“Culture is like gravity: you do not experience it until you jump six feet into the air,” Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner explain in Riding the Waves of Culture. I chose to also mention that comparison for the engineers amongst you. A more popular picture, I believe, is the one about the fish that doesn’t know it’s in water until it jumps outside of it. Fish are so surrounded by water that it is impossible for them to see it.
A couple of days ago, I had to think of when I first jumped out of “my” fish tank. That was in 2001/02, when I spent half a year as an intern with Tata McGraw-Hill in New Delhi. Over the weekends, I used to camp in my neighborhood’s nearest Cybercafé (in GK 1 M Block Market, the one downstairs, in case it still exists), sometimes with no light or air condition but with the sweet and comforting humming of what I believe was a diesel generator in the background. Email was the only (affordable) way to keep in touch with my loved ones back home.
The mailing list of my soon to be established and quite popular newsletter also included my Indian relatives, my Indian boss, and my landlord. Certainly, this was not the platform to complain about what did not go so well (according to my world view). Rather did I try my very best to describe my “adventures” in a cheerful manner. In retrospective, educating myself to look at my experiences from a humorous and lighthearted angle, was a great strategy to handle my culture shock. In fact, I’d recommend the exercise to anybody struggling with a new environment or situation. What I find remarkable is that it took me quite a while to realize that what I had so far perceived as normal, was shocking news to my Indian colleagues:
“On the 6th, I treated my colleagues with chocolate,” I wrote in December 2001. “Certainly, they wanted to know the whole story about Nikolaus! I very proudly gave a lecture on German customs. It never occurred to me that they could find it strange that I want to know every detail about their (sometimes ‘really strange’) customs. I had to explain that ‘Krampus’ and ‘Rute’ [stick or rod] and ‘in den Sack stecken’ [to put the children into a bag] does not mean that we are a very cruel people… But I had to smile the whole day, remembering Saurab shaking my hand and saying, ‘I wish you a Happy Nikolaus’ and Rakesh, who thanked me with ‘Madam, basst scho.’”
If you don’t know Krampus, I suggest you go on YouTube and look for that video in which German-Austrian actor Christoph Waltz explains the pre-Christmas tradition to U.S. talk show host Jimmy Fallon; pointing out how the custom is embedded in religion and tradition, revealing (educational) values. The Elf on the Shelf on Fallon’s desk to Waltz looks like a wimp, reflecting the rather lenient and permissive U.S. culture, as Waltz basically puts it. Fallon, on the other hand, finds the Krampus doll he retrieves from under his desk quite … incredible.
Can we learn something about culture and how to do business internationally from such stories? I believe so. In my book Doing Business in Germany – A Concise Guide to Understanding Germans and their Business Practices, I therefore (also) talk a lot about history, education, and common habits.
Let me just mention a few behaviors or “dogmas” that you might find strange or annoying when dealing with Germans:
1. This constant “Bitte und Danke sagen”
In Germany, a popular saying goes: “was Hänschen nicht lernt, lernt Hans nimmermehr;” this translates literally to “What (little) Hänschen doesn’t learn, (grown-up) Hans never learns either,” meaning that whatever (habits) you don’t learn as a kid, you will never be able to understand/adopt. The connotation is rather patronizing, does not target grown-ups like the “you cannot teach an old dog new tricks” saying does, and is not as harsh as “A tree must be bent while it is young.” The Hänschen quote is often used in the context of “proper behavior.”
If Hänschen doesn’t learn to say “please” and “thank you” (on every possible occasion), he will never learn. “What is the word?!” (Wie heißt das Wort?!), parents would remind Hänschen or Gretchen, when he or she requests something. “Bitte” (please) is the proper answer. “How do you say?!” (Wie sagt man?!), the parent would add, if Gretchen forgot to say, “Thank you!” In Germany, a smile or an approving gesture is generally not considered an adequate reply to express gratitude or thankfulness; if you do not utter a “Dankeschön,” you might be considered unappreciative or ill-mannered.
2. Table Manners
Very likely, as kids, your German business partners were (constantly) reminded to avoid making sounds when drinking or eating; today, they would rather die from stomach pain than burp in public, and would easily get annoyed when someone slurps his or her drink, or sniffles. We consider it normal to blow your nose, even at a conference table or in the restaurant (I know, you might find that disgusting).
And, while most people know that (and admire how) people from other cultures, at home, might skillfully be using hands or chop sticks to consume their food and would, therefore, not frown upon a certain potential clumsiness when they use a fork and knife, the “American way” of cutting the entire meal into bite-sized pieces, to be eaten with a fork only, could cause some irritation. Over here, we use both fork and knife, cut the bites one by one, eat slowly, and do not talk with a full mouth (“Nicht mit vollem Mund sprechen!”).
People usually do not share food; Herr Schneider will order his plate of schnitzel and expect you to choose a dish of your own. If Frau Friedsam offers you one of her French fries, that would imply a very relaxed (by German standards), almost intimate, relationship between the two of you (don’t worry – just grab the potato stick!). You do not have to leave any food on the plate to let the host know that you are satisfied; we tell our kids that, if they do not finish their food, the next day’s weather will be bad. Or parents would remind their children that “in Africa, children are starving!” – which might, to some extent, explain our one-sided view of the continent. When you have finished eating, leave the cutlery on the plate (knife parallel to the fork).
