So long, farewell…

Let’s be super American for a second and embrace the amazing stereotype-on-film that was the Sound of Music.

So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbyyyyye. Goodbyyyyyyye (as we slowly turn around), goodbyyyyyyye (as we slowly walk up our imaginary stairs), goodbyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyye (in our best high-pitched off-key tune).

Yes, really. It’s that time when we must say goodbye to you, our wonderful How We Sink readers. After a great year-long run, we’ve each made some headway in other opportunities and have had to make the hard decision to cut what we haven’t been able to give attention to.

Always feel free to come back and visit us when you need a refresher course on how to deal with those ‘whooo-hooo girls’ or how NOT to interpret a well-meaning email. We wish you the best in all of your intercultural dealings.

With the warmest of regards,
Pamela Jackson & Morgan Moretz

Chill out.

Dearest German friends and colleagues, stop being so damn serious. Like really, quit. Lighten up. Laugh. Spin around in your office chair a couple of times, throw a smiley face in at the end of your email, anything.

In the process of writing an entirely different article for this installment of How We Sink, we ran across an article on BBC about how the Knigge Society, a group which advises on etiquette and social behavior, has called for kissing to be banned in the workplace. Now, they’re not talking about uncomfortable-to-witness displays of affection (we would be supportive of something like that, too), but the Knigge Society proposes that the practice of kissing another on the cheek as a greeting should be banned the workplace.

They are also proposing that if people don’t mind it (“it” being the kissing), they should announce it with a little paper message placed on their desk. The culmination of the call to ban kissing, is the mention that in Europe, there is a “social distance zone” of 23 inches (60 cm) that should be observed. Um, quick question — who measured this?! What happens if we completely mess up and move in an extra 2 inches? Social faux pas of the year, surely.

As an added bonus, the Knigge society has also put in their two cents on how to properly end a relationship via text message. No, really. They did that. We’re seriously wondering if we can just combine the two and let people know, via text message as they approach us, that we don’t want to be kissed on the cheek. Maybe they should write an official statement on that as well.

Our point this time is simple: it ain’t that serious, folks. We all like laughing when stereotypes are fulfilled in real life, but as an American, calling a German and getting a very dry “Absolutely not. Goodbye,” after we’ve laid on the most charming greeting we can muster gets really old after the 15th time. An email stating “Please terminate my subscription. Regards,” is a kick to the stomach. Where’s the smiley face? Can we just get a smiley face!?

Laughing is good for your health. Conversely, stress shortens your life. And even if this way of acting doesn’t stress you out, it sure stresses us out, so quit.  We’re not asking you to come to work in a silly tie. You don’t have to make funny faces at us. Actually, we’d really prefer that you don’t. But you can smile. You can be pleasant. It won’t hurt your business reputation. We’ll trust that you can still be efficient and professional without being a gray cloud on our otherwise sunny day.

A case for LOL Cats

We want to make something perfectly clear – when it looks like we’re just goofing off, we’re working. We promise.

Germans and Americans have very different concepts of what a work day is comprised of. Working in a German environment, we’ve learned that very little time is set aside solely to boost creativity or de-stress. You arrive at work promptly at 8:30am. You determine the most efficient way to boot up your computer, go to the kitchen for coffee (black, no sugar, no cream), and then return to your desk in time to check your inbox the moment the computer’s desktop comes to life. You work for 4.5 hours, go to lunch promptly at 1:00pm to return precisely at 2:00pm — not a moment later. You then work for exactly three more hours, rarely, if ever, leaving your computer screen, and pack up your things promptly at 6:00pm to head home. Sure, a lot gets done, but we’ll have a very difficult time believing it if you say that your brain isn’t fried.

Have you heard of nap rooms? Progressive American companies have nap rooms. Foosball tables. Old school Mario Cart on Nintendo 64. Even if you’re looking at an American company more on the boring side of things, you at least have water-cooler chat, an integral part of every hour’s break. Somehow, despite the distractions (although some would argue because of), things get done.

A study out of Cornell University encourages workers, namely computer users, to take frequent breaks. The breaks increased productivity and accuracy. The aim is to work smarter rather than harder. For those in more creative fields, it is imperative to get away from your work and do things that completely change the pattern of your brain waves for a while, in order to be able to start fresh the next time you sit down to your task at hand. Therefore, it’s not just an American thing. It’s science.

