin’ cowboys, not all Germans are drinking beer from a „Stein“ while eating sauerkraut and sausages while trying not to drip on their Lederhosen.

Okay, I am exaggerating. But, when consuming news about another country / region, it’s well worth remembering that news is highly selective and not entirely without an agenda. Reading an online version of a respected newspaper from the US media if you are in Germany or vice versa will go some ways in giving you a broader picture of what’s really capturing the nation’s attention (if you’re still brushing up on your German, try the English language version of the news magazine Spiegel Online or The Local Germany).

Mistake #4: Sticking to your own

Don’t only hang around with fellow expats. The obvious reason for this is that you will severely cutail your language learning progress if you stay in your native language. Additionally, local friends and acquaintances will be key in helping you learn various aspects of the culture by bringing you into the fold for celebrations, holidays, casual get-togethers, etc. Take the opportunity to listen to what people talk about, keep your ears and eyes open for special expressions, gestures, manners. What do folks find funny? What do they complain about? What are sore subjects best avoided? Observe, observe, observe. Become an insider and your adaptation rate will skyrocket.

That said, I empathize with the need to have conversations in your native tongue. It is totally OK to sniff around for fellow expats or international crowds whose lingua franca is English and /or German. The thing to remember is to keep communication within these circles positive, adventurous and open-minded. A group full of Debbie Downers who mainly complain about how the new home is not the old home will drag your expat experience into a much darker place than it needs to be. Keep it positive and supportive!

What other nuggets of wisdom do YOU have to share?

A great way to learn and exhange best practices, things to avoid and how to leverage cultural differences for maximum advantage is to book an intercultural training. Have fun while gearing up a truly global mindset!

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!

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.

DSCN1775

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?

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.

blur-old-antique-book-medium

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.