Grüezi, Servus or Hallo? Greetings are not the only thing that differs across the German-speaking world. This is also evident in an interview with Philipp Muster, Director of the Swiss Shippers’ Council, and Hagen Pleile, Head of the BVL Competence Center Austrian Shippers’ Council, who shine a light on German culture.
LOGISTICS PILOT: Mr Muster, Mr Pleile, let’s start the German way and get straight to the point: What is the biggest faux pas we Germans can make?
HAGEN PLEILE: I can only really mention my personal experiences, of course. But I often find Germans to be very straightforward and less willing to negotiate than us Austrians. The approach seems to be: Until your counterpart has given up in desperation, you haven’t negotiated hard enough. This directness and the less ideological approach are well received by German politicians such as Economics Minister Robert Habeck.
PHILIPP MUSTER: I can speak on this too. Directness is something the Swiss are not used to. What’s more, we are very consensus-orientated and used to lengthy voting procedures, which naturally affects our negotiating style. The biggest faux pas for us, however, is when Germans struggle to speak Swiss German. And when we go to a bakery, we don’t say “I would like some bread” like Germans, but rather “may I buy some bread please?”
PLEILE (laughs): We might also ask “what would you recommend?” – opening ourselves up to some pleasant conversation.
LOGISTICS PILOT: So a touch more charm and smoothness would go a long way?
PLEILE: Yes, we Austrians feel bad if we cannot please everybody. The people of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg are closer to us in culture than in the rest of Germany.
MUSTER: Being less particular would be good, too. For example, when it comes to cross-state coordination for customs, Germans often nitpick. As service providers, we are very pragmatic and more down-to-earth. Germans should be a little more innovative in this regard.
Are there more positive qualities that you attribute to us Germans?
PLEILE: Definitely the economic strength. And of course we ask ourselves: What makes the Germans so successful? So broadly speaking, directness can be beneficial. In Austria, for example, it is often not clear what the negotiating partner wants. As such, we Austrians can go around in circles. More tenacity and clarity could be beneficial in this instance, even if it can come across negatively. We could adopt this approach to push forward our matters more quickly.
LOGISTICS PILOT: Speaking of speed, Mr Muster: What about the pace of the language, which certainly differs in comparison to Switzerland. Do we come across as fast speakers to you, and what effect does that have?
MUSTER: High German is a foreign language for us Swiss Germans, too. The language is spoken more quickly, whereas Berne residents tend to speak slowly. But in a country with four national languages, there is always a need to assimilate, so it’s not something I notice. We are used to hearing it from childhood through radio and television.
LOGISTICS PILOT: High German has overridden beautiful words like ‘Paradeiser’ and ‘Erdäpfel’ in its predominance. Are Austrians also using words like ‘Aprikosen’ nowadays?
PLEILE: Naturally, ‘international German’ is becoming more and more popular. Where I used to say Paradeiser and Erdäpfel, I have now also switched to Tomaten and Kartoffeln, respectively. But Aprikosen, never – they are called Marillen!
LOGISTICS PILOT: Do you not perceive this as a loss of cultural identity?
PLEILE: No, I don’t believe that. I look at it like adopting Anglicisms, which is the same concept. We take the terms that are simple and straightforward. Even Kukuruz is hardly used by people, rather Mais. But of course, it’s Topfenkuchen, not Käsekuchen; Schlagobers, not Schlagsahne – those things won’t change.
LOGISTICS PILOT: Let’s move on. Across our three countries, we approach titles quite differently – how do you approach them?
MUSTER: In Switzerland, doctoral studies – excluding medicine – are often kept discreet and not printed on business cards. We Swiss do not want to be arrogant. Introducing yourself as “Dr so-and-so” is a bit much in my eyes.
PLEILE: I grew up with them. After the monarchy, academic titles gained relevance. As a child, I always found it handy that you don’t have to remember names, but can simply refer to someone as Herr Doktor.
LOGISTICS PILOT: What is a definite must-do for us Germans to communicate even better with our neighbours across national borders?
MUSTER: I think communication and cooperation is already very good.
LOGISTICS PILOT: I have read that Germans are not always perceived as friendly and polite enough. What are your thoughts?
PLEILE: It actually comes across to me as though friendliness is only used as a means to get others to agree at times. In Austria, it is important to create an atmosphere of comfortability with one another and a sense of belonging. Too much bluntness and directness are not well received. It is important to palpably convey your value for the other person. For example: I enjoy sitting with you. And not: Time is short, time is money – chop chop!
MUSTER: It comes down to culture, I think. For us, when we feel comfortable, we feel welcome. Although sometimes a little overdone, for example in the financial domain, our culture of service does contrast with that of Germany, a former colonising nation that means business. We are certainly socialised very differently here. Fortunately, we do get along regardless. (cb)