However, it can be hard for Americans like us to adapt to the German style of a work day. If you employ American workers, you may have noticed that they get fidgety, or that their mood takes a nose dive after a few straight hours of work. It is important that, as a manager, you both allow and encourage your workers to take regular breaks.

So the next time it seems as though your American colleague is taking too many breaks, or spending too much time making real-life renditions of LOL Cats (it’s happened, we can’t lie), remind yourself that maybe she’s onto something.

Dress to Express

Recently, an intern we know confessed that it was hard for him to get to know people in his primarily-German company because people didn’t dress to express themselves individually. Sounds odd at first, but hear us out. Everyone in his office was very concerned about ‘dressing the part’ and coming across as a generic polished business person. He was accustomed to the more American way of outward individual expression, through the use of color (or purposeful lack of), patterns (or solids), or…well, anything but the traditional suit and tie. It took him forever to learn who everyone was because to him, everyone seemed like carbon copies of everyone else.

In Germany, ‘business pedigree’ is important. Before a major meeting happens, respective parties want to know who they are meeting and what makes these people important. Are they on the same business level? Is this going to be worth my time? The typical German business person wants to know that whomever they are making the time to meet and do business with has ample experience and authority within their company. How a person presents herself and the resume she can offer is crucial in German business interactions.

Go ahead and picture what would happen if, in what has become the norm in America, a young, slightly-disheveled-but-in-a-charming-way, man with a tattoo across his knuckles and an incomplete college career was to walk in the room. He wants to talk to them about investing in his technology company because he has proof of a solid and lucrative business endeavor. Regardless of the validity of his claims, he would be seen as a joke. Could this man who clearly can’t take care of himself properly possibly know how to take care of a business? “Errmmm, no,” would be their answer.

But, as Bill Gates and every person featured in Inc. Magazine has proved, pedigree doesn’t necessarily make the business person in America.

In an attempt to lessen these inevitable cultural shocks, we invite our German colleagues here in America to remain open-minded when it comes to accepting and attending meetings with new people. Just because someone isn’t the CEO of a well-established company doesn’t mean that this person isn’t an authority on his topic of expertise. And just because this person was a health volunteer in Mali for eight years before switching to intense computer coding last year, it doesn’t mean he isn’t the absolute best at what he does.

You’ll find talent in the most unusual places. Don’t let the business title or the Hawaiian shirt fool you.

We would like to extend our thanks to the AHK USA LinkedIn group for their input on this entry. In response to a question about observed cultural differences, Rick Farris gave us the idea for this topic. Thanks Rick!

Stereotypically Correct

For anyone who has seen the Stackenblochen video, you’ll understand that the German stereotype of order, routine and cleanliness is one based on ever-so-slightly exaggerated German habits. However, there is usually truth to every stereotype and if you put the German Stackenblochen video next to any American country music video ever made, you’ll see the stark contrast between German order and demand for high quality and American… well… wearing overalls in a F150 pickup truck with a blind dog in tow.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t always allow you to “trade out” for a better, more orderly alternative whenever you encounter something contrary to your own moral and hygienic ideals. You can’t always change the thing that drives you nuts and most of the time, it’s just learning how to deal, especially in the workplace.

However, the writers of this blog have stumbled across some essential tricks of the trade when it comes to influencing others to be more organized. Here’s a few approaches you can try:

1. Step back for as long as your slightly OCD habits can allow. If you let this person waste away into the mess they’ve created for themselves, they might finally hit a wall and ask for help in changing their ways. Might.

2. Play to their ego. We all know that they best way to make someone change a course of action is to let them know how much you really need them to, in a “man, everyone is just going to love you forever if you do this” kind of way.

3. Act like you’re training a three-year-old. You know how a lot of people will label EVERYTHING in their child’s play area? This drawer is for barbies with blue dresses, this drawer is for barbies with red dresses, this drawer is for barbies that got a “hair cut”… Upgrade this to adult status. If you can visually train someone to know that there is a proper place for everything and a certain way to plan, they may learn to take joy in fulfilling their new organizing tasks.

4. Suck it up and organize for them. If you really HAVE to have it a certain way, you may just always need to be the one responsible.

But, like in every exchange between people, in business or otherwise, we all have to accept that the only person we can change is ourselves. If you happen to be a neat-freak and your co-worker Sandy is a slob, you may have to just live with it. All we can control is our reaction to other people’s mess and lack of organization. So, the next time you come into the office and Sandy has post-it notes scattered across her desk, pens and bottle caps littering the floor, and sticky spots on her desk from yesterday’s can of Coke Zero, just breathe. There are hints you can leave – a bottle of Windex placed on a chair, a stick of deodorant placed, ever so carefully, in a desk drawer – then cross your fingers to hope these hints are heeded.

