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When East met West

Author: Evgeniya Lisovskaya

I had come to this country with a baggage of stereotypes, as a student of intercultural communication, I admit it. Some of them were rejected, others were reinforced. Actually, stereotypes are not so bad. We need them to make the reality around us seem easier. However, the problem is that these stereotypes affect our own behavior. The most important lesson I learnt is never to generalize. There are completely different people within one nation. Some of them correspond to the common image of a country, while others are the complete opposite.

I came to Germany a year and a half ago, believing that Germans were cold, but friendly, punctual, well organized, pathologically honest and straight.
My first encounter was a lady in the International Students’ Office. I was one month late for my studies because of some visa problems, felt guilty (in a typically Russian way of feeling guilty for any kind of authorities), was very nervous, and again, already guilty, because of my poor German language skills, especially when it comes to listening comprehension. Fortunately, or unfortunately for that matter, she was not going to talk to me neither in German nor in English; apparently, consultation hours were over. From that day on I knew that consultation hours in Germany are a sacred thing nobody should dare violate. She threw the dormitory room keys and the map of the town in my face, pointing with her finger where I would live and saying that she had no time for me. And, that was it. Then there was this taxi driver, who shouted at me for not waiting on the right side of the building, and in that outburst of anger he said that I should never do this sort of thing again. So thanks to him I learned that not all Germans are friendly. Later, I was even glad that I have gone through this experience, because it made me learn that these people are not robots; they can be different.

Smiles all over the place during the first few weeks caught the eye of a Soviet-regime child such as me. Are they really that happy? Is everybody that happy? Are all the workers in supermarkets, banks, shops satisfied with their wage and personal life? No, it is their job to smile. It was clear. What was really different from the normal capitalistic ‘the-client-is-the-king’ behavior is that Germans don’t take these masks off when they leave work. They live with them. That’s why sometimes it is very hard to understand if a person really likes you, or if it is just the ‘standard smile’. In Russia it was always clear. I could always distinguish between the real friendliness and the false one. It is hard for Russians to hide their emotions; they have to learn how to do that. For Germans it is hard to show their emotions. One needs to get used to this bit.

At the beginning, as you realize this difference, you can feel hurt, and start to have doubts about the frankness of your new German acquaintances. After a while you stop paying attention, and then you like it. I like Germans for that. Most of the time I don’t care about the mood one is in or the problems one runs into. I need to be served at the post, to consult a professor, or to finish a joint homework for a course. I want to see a smile.

Another great aspect is that Germans have clear differentiation between business and non-business politeness. There is a special term for this, ‘German back’. They show you their back when ‘Geschaeft’ is over. There are some students, who would answer your question via e-mail, help you with advice or even would chat with you during a teamwork activity. But they would not say ‘Hello’ if you meet them outside the classroom. Every foreign student in Germany has encountered this ‘species’. It is still strange to me. It is also sad, that because of this, people who are foreigners automatically (by historical habit) accuse Germans of racism. But it is not fair. Germans don’t deserve it.

Also, they are not always as disciplined and organized as I thought. They make mistakes; can be late for work or a seminar. They can break official rules to help you. There was this official who granted me a residence permit within two days instead of the usual two weeks, aware of the fact that I desperately wanted to go home for my sister’s wedding. Turning a blind eye, he did all this without even having all the necessary documents; we agreed that I bring them upon return. No bribe or ‘present’ was involved, as is common practice in Russia. Later a German guy explained this to me: ‘There is no greater satisfaction than to know that you have done your job well. If you have done your job well, why should there be any presents?’ It was first time in this country that I was really positively impressed.

Then there was the family in Berlin that had given accommodation and dinner to two students for several days free of charge; the colleague, who took a new intern for a ride through the city, knowing that she is alone in the city and hasn’t done any sightseeing; the interns, whom she tagged along with almost every evening, who took her clubbing or to the beach, leaving no room for boredom. There were a lot of kind and helpful people.

But enough of effusion! If you study at a small university, there is always a person in charge to help you solve any problems that might arise. The teaching staff is easily available. You will always get responses to your questions. But, it is best that you make the enquiries during consultation hours.

By the way, it is not true that it is boring in Germany. Germans can and like to have fun. Sometimes their fun can mean having a cup of coffee, or gulping down a pint of beer in a pub, while talking about football (for men), or their career and gender equality (for women); taxes and politics are on the menu in a mixed group. Quite often you can find people with whom they play board game for fun. Students, though, usually have fun as the concept ‘having fun’ is grasped internationally. Even in a small town students’ life is always brimming with events and parties.

Things to remember: sort your garbage, pay your rent on time, and pay for a train ticket, travel (this country has a lot of beautiful places to visit), enjoy German beer while you are there!

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