However, if you do not want to try something offered to you, you don’t need to worry that you might hurt your hosts’ feelings. You can either tell them that you just do not like Käsespätzle (cheese noodles) or Saumagen (stuffed pig’s stomach) very much, or on the very rare occasion when you are invited to a house and you cannot invoke religious reasons or some food intolerance, tell the host that your stomach is slightly upset from the journey. Only start eating when all the guests are seated. And, be prepared to make conversation. Try not to litter the table. If you accidently spill sauce on the tablecloth though, you do not have to feel embarrassed; still, as always with Germans, an “oh, I am so sorry!” will do no harm.
3. Ruhe bitte!
Although things are changing, as our society does, as a thumb rule, you should begin with the premise that Germans appreciate a calm and quiet environment; in the standard German house rules (Hausordnung), you will always find at least one paragraph stating the hours of the day (and night) in which you are not supposed to let your children or your stereo system play loudly (Ruhe bitte!), use a drilling machine, vacuum clean the floor, take a shower, or use the washing machine. I have heard of residential communities where you are not allowed to use the toilet flush at night! So, when you are, for example, waiting in the entrance hall of a company, better keep it down.
4. Bitte ausreden lassen
When talking to others, take care to let them finish their sentences. Germans are very used to sequential speaking (other than like, for example, people who converse in Spanish and do not seem to mind everyone speaking at the same time). Interrupting or talking over someone when the other person hasn’t finished his or her sentence can, on many occasions, be considered rude. However, taking notes is always a good idea and indicates that you are listening closely and that you are interested. Depending on your counterparts’ age group, preferably use paper and pen; if you use your (muted!) phone for taking notes, people might think you are distracted.
5. Ein Indianer kennt keinen Schmerz!
Germans show their emotions less than people from many other countries, whether it is joy, excitement, or sadness; however, we are quite free with expressing our frustration. “Ein Indianer kennt keinen Schmerz” (an American Indian doesn’t know pain) is some nonsense many (still) like to tell boys when they cry. A woman who cries after a quarrel with a colleague is considered unprofessional and weak. Men are not supposed to cry at all!
6. Erst die Arbeit, dann das Vergnügen!
During office hours, we “talk business” and are (more or less) focused on getting things done. That doesn’t mean that we don’t exchange some pleasantries or wouldn’t congratulate our colleague for his or her birthday or work anniversary (sometimes the department would even make the effort to buy a joint present!); however, it is a common understanding that work should always come first. “Erst die Arbeit, dann das Vergnügen” (business before pleasure) is the directive.
Now and then, colleagues may go out for a drink after work, while still generally taking care not to tell their workmates too much about their personal lives. It is possible to befriend a colleague, and as far as I know, there is no such thing as labeling or banning affairs at the workplace as “illicit” (unless you work for the Catholic Church). However, it is (still) considered more advisable to separate the private life from the business sphere: “Dienst ist Dienst, und Schnaps ist Schnaps!” (business is business, and booze is booze).
When you leave the office, you wish your colleagues a nice “Feierabend;” the term cannot really be translated, and over time, has come to mean that the evening is for leisure and recreation, and that now is the time to rest and be yourself. Only then would a (mainstream) German show certain (maybe more cheerful or down-to-earth) aspects of his or her personality.
7. Versprochen ist versprochen und wird auch nicht gebrochen!
Some other core principles that we were all (generally) taught are to be on time and to stick to what you promise or commit to. The sticking to (former) decisions or statements might sometimes come across as inflexibility. While somewhere else people may make decisions, bearing in mind that those decisions may need to be altered or adapted along the way, Germans typically view a decision akin to a promise that has to be kept, no matter what happens.
8. Was jetzt? Entweder oder!
While, for my friends from France, philosophy was a mandatory course at school, where they could debate the countless facets of life and its truths (at least, that is what I imagine), I had to endlessly write expositions/considerations (Erörterungen), listing the pros and cons of certain matters (e.g., “Should cigarette advertising be completely banned?”) to arrive at (final, cast in stone) conclusions. The better you could argue in favor of one right (or wrong), the greater was the applause. And, we were taught that it is better not to use a conjunctive in letters and reports. For example, instead of “I would be delighted to welcome you to my birthday party,” one should rather write, “I look forward to welcoming you to my birthday party,” because that sounds much more convinced and convincing!
9. Eine Sache nach der anderen!
And, we are told to do one thing at a time (“Eine Sache nach der anderen!”) and “alles zu seiner Zeit” (all in good time). And, for us, it is “normal” to be on time. People who tend to be late are “abnormal,” and based on a very common understanding, need to be admonished or avoided. Having understood that, it might not come as a surprise to you that Germany ranks as one of the top countries worldwide when it comes to the stress we put on punctuality (“Pünktlichkeit”). In business, arriving even a few minutes late (without a very good excuse) will create a bad impression. If you think a “Sorry, I was held up at another meeting!” is a very good excuse, forget it! Also, telling me that when coming from the airport during rush hour, it had unfortunately taken you more than the anticipated 10 minutes to arrive in the city center won’t make things better.
You are still interested in doing business in Germany but need somebody help you navigate the murky waters of German etiquette? I am happy to help you out. Please get in touch!