Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Germany - there is more to it than Beer !

Yes, Germans like their Beer and yeah, Germany has the auto-bahn, which has some sections with no speed limits, but there is definitely a lot more to Germany than that.

Disclaimers: The intention of the article is not to typecast Germans but to make it easy for foreigners who come to Germany to understand their culture and them better. The article purely reflects my views based on my experiences (in italics throughout this blog) and finally, remember there are always examples and exceptions.

Punctuality and Time: Germans are extremely punctual. If you walk into a 5pm meeting at 5:01, you would have missed the first part of the introduction for sure ! If this is a technical meeting involving demos, then you would see them getting ready for it from 4:30 onwards (or much earlier) because starting at 5 ALWAYS means EXACTLY starting at 5.

Germans value time a lot, in the sense that they would not prefer small talk when they are working. They pretty much stick to 'work while you work and play while you play'. If it is a 8 hour work day, they will work exactly for 8 hours (not counting the lunch and coffee breaks) and then leave. This might be difficult for desis who are used to 11 or 12 hour work days, of which probably a few hours are spent in chit-chat and/or browsing. So if a German colleague is not willing to talk to you during work hours, it is not personal, it is simply the work culture.

My experience: I walk to a bus-stop and notice an old lady complaining to her friend that she is fed up of the public transport system and that things are not as they used to be. While I am wondering, why she feels that way (since I totally love the public transport here), the bus arrived and I almost choked with laughter when I heard her say "There comes the bus and it is 2 minutes late today too". In my mind, I was thinking of the times I stood in some bus-stop in Chennai without a clue as to when the bus would come and if it would actually come ! I am not trying to demean PTC (I love Pallavan - have fond memories in 21, 21G and 5B :D) but I was thinking about how pampered the old lady was and how she still did not realise it !

Trust and Reliability: Germans usually say 'Yes' or 'No'. They do not prefer 'maybe' responses. Sometimes when they are so frank, it might seem impolite but the truth is they are only going by facts. If you get a 'yes' for a task, you can be sure that it will be complete, come what may....ergo, Yes means yes and no means no. The tricky part is when desis say 'yes' to be polite, even when the task is ambitious, Germans believe it is 'doable' and this will naturally lead to a misunderstanding.

Germans are truthful, even when the truth is bitter. They have no problem in accepting that they do not know something, even in an interview. Conversely, they also believe that the other person is saying the truth and there is no need for verification. Interviews here, for example, will not have technical exams but more or less a discussion on what you claim to know in your resume.

My experience(s): I had an interview for an internship that my professor had set up for me. It lasted 5 minutes, seriously ! They had already looked at my resume. They first asked me if I had read the project description and if I was interested in the internship offer. When I said yes, they gave me the contract. Nobody had ever placed so much trust in me professionally !

I was invited to coffee and when my host asked me if I would like a piece of cake, I politely refused although I was really hungry. I was being the total desi, who refuses the first time and and agrees the second time....only there was no second time because Germans read a no as a ''no''. If you are hungry, say so and eat :D

Adherence to Rules: Rules mean everything to them irrespective of how much time, money and effort will be spent in doing so. Sometimes it is frustrating, at other times it seems the most logical way of doing things.

My Experience(s): I was getting my passport by post from an embassy. I had to go to the post office to collect this parcel. The parcel required showing a govt. id and given that I did not have my license then, I was in a catch 22 situation. I explained to the lady in the counter that the parcel contained my passport but she would not take my word and open the packet ''unauthorised''. Parcels can also be picked up by people who have an authorisation letter from the recipient. So I asked her if I can authorise her to ''pick up'' the parcel for me and as a post office employee, she is apparently not supposed to do that. In the end, I authorised a colleague of mine, who showed his id, and got me the parcel. I only wonder how they allowed me to ''authorise'' someone when I couldn't prove my own identity ?! I was afraid that asking this question would mean more rules, so I simply shut up !!

It was October fest (the world famous beer festival in Munich) and I noticed a totally drunk chap swaying to and fro in the road. He was walking before me and when he entered the subway to catch the train, I was worried he was going to fall into the track. Suddenly he made a sharp movement and while I was still in shock he moved to a ticket machine and bought a ticket !!! I was open mouthed and I was even more shocked when he got the ticket punched (at a validating machine) so that it was validated before he boarded the train. I couldn't get over how the buying and validating a ticket before boarding the train was so much an integral part of him that he remembered to do it even in that drunken stupor !! He is the first drunk man to have impressed me in a good way.

Efficiency: The word ''German efficiency'' is common and true to this word, efficiency is the watchword here. There are lots of meetings, discussions, plans and one would think this is taking a lot of time but only at the end of project comes the realisation that not only is the project on time and in budget, but every contigency is also accounted for. The ''attention to detail'' is a trait they are most likely born with !

My experience: I was in the BMW museum and I came across one of their first bicycles and right next to it is a detalied LOE (Level of Effort) that would put today's excel worksheet to shame ! This LOE describes man-hours and other costs for every part with detailed description on what might cause delays.

Privacy and Personal space: Germans value their privacy and personal space so much that if you are ever invited to someone's home, you can assume that he/she considers you a great friend.

