Friday, October 30, 2015

The Business of Culture and a Box of Chocolates

For the last couple of blogs I have dealt with the idiosyncrasies of how I was engaged and slightly overwhelmed by my arrival in Europe and my return home (?). There is another part of this whole ordeal that I need to attend to with a couple of observations. First, dealing in the business world is totally different and second, there are multiple cultures just as if you were entering a new country.

A real cowboy John Wayne as
Rooster Coburn coming to
save the day from the
movie-True Grit.
Let me start off by saying that everyone sees any U.S. salesman as a cowboy!!!! I have been called this on many occasions throughout the years. We are primarily known for saying yes before we have heard the question and being completely overconfident when we have no plan. This is not always the case but this how many perceive our presence. Americans are never expected to speak any other language except English and we aren’t in some cases prepared to do business in terms of the country and culture we are invading.

The first time I tried to get an appointment with a person from Ford Motor Company in Koeln, I was truly taken aback. I had known this person from dealings in the U.S. for many years and had a contact number plus he was expecting me to call. I called the number and got his secretary (the gatekeeper). She spoke pleasantly and dutifully in German. My German at this point was almost nonexistent and I was really expecting her to speak to me in English (cowboy). I said politely in English that I would like to speak to Mr. Peck. She curtly answered in English you mean “HERR PECK.” I got the message that I had made a mistake. I inquired if “Herr Peck” had time to see me that day and what company I was from in that order. She replied that she had never heard of my company and that I needed to make appointments 2 weeks in advance, “Punkt aus” (period). I made a tentative meeting time for that period and was told to call back in a week to confirm. WOW!!! Culture shock!!!! Not only had I taken things that seem simple for granted but I thought that I had truly insulted the secretary. I did get in 2 weeks later and by then had discovered my errors in judgement.

"That Guy," the Ugly American Tourist.
Was I truly “that guy”, the ugly American. I did some homework and discovered my potentially damaging mistakes. In the first place, I truly was a cowboy expecting the secretary to speak to me in English. The solution was that I could have taken the time to learn a few German phrases (my wife does speak the language fluently) before making the call to convey “Hello”, my name, “My German is poor”, and “Can you speak English?”. At least it would have shown that I was trying and maybe made her laugh (after meeting her, I doubt it). Second, in the U.S., we are not overtly formal, however in German society as well as in business, formality is a given especially to strangers. I had to prepare and adapt apparently to all situations as Dorthy said, “…we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Berlitz can be a life changer for anyone
traveling and especially living in a
 foreign country.
Over time this is what happened. I took a Berlitz total immersion German course for 8 weeks. This entailed going to class for 4 hours a day for 5 days a week for 8 weeks speaking nothing but German from the first day that I stared the class. It was hard but it turned out to be fun and of course later on profitable. By the 8th week I was nowhere close to fluent but I could hold my own in most social situations without embarrassing myself or most importantly feeling left out and dependent. The course taught me the language but also the culture and protocols of the country. This gave me a true advantage over other American companies trying to do business as I could later on fit in as one of the guys (Herren; formal).

I learned the hard way to be better prepared. Always Speak in the language of the country if possible but at least try to learn a few phrases to be polite. Understand the correct way to address a person because not everyone wants to be called buddy the first or even second time you meet them. Understanding how things are done there (not in your country) is the almost the most important thing you can do.

The most important thing you can do is to remember to bring the secretary a small gift every time you meet her. Frau Kopf (Herr Peck’s secretary) preferred Chocolates (the key to the gatekeeper)!!!

You can find Berlitz courses in every major city in the world. It makes your life easier and helps you to feel like you belong and a part of your new world. Don't forget to check Expat Focus for other great information about travel and the expat lifestyle.


  1. Replies
    1. Sounds incredible but its very true. I spent a lot on chocolates!!!!

  2. Chandra Montgomery NicolNovember 5, 2015 at 8:12 PM

    Excellent information delivered with humility. Thanks!

  3. I really enjoyed this post. I sometimes find myself in a similar situation you were in, but on the other end of the spectrum. I work in purchasing for an OEM and a lot of my suppliers are from different countries/cultures. I really appreciate the fact that they try their best to adjust to our culture. I'm sure this is something that is not easy for everyone. I do try my best reiterate the effort myself. I've found myself in situations that I go along with (when I wouldn't normally) so I do not offend someone. All in all I really enjoyed this post, it's great to hear how you went above and beyond for this cause. I'm sure if I'm ever in your shoes I will do something similar.

  4. This is a hilariously entertaining post. Your writing style relates so well. I think it's easy to be misunderstood culturally, but your awareness of this helps humble you to what's next.

  5. Daniel,
    I Love that you explore this side of culture, taking a good hard look at how we are perceived from outside this country. For Americans who have never left the country, it's easy for many to be somewhat ethocentric and blissfully ignorant. I think it is important for all people to explore different things whether culture, food, religions, etc. if only to understand a little more about basic humanity, of which we are all a part (sometimes we forget this). The world is much larger than the world of the United States, and the richness of it should not be missed. It's a great exercise to view this culture from the eyes of another, and to do some honest self-examination.

  6. Very informative and helpful! Great prospective!!

  7. The company I work for has customers all over the world. The main languages we deal with are French and Spanish. I have taken both in school and all I know is a couple of words. I would like to take either a full class or do the Rosetta Stone software. Even after taking the Berlitz courses do you still take other classes or use other material to strengthen your German?

    1. Yes, Berlitz will only make you conversational. In business you would need to continue with specialized course work in your business sector. You also need to practice with a mentor in your field.

      As I got going in German, the engineers at Ford Cologne stopped speaking to me in English and would only speak in German even when the president of my company would come over for meetings. Practical use of the language is the only true measure

      When you can tell a joke in your language of choice and make people laugh, you not only understand the thinking and the culture, but the people themselves. You have made it.