I just returned from a week in Germany, a country I have visited and worked in many times over the last thirteen years. This time I made one of the biggest discoveries of my career. The problem with this proverbial light bulb is that it’s so simple people may not think it’s a discovery at all, but rather a “yeah, I pretty much knew that.” My question is do we really know it?
Here is the discovery I made while riding the German trains, staying with a family, building teams, and seeing friends: How much of the world could be set right just by talking to people.
Yep, that’s it. Wait, don’t close your browser yet. Allow me to explain.
As my company Highroad Global Services grows and expands, the world expands and shrinks alongside it. My team and I are constantly challenged by the increasing complexity of global teams, virtual communication, and integrated world economies.
If we didn’t have evidence to the contrary, we might start to assume that with all of this globalization we don’t have to worry about dated problems like stereotyping.
Let me tell you, everywhere I have worked in the world I have found misperceptions about different cultures to be alive and well, even in multinational companies where cross-pollination of nationalities is common. (See this blog’s previous post for more on perception).
You might say though, that stereotypes are not only still with us, they have become more dangerous. Why? Because we are more dependent on each other now in our teams and in our ability to solve the world’s crises.
So back to my discovery. How much of the world could be set right just by talking to people.
This is easy to imagine but it takes willingness and risk to execute.
My week in Germany provided many opportunities for dialogue, but only because I was willing to be uncomfortable sometimes. Here was my journey in a nut shell, and the lessons learned.
- Get an Expat Perspective: In Frankfurt I visited an old friend, an American expat living in Germany. As we strolled the streets of the city past an Appelwein cart, Goethe’s house, fountains, stained glass, street musicians, and churches, I asked questions. What did she miss about the U.S.? What did she not miss? What was it like to raise a child in Germany? She described the flexibility of the work environment and being off for one year with her child. She came back to her job which the company kept for her by law. This is called “Parents Time.” People get temporarily replaced while they are away on maternity leave. I was fascinated by her adjustment to her new home.
- Talk on the Train: I took about eight trains in one week in Germany which provided ample opportunity for learning. I met a couple going from Stuttgart to Aulendorf in the south of Germany. They both university professors and spoke fluent English. I asked them about their home town, and the biking trip they were about to take. Stereotypes about Americans in Germany are not uncommon (and vice versa, of course), and this simple dialogue could have helped to assuage them with little effort.
- Stay with a Family: There is nothing more exciting, life-changing, awkward, and wonderful than staying with a family overseas. I was invited by a former client of mine to stay in his family’s home in a rural village with his wife and four children. I learned more about Germany in those four days than in all my previous years there. We discussed how much private and work life are separated in Germany, what terms were offensive in the U.S. which were innocent in Germany, how the people in the village often had visible struggles but refused to talk about them, how women are treated in the workplace, and so much more. I visited my client’s daughter at school and we talked about stereotypes between our two countries. We each asked questions and were willing to hear the answers without defense.
- Build a Team: My final piece of the journey was a teambuilding event for a client near Koblenz. I gave a short presentation, then the team split into groups of eight or nine for geo-caching, a kind of scavenger hunt with a GPS. I was the only American on my team, but my colleagues spoke English and I understood enough German that we communicated well. We spent the whole day on the scavenger hunt, learning to work as a team, laughing a lot (the stereotype about the serious, humorless German is quite humorous to me!), and once again asking questions. I found out that Americans can be perceived as superficial in Germany. Rather than get defensive, I asked questions around that and gently corrected misperceptions where needed. We openly discussed politics, family life, and the social ills of both countries. Most of all we spent time together face to face, engaged and willing to have fun.
How much of the world could be set right just by talking to people. And you don’t have to travel to do it; just look around you and you will find people who are different from you. Ask questions. Stay with a family. Visit your clients when there’s not business to be done.
Don’t be so afraid to offend people that you don’t take any chances to get to know them. Let’s have a dialogue. We can start right now.
Stay tuned for the new series of Highroad webinars “Ask A (Nationality)” where we will be interviewing people from different countries about common misperceptions and realities of their culture. Which countries would you like to see first? Post a comment here and we’ll listen.