Cultural Difference ABC’s: Formality, Focus
Today, we’re going to delve into the „f“ word. Two, even: formality and focus. I’ll even throw in a bonus third, if the censors don’t stop me: foreign languages. I’m really pushing the envelope here, but there are some cultural differences here that must be explored, “f” words or no. No risk no fun, right? Buckle up!
Formality in German vs. American work relationships
I’ll start off this saucy topic with some basic–and probably already well-known– information: doing business with Americans up and down the corporate hierarchy almost always entails the use of first names. The likely reason behind this still-quite-unusual-in-German-corporate-culture practice is that Americans strive for an appearance of equality in their interpersonal business dealings with each other. Workplace status will be signaled in other ways, so this point really is about surface perception.
Additionally, because Americans change workplaces (and companies) more frequently than Germans, they tend to perceive a more informal, familiar approach as essential to establishing an open, collegial work environment. The distance created in using last names, titles and „Sie“ (which doesn’t exist in the English language anyway) is more likely to be seen by American employees as a barrier in a negative sense to a pleasant and productive office climate.
For Americans: even though German office culture is more formal than in the States as a general rule, the level of formality, especially in regards to the use of last names and „Sie“, is showing signs of loosening. Newer industries such as IT are likelier than more traditional ones to dispense with traditional interpersonal formalities. A generational influence also seems to be at play. This blurring of formality norms is often confusing even for Germans, so a good rule of thumb is to err on the side of caution and stick to more formal norms until you’ve had a chance to assess the unwritten rules of your particular workplace.
Also for Americans: no matter how informal your colleague relationships might be, please don’t begin an e-mail simply with the first name (ie., „Hans, I need xyz by tomorrow. Tootles!). I have heard many times from your German counterparts that this is very jarring and perceived as a sign of trouble. Throw in a simple „Hi“ and all shall be well. Such a small change with a not-so-small positive impact. Thanks muchly.
Focus through the workday
Based solely on my anecdotal observations, I can confirm the data: Germans work with a laser focus that I wish I could buy at the pharmacy and take with my morning coffee. Consider this: Americans spend considerably more hours per year at work than Germans (1.78 thousand hours compared to Germany’s 1.36 thousand), yet in terms of worker productivity (as measured by GDP pro capita), German workers have the clear edge. What is behind this?
While a few factors are likely at play, it is hard to deny the intensity with which Germans work in the hours they are on the clock. Distractions such as social media, personal phone calls, personal appointments and extended chit-chat are kept to a noticeable minimum in the German workplace. In German offices, it is not unusual to see closed office doors; when one walks in, s/he will be met with intense and earnest „focus faces“ (a term I just now coined, aren’t I clever? Anyway, it usually involves a very furrowed brow) as well as a rousing round of…eerie silence, aside from clicking keyboards. This atmosphere of concentration, coupled with the meticulously honed work processes Germans are well-known for that require attention to accuracy and thoroughness, contribute to a workday that is admittedly intense, but very often stays within the bounds of 8 hours.
Balancing out the intensity through long vacations
For Germans: It is also probably worth noting here that Americans tend as a general rule to be more short-term focused; the reasons for this are varied and can be fleshed out better in an intercultural training. Also, at-will employment means that higher manager and employee turnover is the norm for an American company. Hence, projects tend also be created and scrapped with a high rate of frequency in comparison to a German workplace. Americans have thus adapted by honing a more on-the-fly, trial-and-error approach to work where focus is dispersed out of necessity rather than out of inherent inability to concentrate intensely on a task.
If Germans worked at a „typical German“ level of focus but with American work hours and sick and vacation day conditions, they would very likely choose to join the circus within the first six months of working life. I’ve explored vacation and sick day allowances in Germany here before, but it bears repeating as it plays such a critical role in enabling German employees to be fully present during the workday, knowing that a well-deserved „Feierabend“ (or, if you’re lucky, an „Urlaub“) is coming. Vacation days are plentiful enough that personal appointments can be taken care of using a day or two of them, without sacrificing too much of their original purpose. And sick days do not count against vacation allotment at all, so there’s no need to drag oneself to the office with a focus-draining illness (which you are likely to then pass on to your colleagues, much to their consternation).
And now for a bonus “f” word…
Foreign Languages: why Germans have a clear edge
Although I’ve gotten out of the habit of using „foreign“ and instead mainly refer to „second“ and „third“, etc. languages, „foreign“ fit into the „f“ scheme nicely, so here we are. Not a great deal to say on the topic to Germans, so I’ll address my American brethren, if that’s alrighty with you. Folks, learn at least one. Please. And by learn I don’t mean do the bare minimum required to get your high school diploma; I mean learn one to proficiency, to where you can understand, write and converse in it. The world is getting smaller and more interconnected, and we Americans are the clear outliers in terms of lack of foreign language proficiency.
Even if you don’t plan to leave the USA (guess what? I didn’t either…HA!), fluency in a foreign language is an increasingly sought-after skill—and thus competitive advantage—by a variety of employers.
In fairness to Americans, we have the distinct disadvantage that trying to figure out which second language will serve us best in the future is a bit of a shot in the dark (my chosen second language was French…HA!, Part Deux), whereas most of the rest of the world has come to terms with the fact that English is the default language of international business, and prepare themselves accordingly. Conveniently, though, learning a second foreign language early helps wire the brain for additional languages, not to mention assists in promoting cultural understanding. Which seems like a jim-dandy note to end this post on.
What have I missed? Questions/comments/complaints/bad jokes welcome! Or, contact me here.