The reunification in Germany: culture clash or bosom buddies?


We’re delighted to welcome Karin Schimmelschulze, Managing Director of German Advantage, as our new guest blogger. In her first article, Karin reflects on the 25th anniversary of German Reunification and discusses the importance of overcoming cultural differences.

I remember the day when a client of the bank I used to work for in Germany rushed in to the branch with the words ‘die Mauer fällt’ (the wall is coming down). I downed tools – very much to the dismay of my boss – and went in search of the nearest TV. It was a goose bump moment to see people climbing the wall from either side, to see the barriers disappear and to see people tearing the wall down brick by brick.

Friends of my family maintained that it was wrong to open the borders and to attempt a re-unification. We were elated to see two countries become one again.

Within a short period problems became apparent which will apply to any situation where cultural differences have to be overcome. A different cultural unit doesn’t just exist in a foreign country. It can be a so-called sub-culture favouring a certain type of music, or any exclusive likeminded group. Culture will include some and initially exclude others.

Gaining an understanding of a different culture begins with being open-minded. In Germany we had a pretty good starting point considering that we used to be one country until 1961 when Berlin was officially divided. Post-wall sentiments were mostly positive and yet, cultural differences had to be overcome sooner rather than later to move forward together.

Where do we encounter these cultural differences that make successful communication so challenging? A few that spring to mind are:

  • The perception of historic events
  • The impact of political systems on morals and values
  • The economic structure and supply and demand chain

What happens when we are faced with a different culture? At least some of our reactions will be emotive – potentially irrational – and lead to ‘comfort-zoning’. We tend to protect and defend what we have and know.

Awareness of one’s own cultural background and critical thinking are important when establishing good relationships. What are the attributes of a good relationship? Could these be balance, equality, readiness to compromise and the firm belief that a better situation for all parties involved can be created through awareness and understanding?

The infrastructure of the former GDR had to be re-built, the economy was shaped by the communist system of equal distribution – at least in theory, transport links needed to be set up and the hunger of the people for commercial consumption was overwhelming. The word was ‘need’.

What constitutes ‘need’ for one, can be perceived as ‘demand’ by another. In a business situation we need to sell or deliver a service and we have to create demand for this. I need to understand who you are, where you come from -not necessarily geographically, where you want to be and why you want to be there before I can fulfil your needs. Cultural awareness is key to this.

A second element of importance in the process of building working relationships is speaking the same language. Some sub-cultures in e.g. the music scene have developed their own range of vocabulary and I am an outsider.

Language can be specified in various areas: country, age group, gender – Men are from Mars and all that – and industry or service sector. Being able to communicate directly is vital for a stable relationship in virtually any area of our life including business. It’s a confidence boost, too.

To end this culture trip: sollen wir Deutsch sprechen?

By the way, I would not be here without my English…

German Advantage In Business accompanies you on your export journey to Germany through market research, website adaptation, bilingual presentations, cultural awareness and language training in a sequential 5-Step Business Plan. Take as many steps as you need, German Advantage is In Business for you.

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