My experience: I had gone ballroom dancing with a few German dance classmates and had forgotten my house keys at work and getting into the office building at night would require a special access card that I did not have. When I realised this, it was already 11pm and I was frantically making calls to get hold of someone who could let me into the office. Although all my classmates were sympathetic, none of them invited me to spend the night in their homes. They would have gladly lent me money to check into a hotel (thankfully I had my credit card for that) but inviting an acquaintance home is something they would not do. They have nothing against me but they are not comfortable in sharing their personal space with someone that is not a spouse or a partner. I actually spent the night with a Punjabi family who owns a restaurant close to my house. The restaurant owner saw me making calls and asked me what was up. Even before I completed my sentence, he said that I could stay with him and his wife - Desi hospitality is unbeatable !

Independence: The social system is in such a way that they are anything but dependent. You will often see a 80-yr old using one of these walking assist devices and doing her own shopping. Even while traveling in Europe, you will often come across tourists reading maps and you will surprised to note that hardly anyone is asking for directions.

My experience: It was my second day in Germany and I was trying to figure out where the lecture hall, where my german classes would take place, was. I asked a German that walked past me and he made me walk a few steps with him, pointed me to a map, showed me where I was standing, smiled and left ! I thought he was messing with me and then gradually I understood he was giving me the tool to figure out the answer rather than giving me the answer itself and why - because thats what he would do, if he was lost he would look for a map and not for directions, he would figure that out himself !

Level of Affability: Germans are not extroverts. They are not openly friendly and they do not go around smiling at everyone but once you know them, they can be very warm.

My experience(s): During my first year on the job, I did not even know if my colleague (who I worked with in most projects) was married but now that we are friends, we know each other's childhood stories.
One of my German friends came all the way to India for my wedding even though he did not have enough time and money to travel in India. He attended my wedding, just spent a week in Kerala and came back....needless to say, I was really touched.

Environment: Germans care a lot about keeping everything clean and green. They seriously take care of energy conservation. Most people take the public transport to work for this purpose. Lighting in most public places are built in with sensors so that they can be automatically switched off if no human presence/movement is detected.

Noise pollution is one of the most hated words here. Using a horn while driving is considered taboo and is actually illegal within the city. If you are having a loud party on a weekday without informing your neighbours you can be sure that cops will become party-crashers !

My experience: When I first landed in Stuttgart, my expectation of seeing a city with skyscrapers was erased and everywhere I saw it was green. This was amazing given that Stuttgart is one of the most industrialized cities in Germany ! It was so silent in my dorm on the first day, especially since I had arrived much earlier than most people that I had trouble sleeping !!

Loyalty: Germans are extremely loyal to the place they grew up in. They generally would not even consider moving from one state to another.

My experience: When I was working in Stuttgart, all my colleagues had studied in Stuttgart, graduated from the University of Stuttgart and except for a brief stint in a foreign country for an internship or exchange program, all of them had always been in Stuttgart.

Vacation: Germans love their vacation and enjoy it to the fullest. Most jobs come with a 30 day vacation package and add to it 8-10 public holidays. They make really good use of the 40 days. They are great travelers and are extremely interested in knowing/experiencing other cultures and cuisines. These vacations are well planned and during one of these, they fall off the radar completely as in they will not be reachable.

My experience: All my German friends have atleast been to 5 Non-european countries for vacation in the last few years I have known them.

Sports and Entertainment: Germans love watching sport - football and doing sport - swimming, cycling, skiing, trekking (you name it !). Germans are also voracious readers. German is the second most used language in writing books and this is impressive when one considers the number of german speakers in comparison to the rest of the world.

Germans are not television or movie friendly. Believe me when I say most of my colleagues do not even have a TV at home (reminds me of Joey's question from Friends: If you don't have a TV, whats all your furniture pointing at ?! ROFL !!). It is true though. You will find only foreigners and youngsters (since the movie craze is slowly catching on here too) in theatres. I know people who have never heard of Pirates of the Caribbean !!

My experience: The first time I saw my professor, a 50 year old man, coming to the University in a suit but on a bicycle I laughed. But when I realised he cycles 15kms to and fro everyday, the laugh was on me because at my age, I do not believe I can do it and still spend a whole day at the university...I would be exhausted ! And this is the man who owns a Porsche !!

That was a lot of blah...blah...I got carried away, here is a time-saving (and probably less interesting) version of it (dos and donts, if you will)
  • Every country has its own history, culture and practices. You don't have to like them all but learn to respect them and to be tolerant. I assure you, they will do the same - I still remain a vegetarian and Germans respect that.
  • Multi-cultural interactions are always tricky. So give people the benefit of doubt - is the only way to grow.
  • Give people some time to get used to you - do not ask people about their marital status, income and age (especially in case of women)
  • Give people some space - do not barge in without appointments or drop by without making a call
  • To the most part, I agree with ''Be a Roman in Rome'' but there is no need to lose your identity just because you are in a foreign country - I wear salwars to work in summer when the weather permits it and I wore a sari to the christmas party and everyone loved it.
  • Be ready to learn, to face challenges, to have fun !
If you are here already, be ready for an interesting and exciting life !
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