Diversity in Germany: it has a lot to do with the politics!

When Sam Mendes made the American Beauty, in the academy awards that year it was heavily nominated (of course!). Someone in the ceremony said, ‘the best movies about America are made by non-Americans’. This could be transported to other cultures too, in the sense that someone from outside is able to present a critique in a much more stark light. Perhaps because, the differences are more obvious to them than someone who has always lived in a single culture. With the increasing diversity in Germany, the workforce has an ever increasing push of new cultures.

Diversity in Germany

This actually makes our ongoing ‘working abroad‘ and ‘international experiences‘ series most interesting, especially while talking with people who share what strikes out to them in a setting outside their comfort zone.

This week, we speak to Nina Zimmerman, Vice President Product & Technology at Experteer. And prior to that has a strong portfolio of diverse roles and firms she has worked with in the German market and the online marketing industry. Nina came to Germany from England.

So, how long have you been in Germany?

Nina: I have been in Germany for fifteen years now. Although, it took 10 years before I could say, ‘I live here’. Usually it was limited to ‘I’m working here’. I think some of it has to do with the psychological feeling that makes you think you are going to get back ‘home’ at some point (Nina is from London).

It’s interesting that you say that. Does it have to do something with the fact that you already came from a ‘developed country’?

Nina: You could say that does make a difference. I could say, London has a great working environment. I wasn’t coming here for earning more money or to get better opportunities like someone from lesser developed countries perhaps came for. I was in Germany not for a better but a different lifestyle.

Coming from a developed country means that, you tend to be more critical when comparing cultures. At some point, it is also because, you want to preserve your national identity. I see Americans, who will always say they’re American, no matter where they live.

But that’s also something special about Germany, I see people born and brought up here, and yet if asked where they’re from, they’d say for instance, ‘I’m Turkish’, even if they have hardly been to Turkey. Why is that?

Nina: In the first two years, this was quite shocking to me. People would come and ask me, where I was from. And coming from a place as cosmopolitan as London, it was strange. It did not suffice that I said, I was from London (was born and brought up there) because I did not fit into the ‘image’ of a British person.

I would keep insisting initially that I really was from England. I wasn’t used to being challenged further on this, coming from London. In the UK it is quite common to say that you’re British, and the color of your skin, your look really doesn’t have much to do with it.

In Germany, that’s not the case. Later, I developed a different answer to this question, saying, I was from England, while my parents were originally from India. It’s something you just have to accept in Germany. They do not understand this aspect. Unless you look a certain way, they will not assume you’re from that country.

They don’t even think there’s something wrong with this attitude. Diversity in this country can border into a little bit of racism at times. Besides, how do you even define diversity, is it the color of your skin, the country you come from, all these are complex questions.

For instance, when immigrant children play in the German football team, it is a topic. For the UK football team, half the team may be a different color or maybe children of immigrants, but they’re all British. It’s not something that you’d discuss.

This in part has a lot to do with the politics here. You could be a baby born in an airplane but as long as you’re above British soil, you can be British. Being born in Germany does not translate you into getting the nationality. And when that’s a political stand, the people in return also want to keep to their identities and preserve them.

For a senior professional who may be coming to Germany with their families and kids, how do they solve this, especially when their kids might get exposed to such questions

Nina: My kids go to an International school, where they are not really confronted with ‘where you’re from’. They are used to seeing people of different colors, nationalities. Sure, they may talk about someone’s dad being born in South Africa, but that’s about it all.

In London for instance, primary schools close down at every festival, so that they are not seen as ‘politically incorrect’. It’s normal for kids to learn about a festival like ‘Diwali’ (Indian festival) in primary school, so they grow up seeing it as ‘normal’.

That’s not usual in Germany. Perhaps, Bayern is special, considering it is very religious and conservative. Maybe it is different in the North, for instance in Berlin, where there is a lot more mix. Munich is after all, a posh village. You just need to be aware of this when coming to Germany.

Purely in a professional environment, what anecdotes do you have to share?

Nina: I think Germans over study a lot. I mean it’s usual for them to have PhDs, and start a professional career after 30. That’s very strange coming from Britain. I used to work in Telekom, and when I started there were all these ‘Drs.’ and I would wonder why we have all these physicists working in a Telecommunications company and it was so bizarre.

But then I understood that they were for instance, a Doctor of Economics, or other fields like that. And then, what’s a bachelor degree, nothing :)!

Germans are in many ways obsessed with titles and academic education. The advantage of that is the fact that you see people at work who are focused, aware of academic methodology and it encourages a certain type of work personality.

However, I miss the fact that there is less easy going banter at the workplace. University life in the UK or US, apart from its focus on academics also goes a long way in forming personalities. 18 year olds thrown into new lives, away from home, basically discover who they are.

Once I was working with a lawyer and we were in a lift together. So, it’s quite usual for a British person to ask ‘how are you’, the response we expect back is just the ‘I’m fine’. But with the German lawyer, he proceeded to tell me how he had had a bad day, following an argument with his wife, and a complex day at work, all in great detail of course.

I didn’t quite react much, till he looked at me, and said, oh you English people don’t really want to know all this right, you just ask. The whole lift decidedly fell into bursts of laughter :).

What tips would you have for senior professionals moving to Germany?

Nina: You have to get all your networks in place and not make the classical mistakes. Additionally, if you move here with family, you have to seek out ways at times to ensure your family is exposed to international themes and open culture. There’s also aspects of child care etc. that you will need to find your way through and it may not be the same experience here compared to other countries.

In Germany you have to remember that you will get straight, direct answerswhich is great. But, sarcasm, rhetoric, jokes may not quite fly. I think Germans could loosen up a bit at work!

There’s also the language and I am now fluent in both English and German. But the English accent has become very neutral and my vocabulary in that language has become simpler. This is because I am not spending time with my English peers and intuitively simplify my English here to be understood.

The knowledge of the language and the ‘English-ness’ itself stagnates, you’re not immersed in the politics of the country you’re from. But then, you’re also embracing new stuff. I learnt German at school, but it just can’t compare to what you learn here, when you live here. The colloquialism, sayings and everything is something that you can never learn academically.

Phew! I’m not the one to say that moving to a new country at a senior position is an easy process without any risks. But Nina’s insights really push me to think that, it requires sufficient thinking in directions that are usually less obvious. Although, you can’t be German (or going to be one) if you already didn’t start off with planning 🙂

At Experteer, we have around 30 nationalities and a lot of diversity to that effect at work. Being comfortable and integrated as a diverse population in the local affairs within a new country is then the next level.

The idea of this post was not to question just Germany, because in the absence of a perfect country, it could be just any other place too. Every country comes with its side of issues and challenges. Usually, it is a matter of personal preferences that enables us to find our own balance.

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