Expatica presents the first in an occasional series ruminating about life as a American transplant in Berlin.
I always believed I had good manners: That was before I moved to Germany.
As an American transplant, I found adjusting to German life fairly easy. Still, the point at which cultures tend to really clash is at the workplace. And my breaking point was lunch.
Hierachy in the German work culture
When I first came to Germany, I was warned about the German work culture: “They are formal, hierarchical and stiff,” I was told (by Germans). Expect closed doors and pepper your phrases with ‘Sie’ (the formal pronoun for ‘you’), came the advice.
The hierarchy element is certainly true. But after working in German newsrooms, what I clashed with, and was ultimately undone by, is what I will term, German ‘nice.’ Because where Americans sometimes dispel with pleasantries for the sake of getting things done (or laziness), in Europe, social niceties are important. And that often leaves me feeling like a ‘rude American.’
Take ‘The Greeting.’ It is an imperative to walk into all open German offices and say hello on arrival and goodbye on departure or risk being vilified as unfriendly and snobby. I’ll admit, a small thing like this was hard. It made me feel awkward and monitored. And even though I tried, out of cultural correctness, I usually forgot out of habit.
Also, what can be shocking to Americans in the German workplace is the frequent in-house “happy hour.” The first time I opened a fridge in the kitchen of a German office, I was stunned to find it full of beer. But in Germany, having a whiskey or beer with your colleagues – at the workplace, during working hours – is de rigueur and people wonder why you are not imbibing.
Lunch in the office
My personal workplace nightmare, though, is “Mahlzeit” – I’ll translate it as “lunch terror.” Like many American professionals, I have almost always eaten at my desk because lunch is an afterthought, something one has to do, not a break, not something to look forward to much less to savour and enjoy.
At first, I didn’t really understand that there is a sense of obligation that goes with lunch with one’s colleagues in German work culture: YOU HAVE TO GO. It is a show of comradeship, of solidarity, of family. It is not optional.
At first, I found creative ways to get out of lunch. Eating at 11:30 a.m. Errands to run at 11:55 to be absent for the call to “Mahlzeit.” When I ran out of excuses, I would sit at the lunch table, fretting over work that wasn’t getting done and trying to figure out how to be the first to get up without seeming rude.
Endurance and meditation: the key to avoiding the proverbial doghouse.
Still, I can’t help feeling boorish with my manners, especially regarding correspondence. In the age of emails, a one-line or even one word response without a salutation is the norm at home. Not here. I have been called the ‘Hemingway’ of emails for the brevity of my missives. And once a German I was meeting for the first time didn’t recognize me: She thought I would be male because of my curt cyberspace manner, she told me later. These days, I try to remember to pen a ‘hello’ and sign off with “Best Regards, XXX.”
And that leaves “The Address”: The politics of ‘Sie,’ a complete mystery to me. In general, most people address superiors or older colleagues with the formal ‘you.’ But then you risk insulting someone by implying that the relationship is more formal than they want or that they are old. And it gets even more baffling when people refer to you by your first name but then use ‘Sie.’ My solution: Avoid addressing people at all costs. Blur your words. Be vague. Eat lunch. Be slippery. Be nice. Do small talk and salutations. Survive the work place.