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New Cultural Perspectives April 27, 2011

Posted by Christine Morrison in Fulbright, Germany, Undergraduate.
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Living as an Ausländer (foreigner) in Germany has given me new perspective on cultural differences. Although I look like I could be German, there have been several instances in which I know I stood out because I did not act like a German. Queuing for lines is one such example. When a new register in a supermarket opens up, Americans line up according to the order they were already in, while Germans abide by the first-come, first-served principle. According to an American, one would be considered rude to jump ahead of the person they were previously behind in line but not according to a German.

Christine and members of her lab group play badminton

On Saturday mornings, Christine and members of her lab group play badminton together and then go out for lunch. They especially enjoy playing Olympic-style, in which they compete while representing their respective countries.

Another cultural difference is how birthdays are celebrated. In the U.S., it is common for the family and friends of the birthday person to buy dinner. In Germany, the birthday person pays for the entire dinner party.

Typically, the birthday person personally invites all of the guests (usually only close friends and family). It is sort of like the adult version of kids’ birthday parties in the U.S. where guests do not pay for anything.

Obviously, there is no right or wrong way to form a line or celebrate a birthday, but there are different perspectives on how to do so. I chose these examples to illustrate how I have had to overcome my own cultural biases in order to feel truly integrated into the German culture.

Working with my lab group, which consists of 15 people from nine different countries, has provided its own challenges. Because the group is so diverse, the common language is English, the so-called scientific language, although we speak a lot of German also. For most, neither is their native language, and despite excellent skills, sometimes speaking in English or German just does not work. When this happens, paper and pen do the trick. Although the communication barrier can be awkward, I have realized that to be integrated into the group I cannot be afraid to misunderstand someone, say the wrong thing, or tell a joke that nobody gets. I should be more direct when I do not understand something and not take what others say too literally.

In many ways the communication barrier actually serves as a bonding mechanism. When the languages and cultures present in the group are formally acknowledged, it creates a rich, understanding working environment and the opportunity to learn from each others’ languages and cultures. I learned from the Greeks with whom I work that on the first of every month, people in Greece wish each other “ΚΑΛΩ ΜΗΝΑ” (Kalo Mina) or “good month.” Now, the whole group wishes each other ΚΑΛΩ ΜΗΝΑ.

In another example, I had the opportunity to travel with my lab group to Dublin, Ireland, for a conference in my research area. While walking through the streets I noticed a lot of people staring at me, even though a quick self-check made sure I was perfectly ordinary (no bird poop on my coat, no wrapper stuck to my shoe, no spaghetti sauce on my cheek). I asked some of the Dubliners at the conference about this, and they started giggling after a moment of realization. They said that now it makes sense why they sometimes feel so isolated when they travel–because people are not staring at them. The conversation left us all with a new perspective on interactions between strangers and led to an evening of even greater conversation.

With all of this in mind, I now seek out opportunities to communicate with people of other nationalities in order to gain a greater understanding of differences in culture and language and, of course, to make new friends in the process.

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