Analysis of the communicative challenges faced by co-workers from different cultures although they share the same language.
1. Short case presentation
In a global company like UBS – my present employer - our working language is often English or even French most of the time. But over the last couple of years, Standard German has become more common as more and more Germans are coming to work in Switzerland. According to a new study, Switzerland is the most favourite destination for Germans to emigrate to1. And the newest figures from the Federal Office for Migration confirm that trend.
Doing videos for internal clients, I was contacted by a German employee from another Business Management office in Zurich, who was in charge of organising a video for a Leadership conference with statements of all General Board Members. With most of the GMBs, I had worked before at internal events or in front of the camera. I was asked by him to organise the timing of the filming with the assistants of the Members of the GMB. When that was arranged I sent a mail to all the GMBs and assistants informing them about the successful planning of their schedule, the place of the filming, dress code, etc. The German co-worker called me right up and made it clear that his office was not happy at all, that I had directly contacted the GMBs by mail.
As all contacts to the GMB offices had to go through their Business Management office. I took the blame for doing it differently but did not see any wrong doing really, as we have organised filming this way before. But the start of our working relation somehow did not kick off very well with this incident, and I became more and more tired of his aggressive and patronisingly talk. So one day, when he called, I talked to him in Swiss German, which he seemed to understand to a certain degree. Suddenly his tone became much friendlier when he tried very hard to follow what I was talking about. When my working colleague – she had experienced his verbal arrogance on one occasion as well – heard him talking to me in this almost humble way, she said: „I start talking Swiss German to him as well - either that or English. He seems to be much nicer than“.
It seems odd: we speak almost the same language and have almost the same cultural background with lots of similarities. Therefore we like to think that we are very much alike. But we are not, and you become aware of it when working together. Not only at UBS. When I worked as Head of Media Relations for Swiss International Air Lines (2002-2006) a German CEO took over in 2004. A lot of German managers followed him to work in key positions. The working climate changed. Less small talk before starting a meeting or team work and no greetings when entering the office with a clear mission, coming right to the point even when talking over the phone. And even though it was the culture in this company as in many others, German colleagues had difficulties addressing their co- workers informally with their first name (“Duzen”).
The Germans, on the other hand, confirm that they often don‟t feel that welcome in Switzerland – not even outside of work. One German co-worker told me that during the EURO 08 he felt really stressed when watching the games in public. When Germany played against Spain in the final, Swiss people would show joy when the Spanish team did well and they showed great dislike when the Germans were doing better. You would find manuals for Germans on “How to survive in Switzerland” and Blogs from German people living in Switzerland exchanging their experiences. Not all of them happy ones.
So what are the differences between a Swiss German and a German that make working and even living together a problem and how can we communicate more effective and better work together so that both sides feel more comfortable? What are the differences in thinking, feeling and acting? Does cultural similarity or closeness create less intercultural problems? Or is it this closeness, which creates more problems? Germans and Swiss Germans are similar: this is the stereotype. Looking closer at the two groups we can find differences and try to analyse what category they belong to and how they affect an interaction between the two.
Communication problems in culturally diverse teams at work are normal and managers have become more aware of it. Some think that diverse teams are more effective as they inspire each other. This is the case at UBS: “Having a diverse workforce benefits our business. Seeking a variety of thought, background, skill and experience, as well as other factors, including gender, ethnicity, race and nationality, helps us understand our clients‟ needs and underpins an open work culture.“ Other experts think that diversity is causing a lot of problems and uses a lot of energy dealing with them. Hofstede has a clear standpoint in that direction: "Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster."
In the given example the differences between two specific national cultures – Swiss and German – don‟t seem too many at first sight. But as Hofstede explains, the term “culture” goes much further: “Culture consists of the unwritten rules of the social game. It is the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others." The different categories in the given an example are different nation, different gender, different age. But it is more complicated than that: you have to find out whether a certain characteristic of a person (programming of the mind) can be attributed to him or her as an individual or to the person as part of a culture.
According to the aI2C (Analysis of Improving Intercultural Communication), we will now look at the main processes and dimensions involved: communication, culture, individual and social framework and time and history in order to find out, what are the differences causing possible communication problems between Swiss German and German employees.
2.1. Process of communication
The involved transmitters and receivers were two employees of a bank, of the same rank (Directors) but working in different units. The Corporate Center, where I used to work, is not a Business unit but rather providing services (communication, legal, accounting, etc.) to the three different Businesses.
The messages exchanged were concerning a project to film statements of senior managers. I received the order, to organise the schedule. Questions concerning timing, budgeting, the length of videos, etc. were exchanged. After some disagreement over the procedures how to contact the senior managers the messages from one of the senders became more aggressive and patronising. Not until we filmed the first statement did I meet the German co-worker face to face, but had only talked to him over the phone.
