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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Heidelberg, Germany


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Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?

No cross culture training or advice prior to the move. I'd 'resigned' from the parent company and began work at the subsidiary firm in Germany.

The subsidiary acted like a German company...not an American subsidiary. They did have employees from 12+ nationalities but put no effort into cultural practices and norms.

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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

I had no experience in German. I did pick up a few tapes 3 months prior to departure.

Once in Germany, the company would pay for 1 full week language emersion school at Goethe or Berlitz. I was required to use one week of my vacation for the class time.

Thankfully, the daily language in the office was English. With so many multi-nationals being employed, English was the standard.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

We were not worried about culture shock beforehand. Honestly, no one really considered it...nor prepared for it. We expected new friendships would be difficult and we'd have issues with socialism.

I believe you spend 95% of your time being concerned with the language gap and how you can function daily at the store, in the taxi, etc. That part is stressful!

How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

There were three items that shocked me but I'd consider them financial oddities more than just cultural norms.

1) In 1999, a grocery store would not accept a VISA or AMEX card. My God!! These cards have been in used globally for 10+ years but German stores would not bother. (It's changed)

2) The price you see for an item is the price you pay..no tax added at the register. Would that not make life easier for us in the USA!?

3) There is no expectation for tipping staff at the restaurant. They are paid a salary.

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

Absolutely. We had 4 stages that took 6 months. Once you and your spouse get through all this, you can do anything!! 1) Vacation- First 30 days everything is new, different, funny, and local. We are not part of it, we are just passing through the lifestyle without obligation. 2) Committment- We have to grow up and start planning savings, phone providers, rent, insurance. You get some surprises still! 3) Irritation- Why must every service be based on a % of my income? Why can't they do forms in German & English? Why are things closed on Sunday? 4) Clockwork - Bank accounts, schools, friends, and schedules are in place. Now keep a diary and remember where we came from and how we got here.

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

This is Germany, so we really drank more than ever before. It's done at lunch, dinner, weekends, at office events. We also noticed that almost everyone drank something.

Second thing is perspetive of US from side of Europe. Get International Herald Tribune, Newsweek Europe edition or watch BBC. You really see there is another world out there that ABC, CBS and NBC don't bother to report upon.

The most profound change is time on weekends with family. When stores close at noon on Sat and all day Sunday, you look for new ways to travel, read, and spend time with family. No running to the mall, you find ways to spend time with family at the park, on a trail, or in the garden. AMAZING how you can bond with the family if you have every Sunday to yourselves.

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

Americans are often fake in friendships. We'll 'friend' anyone and not take it seriously. Germans take longer to establish friendships but they are solid friends.

Germans work to live, where Americas live to work. We put job as a high priority, Germans put the holiday as a high priority. You can laugh about the 30 days of vacation, but they have similiar productivity output as the USA.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

Language, language, language. You figure that out and everything else falls into place by itself. Get the language and you'll get everything else.

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

I was checking out 30DM worth of groceries, when I first learned that grocery stores don't take credit cards. I pulled out 4 cards and the cashier just said 'Nein' each time. There were 4 people in line behind me watching me reach for AMEX, Discovery, VISA, Mastercard. They just laughed.

When I discovered I had only 20DM in my wallet, the cashier had to call her manager (with the key) and remove 3 items so that I could get under my 20DM limit. Everyone was watching my first shopping transgression.

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

Just have fun and don't take life too seriously. You are going to screw up, make a financial mistake, or offend someone. Let it go and move on with it.

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