But unfortunately, friends, we must concede control. Some people are a mess, and we, the fresh and clean, must sidestep as we can.

Um, what?

This is a story of a boy and a girl. Like most involving boys and girls, this tale is one of miscommunication. This one, however, takes place in an office setting under purely business pretenses and not on the dating field. This, our friends, is the classic story of an American boy who mumbles and a German girl who is too on edge to tell him that she can’t understand a word he says.

The conversation often goes like this:

Boy: Hey! Could you take *unintelligible mumble* because *something that sounds similar to when you’re trying to talk on a cell phone in a tunnel* and I really wouldn’t want *sufferin’ succotash*. Doyouthinkyoucoulddothatforme?

Girl: (nods head furiously) Yes, yes. (starts to go grab a random folder from the cabinet)

Boy: No, no. I meant that thing *the sound of babies talking to each other* and then you can put it *rustling leaves*.

Girl: Ah okay, okay. (walks away in a state of confusion)

Much like a first date gone horribly wrong, the two in the scenario above cannot be expected to communicate when neither is meeting the other halfway. The mumbler hasn’t realized how hard he is to understand, and the confused one hasn’t mustered up the guts to point out that he speaks like one of the teachers in the Charlie Brown cartoons.

In the end, there’s not much you can do about it other than to not be afraid to ask. Never assume that you cannot understand something based on your own intelligence or abilities. You have scientific backing.

Created in the late 1940s, the Shannon-Weaver model of communication states that the only message that matters is the one being received. The person trying to convey the message (the transmitter) knows what he or she is saying, so there’s no need to ensure that the message is understood on the transmitter’s side. The message is then said and greeted with a wide variety of noise – it can be affected by the environment (are you speaking in a loud bar?), how the receiver of the message views the transmitter, or, in our case, a language barrier. So, after all of the barriers a statement has to make it through, it is highly likely that the message received is not the same one that was said.

And this is where we ASK. Unless we work together to communicate, we may as well be grunting at each other in a cave.

To Whom it May Concern,

Among the countless non-descriptive commencement speeches of this graduation season, one caught our eye like a diamond in the rough – a beacon of hope on a dark sea of boring. It was a speech given by the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, at Barnard University. The premise of the speech was “The Women Of My Generation Blew It, So Equality Is Up To You, Graduates.”

Aside from the title making us chuckle, it got us thinking about our role as women in the workplace. For our mothers’ generation, it was about a 50/50 split between women who stayed home as executives of their household and those who worked outside of the home. But times have changed.

Being the inquisitive creatures that we are, we hit up Google for some cold, hard facts about the modern-day corporate ladder. In Germany, around 60% of women between the ages of 15 to 65 work outside of the home, but only about 30% of these work in professional positions. In the US, the same 60% of women between the ages of 15 to 65 work outside of the home but 51.5% of these work in professional positions.

So why so many German men in suits? A lot of arguments can be made and a good overview of ideas can be found here. But in true How We Sink fashion, we have some tips and tricks to make sure everyone is being politically correct in the American culture of women running things. 🙂

  1. When addressing a woman in an email, use “Ms.” Mrs. refers to a woman who is married. In the 1960s, women in the United States wanted to find a way to identify themselves in a manner that didn’t state whether they belonged to a man or not.  It wasn’t until 1972 that the US Postal Service approved this for official documents. So, unless you want to royally piss off the feminist movement, use Ms.
  1. There is little more infuriating than receiving an email to the general information inbox that is addressed “Dear Sirs,”. So, women don’t work now? Oh, ok. Let us go home to grab a pint of ice cream and watch our favorite soaps. Make “To Whom it May Concern” your friend.
  1. It seems as though, when it comes to a Board of Directors for a German company in the US, the Chair of that Board is usually a man, therefore named Chairman. However, on the few occasions that a woman holds this position, they become the Chairperson. Our suggestion is to either keep this position title as Chairperson, or to change it between Chairman and Chairwoman.

These little reminders may seem insignificant, but how can men and women feel equal in the workplace if they are constantly feeling belittled by reminders that things may not be as equal as they should be? We encourage you to make these reminders part of your everyday vocabulary.