The used code was Standard German, as it is the rule that a Swiss German address a German in Standard German. The use of Standard German in Switzerland is largely restricted to the written language and used in the Swiss education system. Therefore, this situation has been called a medial diglossia. Swiss Germans are able to talk Standard German while Germans have problems understanding and even more talking Swiss German or its different dialects.
The linguistic difference comes across as arrogant, as for Swiss Germans it takes an effort to talk Standard German. It is the language at school, written and read, more official and not emotional. Therefore we feel inferior to Germans who talk much faster, precise and with the correct vocabulary. They seem more intelligent because they master this language so much better. And we want to differ ourselves from them with our own language. After the exchange of messages became uncomfortable over a disagreement I changed the coding of my messages and talked Swiss German.
Besides that, another formal language code was used as we addressed us with “Herr X” and “Frau Spörri”. I knew that we had the same rank according to the internal banking system. But as I did not see him face to face, I did not know if he was younger or older than me and only if he would be younger I could offer him to call me by the first name which on the other hand is not at all common or used in Germanys Business environment. But as we had difficulties in communicating, I did not feel like “duzen” anyway! That is our way of keeping distance if we want to. But not as a given rule.
The medium of communication was written and oral communication in Standard German, We talked over the phone or exchanged further information by email and me CCed him in the emails I wrote to other participants of the project.
The setting was rather formal: a working situation involving two employees that have not yet met or worked together.
Looking at the communication process it is obvious that the change of tone (nonverbal code) and content of the messages (aggressive and patronising) provoked a change in the used code from the receiver (Swiss German instead of Standard German). We will want to find out, why the tone (nonverbal code) changed and what kind of influence the change of code had at the process.
2.2. Configuration of culture
The interlocutors in this communication process – because of their closeness (geography, language, religion, political sphere, professional sphere and economic sphere) – should be looked at their differences of cultural configuration in their respective countries. Hofstede (1991) has shown in a study the differences referring to the national culture in four dimensions6: Individual versus collective (IDV): This refers to the extent to which individuals expect only to look after themselves and their immediate families, compared with the extent to which there is a tight social framework in which people expect the groups to which they belong to look after them. This is sometimes reflected in the use of words such as “I” and “we”, “my” and “our”. Power distance index (PDI): This refers to the extent to which a society accepts that power in institutions and organisations is distributed unequally.
Countries where PDI is low generally favour decentralised organisations, whereas those with a high level of PDI are more accepting of centralised authority. Uncertainty avoidance index (UAI): This is the extent to which employees feel threatened by ambiguity and the relative importance that they attach to rules, long-term employment and steady progression up a well-defined career ladder.
Masculinity (MAS): This refers to the nature of the dominant values of the organisation. Masculine traits include assertiveness, materialism/material success, self-centeredness, power, strength, and individual achievements.
The highest ranking for Switzerland in the Model is MAS at 70, compared to Germany at 66, the World average of 50 and the European of 59. The high Masculinity Index indicates a higher career and money orientation from Swiss compared to Germans. Nevertheless, Swiss employees don‟t climb up the career ladder guided by rules and regulations. As their PDI is lower than the German Index, it also shows, that in Swiss business culture a person has to prove its competence rather than is accredited for by its position or rank.
Therefore it might be difficult for Swiss people to accept the self-confidence of Germans who might be a little bit more dependent on their position or rank. The Uncertainty Avoidance level reflects the society‟s level of tolerance for uncertainty. Swiss population has a greater tolerance of divergent points of views and the society has fewer rules and regulations relatively to Germany with a higher UAI. So while the German employee would follow the given rules of hierarchy, he could not understand my process of communicating with senior managers.
For me, as a Swiss, it is difficult to understand, that Germans insist on hierarchy rules in communication and have difficulties in accepting other views. Germans often are called “Gummihälse” by Swiss, a reference to their bad reputation in only nodding consent all the time, when a person of higher rank is stating his/her opinion. So their neck becomes very flexible in bending, like one of a swan. Having a different opinion is out of the question for Germans in hierarchical situations.
This dependence on distance and rules is also manifested in the habit of Germans at their workplace when they keep addressing each other formally (“Siezen”), even if they have worked together for decades. I have a German coworker, telling me that his parents would go on holidays with colleagues from work, but they are still addressing each other formally.
So according to these differences: Is it a simple culture clash issue at work? The German employee has a problem with me not acting according to the rules. Which are more his rules and not mine.
The interlocutors are of different gender and different age but they share similar cultural values as we have seen above. Besides that, I don‟t know much about this co-worker as we have interacted only on a professional level. He seems to be a young (at least 10 years younger than me) talented person with a Doctors degree. I say talented because he has joined the bank not much earlier than I have (about 2 ½ years ago) and has been assigned a Directors rank. That indicates a good professional background.
