The Little Things

Some cultural differences are so severe they stick out like a sore thumb. Others are so subtle that only the most perceptive pick up on them before it is too late and they’ve made a big mistake.

An obvious cultural difference is the Swiss stare. Those of you who live here know what I mean. Everything can be perfectly fine with you but people will still eerily stare you straight in the eyes, no expression on their face, making those unaccustomed to this squirm. In time you get used to it and even learn to stare back with your own mask-like face.

Now that is if there is nothing unusual about you. But let’s say you somehow deviate from the norm. Last night I was sitting on the tram and a guy got on who was having difficulty walking. He seemed to be suffering from some kind of neurological condition. For me the natural response was to avoid eye contact and just kind of peek sideways to see what was the deal.

He sat down in the seat across the aisle and proceeded to start tapping his hand loudly on the glass. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Pause. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. It was as annoying as anything but still I did not look. I didn’t think anything about not looking. That was just my reaction.

At the next stop a number of people climbed on and he continued to Thud. Thud. Thud. Then his phone rang. In a voice loud enough to be heard from front of the 8 tram to back, he started talking to whoever had called. Not just loudly but slurred and slowly. I still didn’t look but the Swiss on the train nearly gave themselves whiplash turning around to stare. And they stared. The whole tram was staring at this guy, expressionless, but staring.

There was another time this habit really struck me. One time a woman was lying on the ground at the SBB, having a heart attack or something. There were two people helping her and the paramedics had just arrived. People actually gathered around in a circle and just stared at what was going on. I felt so bad for the lady. Imagine laying there scared out of your mind and the crowd thinks this is an interesting spectacle. Bizarre habit but an obvious cultural difference. Something you would not see in New York City.

Now the not so obvious. A colleague of mine, D, was telling a story the other night about a recent trouble at work. He is also American. His team had been under a lot of pressure lately to deliver a tricky solution and had spent a lot of time trying to meet the deadline. They accomplished quite a bit and in the end were successful. D decided to send an email thanking the two colleagues who had made it happen and copied some of the project leads on it.

It ended in disaster. A third colleague who had contributed very little was furious that the other two had been praised. The two who were mentioned were upset because they thought the email was condescending. All three were German. In the end, the whole situation had boiled over and others got involved in the drama. All because one confused American wanted to thank two guys for a job well done.

When we were talking about it we had a German friend with us. She told us that thanking is not done in Germany at work. If you receive thanks it has the connotation that you are not an equal but lower on the food chain. She told us that when you don’t hear from a German boss, you can be assured that everything is going well. The less heard the better.

After thinking about it, I realized I could not recall any thank you’s from German colleagues in the time I had been here. However I have given many thanks. I never picked up on it and I guess was lucky never to have caused such a big controversy. On the other hand, I’m not sure I can stop recognizing people’s accomplishments on my team even if it causes a cultural rub.

Anyway, if you have read this far, I’d like to thank you for your time and attention.

Posted from Munich


vailian said...

Wow. I used to work in Switzerland but I guess I was lucky not to have had too many bad experiences, got out unscathed to Germany.
Your post made me think long and hard about the way Germans react to each other in the workplace. I guess because the workplace is generally not performance-related (once you have actually gotten your contract) it is normally just taken for granted that you do your job. Thanks are unnecessary (I guess this is how they see it). That said, in my workplace (an orchestra) at the end of every performance you are expected to shake the hand of the person sitting nearest you. I suppose this is the way they express gratitude.

Expat Traveler said...

very nice to know this cultural difference of thank you's... However, with my swiss german friends, they thank me a lot.

And same with the French speaking swiss...

I guess it's bound to happen when you work in a very multicultural city...

Anonymous said...

Cultures at work are kind of bizarre. Imagine me, an American, working VERY hard on a project and having one of my colleagues (actaully technically a lower level than me) shouting (at me) at how horrible I am at project management because of a really minor error I accidently made on a project. I guess this guy (not German, by the way), not only doesn't need praise, but will actually yell and scream if things don't go his way! And he thinks this is a completely professional and acceptable manner in which to behave based on his culture. But, thankfully, this is the only strange cultural issue I have had to deal with since living here and I think I stay in CH for a while.

C N Heidelberg said...

I think the Germans stare a lot, too. Although, I did live in Boston previously, a place where people go way, way, way out of their way to pretend you don't exist. (What can I say....I kinda liked that.)

Christina said...

Yeah, Germans do the staring thing too. Still bugs the heck out of me!