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.

Brevity

French philosopher Blaise Pascal apologized for writing a long letter, saying, “I had not the time to write a short one.”

German writing tends to be lengthy. Long sentences and repeated points are the norm. Americans do not have the attention span for this kind of writing. We want you to get to the point.

(Mildly) Great Expectations

We’re going to take a second to pat ourselves on the back.  You, you hard-working German (or American) business person, deserve one too. Why? Because like most people, we enjoy feeling valued. *big, goofy grin*

Call us crazy, but we sincerely believe that praise for good work is an incentive to produce – dare we say it – MORE good work. (And really, that’s not just coming from us. Experts say it too.) We have noticed several ways in which Germans and Americans approach this differently.

  1. Good work is always expected in a German workplace and rightfully so. The production of good work is exactly why we are hired, but sometimes there’s a learning curve and mistakes get made. A mistake should not be viewed as the downfall of your career, but rather, as a chance to improve yourself, your trade, and ultimately, your life. The key in the American work-place is steady improvement.
  2. The idea of praise for good work doesn’t always exist in a German workspace. At least, it’s not a huge focus. Take a look at all the motivational products – “Good work, team!” coffee mugs and “You’re a ‘bear-y’ great co-worker!” stuffed-animal-bear desk decoration (okay that probably doesn’t exist) – in the US, and you’ll see that motivation in the work place is taken to great heights here. It also explains why a line of rather awful postershave made massive amounts of money in this country. There’s a better way to do this though – just communicate your expectations, and how and where they’ve been met. It gives your colleagues a guide of how to continue along the correct path.Americans are raised from the very seeds of infancy (well, okay, kindergarten) to expect some form of praise. If you went to school in the American system, you’ll remember the coveted gold stars you’d get by your name when you remembered to wash your hands after going to the bathroom or clean up your desk at the end of a school day. In psychology terms, it’s called positive reinforcement. This need for praise, or at least constructive criticism in less favorable situations, is still deeply ingrained, especially in the workplace.
  3. Many hierarchical societies are built on fear as a motivating factor – you will do something and do it well for fear of reprimand from a boss, schoolteacher, parent or other superior. Some people like to call this respect. We would debate that. On the flip side, Americans are all about the pursuit of happiness, freedom, and self-discovery. To say it in another way, we’re not typically ones for authority. It is easier to prod us with praise then try to force us to do anything, as we discussed in a previous entry.

Becoming accustomed to different management and working styles will always take time but the ability to see those differences will push you and your company further than you know. After all, good work usually comes from a happy employee, which will always make the boss happy.

Aiming for Astuteness

There are idioms in any language that, when learned, create the feeling of being a bit more relaxed and native. However, when learning idioms in the “target” language, it’s important to understand the context behind them or you risk giving the impression of aloofness rather than astuteness.

For example, a close (German) friend of Morgan’s worked in an American company at one point in his career and was determined to get not only his accent and grammar perfected, but also to achieve a more colloquial demeanor when speaking. One day, Morgan had casually thrown the phrase “smarty pants” (noun: a smart aleck; a know-it-all; der besserwisser) around in a joking manner without much thought. The next time she spoke with this friend, she found out that one day in the office, he casually said this phrase to his American superior who responded with a quizzical pause and then,”…you know, no one’s called me that since I was six.” Needless to say, not all native “slang” is useful and knowing the proper context of when to use slang or idioms can be a tremendous help.

Another tricky area of most languages is the realm of prepositions. We’ll be the first to admit that while learning German, we’d rather knit a sweater for 12 days than figure out which prepositions are dative or accusative and the adjective ending associated with fore-mentioned preposition. That said, learning when to use English prepositions appropriately can also be a pain.

Where this provides the largest challenge is in the use of ‘until’ and ‘by’. In German, both are expressed with the word ‘bis’ but in English, the words are separated. Allow us to demonstrate the subtle difference:

1. She won’t be back until 5 o’clock.
2. She won’t be back by 5 o’clock.

Now, here are the interpretations:

1. She will be back at 5 o’clock.
2. She will be back after 5 o’clock.

So, if you need a report done by 5 o’clock this afternoon, saying you will need it until 5 o’clock would not be accurate. To expand your understanding of the two words, we’ll combine them:

I will be working on this project until 4:55pm, so that you may have it by 5 o’clock.

Here are a few others that we often see switched around. Do you have problems with any of these? If so, how do you remember when to use which word? What are some we’ve missed?

1. Send versus sent ( “sent” is and will always be the past tense of “to send.”)
2. Will versus want (A tough one to explain but Germans, remember: while the German “will (wollen)” does mean “to want,” it does not mean that in English. “Will” in English is more like “werden.”)
3. Bring versus take (This is a common mistake even for Americans. Bring something TO me,  take something AWAY.)
4. This versus that (That is over there but this is right here. Think proximity.)
5. Park versus hold (You always put someone on hold when transferring a phone call, not on park. We typically only park cars…or ourselves in front of the TV with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish food.)
6. Go upstairs versus scroll up (When referring to anything other than a house or building, do not use the term “upstairs” for direction. Especially scrolling in an upwards direction on a computer.)