Tuesday, May 25, 2010

German Culture 101

Phil's company, Areva, has done a great job helping us as we get settled here in Germany. They have helped us set up language courses as well as provided us with a two day cultural training. This week the wives of the delegates had their course (they separate us since the experience is so different for the haus fraus). I found the course very interesting and walked away with a lot of usefull information. Part of the reason that I enjoyed the course was because it was taught by a psychology professor who is now traveling around Germany training delegates. We ended up learning a lot about ourselves and our preconceived ideas and hang ups before we even arrived in Germany. This really helped to identify why we reacted to different situations in certain ways.

For those of you interested, here are a few things that we learned.

1. Germans are coconuts, Americans are peaches.
Meaning...Germans have a hard shell but are soft on the inside. It takes a while to get past that first layer but once past it is easy to foster a deep friendship. It is was then described that Americans have a soft flesh but hard core. It is easy to expand of become friends until a certain point. Germans at first glance seem distant but once the shell is cracked longerterm and reliable relationships can be established. Americans at first glance appear superficial (to the Germans) because they are open to many people but there is a great distinction between politeness and deep relationships at the core.

2. Celebrating your birthday
In Germany when it is your birthday you must be the one to bring in cakes and drinks for everyone on your floor at work. It is thought of as rude to forego this practice. The idea is that everyone comes to you to get a piece of cake and wishes you happy birthday at that point. If you suggest that several of you go out to dinner to celebrate your birthday it is assumed that you will be picking up the bill. Phil's birthday is next week so I have already started planning on what cakes I will be making for the office.

3.Germans do not praise normal acheivements
Phil and I experienced this first hand when we were playing ultimate frisbee with several German students. We had each complemented several of the players on our team for making great plays and noticed that when we did they would snicker. When we asked them about this they stated, "Americans always compliment every little thing." Germans will only compliment you when you have done something extrordinary, otherwise it means nothing to them. Normal achievements are not to be praised because normal is not what we should be striving for. We discussed how this is true in the work place in Germany. In America work reviews are often given using the sandwich approach (start with praise, add negative comments or constructive criticism, end with praise). In Germany the reviews are there to point out what you need to work on and are straight to the point. Most Germans are not worried about hurting your feelings and will therefore not worry about sugar coating what they really want to say. I kept thinking that although this straight forward way of dealing with people is somewhat refreshing (I know how you really feel), it would not go over well in the southern United States.

Finally we had a group activity that I would like to share because I found it very interesting. We were told that we were going to be read a story about several characters and that our job was to rank them from least moral to most moral. Knowing that Phil had taken the class the week before I was eager to get home and find out how he had ranked each character.
Here is the story....
Rosi is a girl of about 21 years of age. She is engaged to George but there is one problem that prevents them from getting married. There is a big river filled with alligators separating them. Rosi spends weeks trying to figure out how she can cross the river safely to be with George. One day she remembered Siegfrid, a friend of hers, who is the only boat owner in the region. This is the only solution that she can come up with to get to George. When Rosi asked Siegfried to take her across the river he told her that he would under one condition, that she spend a night with him. Shocked about this offer Rosi consults Frederick and tells him the entire story. Frederick replied by saying, "I understand what you are saying but it is YOUR problem not mine." Rosi decides to go back to Siegfried and spends the night with him. The next morning Siegfried helped Rosi cross the river.
Her reunion with George is wonderful and they excitedly prepare for the big day. The night before the wedding Rosi feels forced to tell George how she managed to cross the river to be with him. After hearing this story George replied by saying, " I wouldn't marry you even if you were the last woman on earth." Rosi is so upset and tells the story to Daniel who listens to her and says,"Well, Rosi, I don't love you but I would marry you."
The Characters are Rosi, George, Siegfried, Daniel and Frederick.

After reading the story we were asked to each stand up in front of the class and talk about why we placed each character in their particular position.

What made this activity so interesting was that I was in a room with four other women from four different parts of the world. Each one of us had a different order all based on different perspectives. Here is what came up...
- One woman brought up the point that in her culture spending the night did not mean sleeping with someone. She had Siegfried as the most moral since she assumed that he wanted her to spend time with his family before leaving the area.
- Another woman said that Daniel would be the most moral since he was willing to marry a woman that would have been considered "damaged" by society even though he did not love her.
- Another stated that Frederick was the most moral because he refused to get involved in other peoples affairs.

We all found this activity helpful as we try to understand where different cultures are coming from and how to see things from other perspectives.

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