Looking at my individual position in this communication process: he is an internal client and I am trying to do a good job, also because we charge the business unit for our services. Of course, this is kind of monopoly money. But still, they need to feel that it is worth the price. And the service has to be friendly. So when he talks to me in Standard German I will, of course, address him in his language.
As mentioned above: we are able to change to this language from our dialect. But there is a difference between “being able to talk” and “wanting to talk” Standard German. From my background, I would say, that I have the same problem with Standard German as all the other Swiss-Germans: we want to differentiate from the Germans and use our dialects. The need to differentiate has some historical background. That has led to a usage of German in official contexts. Swiss German feel that Standard German is not an emotional language and therefore I feel much more comfortable talking any other language than Standard German.
Looking at the situation from this point of view, it seems that I don't feel too comfortable talking to the client in Standard German and when he is blaming me for breaking some rules of procedures and his tone becomes more aggressive and patronising I feel even more uncomfortable. I talk about it with anger to my co-worker but make it clear, that I can‟t change my manners because of his behaviour, as he is the client.
2.4. Social factors
Employees of financial services companies are often organised according to ranks: no-ranks, Assistant Director, Director, Executive Director and Managing Director. I did not have any idea about this hierarchical construction before working for a bank. In any other company before, it was the job title and salary that made a distinction. As the salary was not known by co-workers, hierarchies seemed quite flat having employees and managers.
At the bank, it is much more hierarchical. I was told, that people would consult the internal website “who is who” before talking to somebody in the bank in order to see, what rank this person has. My employees never attended get-togethers, as they argued that nobody would talk to them because they were below the Directors level. I only realised when working here that my rank was more important than my job title. In the given case, as mentioned before, both interlocutors were Directors. So in the given conversation, there is no real conflict potential of that sort.
2.5. Time and history
Switzerland always has had a special relationship to its bigger and close neighbour Germany. When it comes to neighbours of unequal size, the smaller one regards the bigger as cold, arrogant and materialistic, while seeing itself as warm and sensitive.
In my opinion, the bad feelings go back in history to World War 2 and the role the Germans played in it. But obviously, if you go back even further in history you will find the well know Swiss author Gottfried Keller commenting to a friend in 1856: “How terrible, the number of learned people there are walking around Zurich these days. One almost hears more High German, French and Italian being spoken than our good old Swiss German.”
Switzerland in 1970 had its „Schwarzenbach-Initiative”, where Swiss people had to vote on the „excess of foreigners“ coming to Switzerland. Although not enacted, the referendum did cause the number of available work permits to be lowered. Swiss have always had this inferiority complex towards the Germans. So when immigration of the Germans started a couple of years ago, bad and almost racist comments come up in discussions and in the media. Comparis.ch even did a survey on the “Neue Deutsche Welle”. According to them, 43 per cent of Germans could imagine coming to work in Switzerland. Currently, more than 200‟000 Germans are living in Switzerland.
The survey stated that people under the age of 30 and those with a good educational level were most likely to think of emigrating. And even though these immigrants are very qualified people, the reaction in the media was very anti-german.
We have analysed the differences between Germans and Swiss in order to understand the communication problems in the given situation. It seems that we do have a problem on a cultural level (rather on his side) and on an individual level (rather on my side). On the cultural level Swiss and German have different mindsets concerning their work relation and rules and regulations at work.
While I am used to a rather flat hierarchy, the German employee is used to another set of regulations. So when he blames me for doing it wrong and does that in his Standard German, to me this is like a double punishment. He tells me in an arrogant way (that is only a perception of Standard German for me) that I did do something wrong (that is in his perception what I did when contacting senior managers directly). I don‟t feel comfortable talking Standard German and feel inferior. When at the same time somebody is patronising me, the effect of making me smaller is even bigger. I don‟t feel treated correctly. But I can not yell back at the client or tell him, that I have different rules.
How did we overcome the critical communication patterns? On the one hand, he had to accept, that my competence and rules at work helped to get the video done against all the odds. As things became more complicated with senior managers cancelling their appointments and me looking for possibilities to film them in their respective offices in the US or Asia, the “client” became more and more aware of my competence in organising filming Senior Managers, no matter what.
On the other hand I, when I was getting tired of his arrogance, the next time he called I talked to him in Swiss German, which he seemed to understand to a certain degree. I felt much more comfortable and suddenly his tone became much friendlier when he tried very hard to follow what I was talking about. When my working colleague – she had experienced his verbal arrogance on one occasion as well – heard him talking to me in this almost humble way, she said: „I start talking Swiss German to him as well - either that or English. He seems to be much nicer than“.