For some weeks now, I have been supporting a Munich volunteer group. Amongst other things, this society has launched a programme to help refugees find a place to stay when they are finally allowed to – or, in our context, must – move out of the collective accommodations that they have been living in for months or even years now.
These men and women undoubtedly feel relieved when they’re finally granted a permit of residence. One less problem to worry about…but also one new problem to give them sleepless nights; trying to find an apartment, or even a room, in a very tight real estate market where money rules and (as a recent survey sadly proves) a ‘German’ name is an intangible asset of very great value.
This is why, from time to time, I join the Society’s Deputy Chairwoman when she talks about what can be done in this seemingly hopeless situation. Petra is an expert on real estate and knows how you can find your way through that bureaucratic maze. My part is to talk about how and why culture matters when hunting for an apartment; What people tend to forget (or ignore) when they talk about culture, are power imbalances – obviously, my audience would know a lot more than I do about the impacts of race, power, and privilege, so I skip that part!
Although I am used to speaking in front of international groups, this particular experience is new to me. I speak in German, and what I say is translated; yesterday, we had one interpreter for Arabic, a lady volunteered to translate to English, and one gentleman was spontaneously appointed by his peers to translate into Farsi. I even observed someone performing on-the-spot translations to French for his neighbour!
Nevertheless, I try to keep my language very simple, and I draw pictures to illustrate my thoughts; hopefully, even beginners with the language can grasp what I am trying to say. But we never cease to point out that language is key – if you live here, you definitely want to quickly learn German! An expatriate, backed up by some MNC with enough money and excellent referrals, might be in a position to skip this exercise, but others…
Anyway, yesterday, we tried to keep the presentation especially short. For many, the heat was a challenge, and I can only imagine that for the people fasting in the holy month of Ramadan, the day had already been long enough! So, I promised to explain some very basic concepts in 15 minutes; this was including the time the interpreters would need for consecutive Arabic, English and Farsi translations. That would be what…3.75 minutes for me? Or perhaps, anticipating that the Arabic and Farsi translations would likely take longer, my part shouldn’t take more than 150 seconds? I could hear the clock ticking!
The circumstances forced me to act quickly; to come up with an especially powerful tool and not just a picture on a Flipchart. Obviously, I needed something much better than that! In a slightly dramatic fashion, I simply spelt it out: “I do not know of any country in the world where written communication is as highly esteemed as in Germany!” (If there are any, please let me know.) Some people nodded in agreement, some seemed excited to see what this introductory statement would be leading to…and some were on the brink of dozing off.
Moving on without hesitation, I picked up one copy of the hand-out we had prepared. I displayed the piece of standard copy paper; everyone could see it. It was a list of some key learnings and takeaways…all very well-structured, with little headlines and bullet points – exactly how I like it. So, I showed them the paper and said: “This is what Germans like; all neat and tidy…well-structured.” The guy in the second row who, only moments before had seemed ready to drift away, was now paying attention.
The interpreters were getting nervous; obviously, this was taking too long. I took the paper and crumpled it and then let it rest in my left hand for a few moments; it felt quite heavy. I unfolded it and did my very best to make it neat and tidy again. Obviously, that wasn’t happening!
People began to understand, and with my final statement, I must have triggered an unparalleled collective light bulb moment: “for us, a person is like the paper; if the paper is not straight, the person cannot be all right! If the paper and the text is ‘in order’, it’s more likely people will trust you.”
What did I learn this evening?
I have been repeatedly trying to explain this concept to many of my clients; how presentations should be adapted to a German audience, how proposals should look, or rather not look, if you want to win a German’s heart.
When people are from different cultures and backgrounds, there’s a greater likelihood that they have a different meaning in mind when they use words like “in time”, “formal”, or “well-structured”. So, when helping international companies gain business in Germany, one thing I spend a lot of time contemplating is how I can make them understand this communication gap and then bridge it – how do I emphasize the need for a “formal” greeting rather than a casual “Hi, Franz”, which might be acceptable as a proper salutation in my client’s company? In this intercultural setting, how do I help my client(s) understand that they and their German counterparts are talking about different ideas when he/she thinks they’re discussing the same thing?
Maybe one day, it will come down to my flying halfway around the world to their own office and then making some dramatic speeches and creative illustrations (like some origami monster or paper dart) to make them understand what I’m trying to say!
PS: If you have a room to let in Munich, and would like to learn more about how the Society I mentioned can connect you with reliable tenants, I’ll be happy to put you in touch with them. Just send an e-mail to andra[at]andra-ibf.com