ACHTUNG: Culture Shocks In Germany!

As companies go global, their employees relocate to different parts of the world. Immersion in diverse cultures follows. A certain degree of culture shock is inevitable. Overcoming it is a critical success factor for globalization.

With this in mind, one of the topics I was planning to cover when I started this blog was globalization amidst cultural differences. But, amidst marketing, sales, fintech and other more frequently covered themes, culture got missed out.

I plan to make amends for that with this post, which exposes various quirks of business and social culture in Germany. It’s based entirely on the first hand experience I gained while working and living in the country in the early 2000s.

The seeds for this post were sown when I read the following question on Quora:

What are the biggest culture shocks people face when coming to Germany?

What follows is a slightly edited version of my answer.

  1. Appointments for business meetings are granted weeks or even months in advance. In other words, if you want to meet a customer, you’d better be prepared to wait for weeks or months and not days as you might be accustomed to in other parts of the world. I learned this when a prospective customer called me in August, expressing keen interest in meeting me ASAP to know more about my company’s products and services. I was ready to go down the next day. But the customer checked his calendar and gave me an appointment. It was for 27 December! (Another culture shock: Contrary to what I’d heard earlier, the European market does not shut down during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.)
  2. An item could have two different prices at two outlets of the same retail chain in the same city. I was planning to buy a Palm PDA. When I checked at the outlet of a leading electronics chain near my home, the model I’d zeroed down on had a price of €245. A few days later, I happened to visit another neighborhood 5 kms away from my home. I saw an outlet of the same retailer there. Out of curiosity, I stepped in. The same model of Palm PDA cost €215 here. That’s a difference of nearly 15%. Price discrimination, as this retail best practice is called, is quite common in ecommerce websites now. But it’s not very common in brick-and-mortar stores even today – at least not in the stores located in the same city.
  3. The aforementioned electronics chain accepted only cash and debit card. Then it launched a co-branded credit card. But it wouldn’t accept its credit card in its own stores! I asked the checkout attendant why they launched a co-branded credit card. He shrugged his shoulders and told me, “maybe for marketing purposes?”!
  4. It was during my time in Germany that Daimler Mercedes AG (Germany) acquired Chrysler Inc. (USA). Juergen E. Schrempp, the CEO of Daimler Mercedes was appointed the CEO of the combined company called Daimler Chrysler Inc. (DCX). His annual compensation in Daimler Mercedes was around $4M, which was a fraction of the $55M earned by the CEO of Chrysler (Robert J. Eaton). Pointing out to the huge difference, a mediaperson asked the new CEO when his salary would cross $55M. Herr Schrempp shot back, “Why should my salary increase? I’m not exactly lining up in front of a soup kitchen with a bowl in my hand.”
  5. We’re currently going through the early stages of transitioning into the newly introduced Goods & Services Tax regime in India. One of the important requirements under GST is that, invoices must mention the customer’s GST Identity Number (apart from name and address). More in my blog post entitled GST For Techies – Part 2. This measure is meant to improve traceability of goods and taxability of income through the distribution channel. This reminds me of the height of traceability and taxability in Germany: If you take your customer out for dinner, you must jot down the name of the customer on the reverse of the bill and, preferably, get him or her to sign as proof. The government’s logic was, since the customer dined with you, s/he didn’t spend money on their food; ergo, the cost of the meal should be treated as income in their hands and taxed accordingly!
  6. In stores, airports and railway stations all over the world, people generally take a luggage trolley, wheel it around here and there, and leave it wherever they’re done with it. The business needs to spend the time and money to collect abandoned trolleys and restore them back to the central trolley storage area. While that’s happening, other people are unable to find an empty trolley where it should be. This is a big problem. German railway stations solve it in an innovative way: At the storage area, each trolley – or Kofferkuli as it’s called in German – is daisy-chained to the trolley in front of it with a lock-like mechanism. The lock can be opened by popping a one Euro coin in a slot located on the side of the trolley. Passengers insert the coin at the storage area, collect a trolley and wheel it wherever they need to. When they’re done with the trolley, they can get their money back by taking their trolley to the nearest storage point – there are many of them on the platform – and daisy-chaining it to the trolley in front. The coin pops out and their trolley gets locked again. Even though the amount involved is very small, this system works very well: Most trolleys come back to storage areas without any effort on the part of the railways staff. To publicize this system, each trolley and trolley storage point has a sign that says Kofferkuli gegen Pfand, which means “Trolley against Deposit”.
