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!
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.
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?
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 readers 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.