Thinking Like An American

Working in Germany has been an interesting experience. The language barrier was not too much of a problem. When I came here, my German was marginal, but that didn't stop anyone in the office from hitting me with full-on Bayrisch (the local dialect). It didn't take long to become fluent. What were more interesting were the cultural barriers.

The most difficult cultural barrier to overcome was to stop thinking like an American. What I mean is that in the US, we have this idea that if we're not working at 120% capacity, we're not busy enough. We take on way more than is humanly possible and then (understandably) fail to be able to complete it on time. I personally find that when I am overworked, which is almost always, it is simply because I accepted more than I should have. I think we have this notion that turning down an assignment is some kind of black mark. The result of all this is that while we all look really busy, percentagewise no one is accomplishing much. Email and voice mails go unanswered. Deadlines get missed. Commitments get broken.

The German perspective is just the opposite. They are very careful that what they take on isn't going to be too much. This is partly because they understand that there needs to be a line drawn between work and personal life, a fact that we Americans could stand to ponder. It is also, though, that the Germans value quality. They tend not to take on more work than they can complete with a reasonable level of quality, which includes doing it in a timely manner. A German colleague once told me that the worst thing about Americans is that they constantly promise to do things and then don't, and that is the expected behavior.

I just had my first German performance review today. Among the things pointed out as an area for improvement was the fact that I take on more work than I should and hence end up scrambling to get it done. In Germany this behavior is especially bad because the expectation from everyone around me is that if I say I will do it, that means I will do it, do it well, and have it done on time. That means that my full schedule, which depends on there being some slippage, becomes even fuller when slippage is not an option.

It was a hard year. My wife hates me now because of all the overtime I had to put in to keep up with my obligations. My dog has forgotten what I look like. The cat never liked me to begin with, so there's no loss there. The only thing that keeps me some being permanently in the doghouse was that I could work from home most of the time. And now that I am finally beginning to think about work like a German, we're looking into moving back to the states. Something tells me it will be just as hard to go back.


Dan, I just recently found your web-log on the net and have enjoyed alot reading it. I'm a dane (Denmark) and found your observations about germans, Germany and Europe to be funny and true (well - most of them anyways) You just stated you might be going back to the US. Why? /larsb

Posted by Lars Borup on July 29, 2004 at 04:52 PM PDT #

Anything in particular you find to be untrue?

Posted by Daniel Templeton on July 29, 2004 at 11:19 PM PDT #

Hi Dan! "Germans don't generally like foreigners of any kind"... well, I found that remark quite offensive. Apart from that, your insights are quite interesting and funny. Of course, most of the time you really describe Bavaria instead of Germany. Rgds -- Volker

Posted by Volker A. Brandt on July 30, 2004 at 02:46 AM PDT #

Well - Can't really remember but I've come across a couple of things I think to be untrue or atleast a tad generalized but rather I think your blog is very funny and also informative. Keep up the work.

Posted by Lars Borup on August 01, 2004 at 02:01 AM PDT #

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