  7. You don’t need to buy a ticket before boarding a Deutsche Bahn (German Railway) train. For a small additional service charge, you can buy tickets from the traveling ticket examiner inside the moving train. Even reservation of seats is not mandatory (barring a few exceptions). It’s not that trains go empty but, for some reason, reservation is not a thing in DB trains. So there’s no need to come to the station in advance to buy a ticket or check the reservation charts or stand near your assigned coach on the platform. As a result, you can literally jump into a train – stationary one, of course! This means, many passengers get into the platform seconds before a train is about to depart. When I read recent news reports about how a Japanese rail company apologized when its train left 20 seconds early, my first reaction was, “they should” – if the same thing happens in Germany, I can imagine several passengers missing their train.
  8. You have to wash your dirty linen in public. Washing machines introduce the risk of flooding, which causes the property insurance rates to shoot up by 4X. Homeowners that don’t want to cough up the exorbitant premium won’t permit washing machines to be installed inside the apartment. I found this to be true even in fairly expensive apartments located in tony neighborhoods. In those complexes, you need to go down with your dirty clothes to the basement – Keller – and use the bank of washing machines and dryers installed there. Since I was accustomed to having a washing machine inside my apartment all my life before going to Germany, I couldn’t accept this constraint and went on an elongated search for a “washing machine friendly” apartment. I found one at last but it took me a few more months and few hundreds of Euros in monthly rent to accomplish the feat.
  9. You need to take an appointment with a trash can to dispose your old bottles and jars. As you’ll soon see, this is not a joke. Trash cans inside most apartment complexes – including mine – accepted food, paper and many other types of waste but not items made of glass. There was only one glass-friendly bin in my neighborhood and it was situated one km away from my house. Now dropping glass causes noise, which annoys people living nearby. As a result, you could use the bin only on specific days and times. Ergo you needed to look up your calendar to make sure that you were visiting the bin only on the permitted date and time.
  10. Extremely expensive Rolex watches costing €€€€€ or more were shipped via ordinary post.
  11. So were stool samples! I fell sick once and had to undergo a battery of tests including a stool test. The pathology lab gave me a strip of card. They told me to smear the sample on the card and drop it in the nearest letter box! Sorry to go scatalogical but it’s only to brace you from the next culture shock.
  12. The market leader in cutlery (plates, bowls, etc.) is also the leading brand of sanitaryware (ceramic wash basins, commodes, etc.)!
  13. Public display of the German national flag is very rare (if not illegal). In my entire stay in Germany, I saw the German flag festooned on houses and cars only once: It was on the day Germany reached the finals of the World Cup in 2002. Anecdotally, the post WWII government banned the public display of the national flag in order to prevent a recurrence of what happened when Germany last exhibited a nationalistic spirit. That said, every village, town and city has its own flag, which can be displayed freely.
  14. Prostitution is legal and not met with the proverbial “wink, wink” reaction. They used to say that the best person to ask for directions to a brothel in Germany was – not a cabbie but – cop! “Wo ist der Bordello?” is the lingo, for those interested!
  15. Finally, the Mother of All Culture Shocks: Shops are closed on Sundays. I never could reconcile myself with this quirk when I lived in Germany. (I still can’t.)

Apart from being useful to people relocating to Germany from other countries, I hope this post also provides an exposure to a few practices that could be adopted anywhere in the world. Case in point: the trolley management system used in German railway stations.

That said, culture is a sensitive topic. So, I must add a few caveats before I conclude this post:

  • Some of these culture shocks are not unique to Germany. I know of condos in Los Angeles that don’t allow washing machines inside the apartment
  • Culture is subjective. What is a culture shock for me may not be a culture shock for you. I regularly come across people – Germans and non-Germans alike – who can’t understand how stores can remain open on Sundays!
  • With the passage of time, some of these culture shocks may have disappeared.

If you plan on using the guidance given in this post to sensitize yourself or your teams to Germany, by all means go ahead but please use the above disclaimer as a sort of reality check.

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