Seeing Germany Through New Eyes
As I eat my last “belegte brötchen” before heading to the airport, I’m reflecting on my latest business trip to Germany.
This country has changed. During the 10 years (98-08) I was lucky enough to live and work here, I witnessed several evolutions in business and technology. My book, No Such Thing As Small Talk: 7 Keys to Understanding German Business Culture discussed how to do business in Germany successfully.
The changes I saw on this recent visit, after an absence of several years, illustrated a Germany which is different in several ways:
English is Everywhere
People speak English really well. I walked across the street to a local gym (fitness studio) to use the facilities. As I walked in and began to speak in German, the person behind the desk not only switched to English, but spoke almost accent-free American English (clearly my language skills aren’t accent-free).
I experienced the same from my workshop participants, others in service positions, and even on local television. Also, there are many more English words peppering German vocabulary, like “commitment,” “headhunter” and “lunch.”
People in Germany are up-to-date with American TV. Netflix, remarkably, has grabbed 1/3 of the market-share in the year it’s been available in Germany, challenging its German competitors. (I had a whole conversation at dinner with a group of Germans about the TV show, Better Call Saul, a program I haven’t even seen yet.)
In the past (and present), German TV dubbed and broadcasted American series up to three years later than they aired in the US. With platforms like Netflix, the question is whether or not German TV can sustain this model. With many speaking English well and having access to the most current shows, I predict demand will wane for the dubbed programs.
Integration of Old Taboos
It is no longer prohibited to refer to N*zis in popular culture. There is a very funny new film out in Germany called, Fack ju Göhte, which is a play on words referencing the famous writer from the 18th century, Johann Wolfgang von Göthe. The star is Germany’s hottest actor right now, Elyas M’Barek, a German citizen of Austrian-Tunisian descent.
I laughed in one scene where the film made fun of a “loser”, a Neo-N*zi sleeping late surrounded by all his N*zi propaganda. They make it really uncool in the film to hold N*zi sentiments. They also try to show how much Germany, with its very diverse population today, has changed. They creatively use humor to remember the Hol*caust and condemn it at the same time.
The film deals with German tradition and language coming up against modern culture and diversity. It’s edgy, ridiculing the way non-German people speak German and how native-speakers patronize while correcting others. It pokes fun at German teenagers and the way they glamorize hip-hop and drug culture. Ten years ago, such satirical humor directed inward at German culture would have been considered poor taste.
Public spaces are no longer pristine; I saw a lot of litter. This is kind of a bummer. I’ve always held Germany up as the standard for cleanliness. However, I’ve noticed more leftover wrappers on trains, on the street, and in the airport. People don’t seem to be picking up after themselves as much or perhaps the state is cutting costs by eliminating the jobs of those responsible for keeping things squeaky clean?
My hypothesis is that its a sign of the times, the German people are relaxing more, taking things easier, and perfection in cleanliness is something that is simply less important.
People smile just to smile.
I remember when I was living in Berlin, the Editor in Chief of the Financial Times wrote a letter to Schröder (Germany’s Chancellor at the time) telling him his people were depressed because they weren’t smiling. Culturally this is funny because if you know Germans, you know they have a great sense of humor, and enjoy laughing as much as the next person, but they didn’t just smile for the sake of smiling.
Americans, for example, smile to make people in their immediate surroundings feel comfortable, to show that they’re generally happy people, and to indicate they’re approachable for interaction. It seems to me that Germans have adopted the last tactic mentioned above, and I witnessed more smiling and more public small talk than I have in the past.
It would have been a mistake to walk into 2015 Germany armed solely with 2008 assumptions. Germany has relaxed in some ways, matured in others, and become a bit less predictable.
Germany still fascinates, creates, and innovates, though. I predict those qualities will not change.
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