Food, language and work-life balance – what it’s really like to work in Germany
People often ask us what it’s like working in Germany as a foreigner. We’ve both been part of the Peschel Communications team for some time now. Mari is British and completed her Bachelor’s in Durham with an Erasmus semester in Freiburg. After graduating and working near London for a year, she moved back to Germany’s sunniest city in 2016 for an internship at Peschel Communications that happily turned into a permanent position as an in-house translator. Eliot’s journey from the US to Freiburg was similar. After completing his Bachelor’s in Boston, with an exchange semester in Dresden, he knew that he wanted to live in Germany long-term. He returned to Dresden to teach English as a foreign language before moving to Germersheim to complete a Master’s in translation, then Freiburg in 2018 for an internship at Peschel Communications which also led to a job upon completion. We both translate a wide variety of texts into English, in the fields of marketing, technology and law among others. We spend our working day engaging with the differences and common ground between various languages and even the varieties of our own — so it’s a natural step for us to take a closer look at how everyday habits and conventions differ between our home countries and Germany, too.
One of the first differences we noticed between a German office and one in the UK or the US is the level of formality. Since German has both the formal Sie and the informal du, meeting new people sometimes involves a tricky decision. In English, it’s straightforward — everyone is “you”. And the workplace atmosphere back home feels more relaxed in general. It’s common for colleagues to address each other by their first names, and emails tend to begin with “Dear Peter or “Good morning” rather than “Dear Mr Miller”, for example. Some people might well prefer the formal approach as a way of signalling a respectful distance when talking to their managers or customers, but for others, especially if they’re just entering the world of work or working in a foreign language, it can seem more alienating than anything else.
We count ourselves lucky that we can address everyone in our office here with the informal du,since it makes things simpler and it comes more naturally to us. But on the flipside, a more informal office culture makes addressing customers with the formal Sie feel a bit stilted and untrue to our character. This is a perfect example of how integrating into a foreign culture is about much more than just learning grammar and vocabulary.
As language service providers, we tend to use different languages in the office on a regular basis anyway. We generally speak German with the rest of the team but usually switch to English one-on-one, and if we come across a good English joke, we know that everyone else will understand it and be able to share the laugh. We’ve often had people tell us with a chuckle that our English personality is different to our German one. It’s not that we can’t express ourselves in German, of course, but even in more informal situations, the repertoire of expressions we tend to use differs between the different languages that we speak and the cultural circles we find ourselves in.
While we each have our own opinions about working conditions in Germany, we agree that they’re generally better than those of our home countries. The difference from the US is particularly stark. In Germany, many people have three times as much annual leave as in the US — and even if you’re just starting out, you’re guaranteed a comparatively generous amount of leave by law. What’s more, it’s generally accepted here that if you’re ill, you shouldn’t be coming in to work. In the US, employees have a fixed amount of annual sick leave, and you have to use it wisely. If you run out too early in the year, you might find yourself out of a job the next time you’re too ill to work. So we certainly appreciate being able to take it for granted that we can stay at home and recover without going into debt. It just seems a lot more humane to have laws in place that protect this basic need for free time and recovery.
In the UK, the situation is a little different. Most people have around 20 to 25 days of annual leave, so not quite as many as in Germany, but the working week is not so long — on average 37.5 hours a week instead of 40. There’s also a more relaxed approach to sick leave in the UK. Generally, you don’t need a doctor’s note unless you’re going to be off work for a week or longer. But the flipside of this is that, without a doctor’s confirmation or any fixed rule about when you can call in sick, you feel under pressure to justify every day off and you’re reluctant to stay home unless you absolutely have to,which means dragging yourself coughing or sneezing back to the office as soon as the worst of the illness is over. The number of paid sick days you can take per year depends on your employment contract. Once you’ve used up all of these days, you either have to get a doctor’s note or you can expect to have the time away from work deducted from your pay cheque.
Something we’ve both noticed about the German work culture that we’re less impressed with is that people often take a little longer to answer emails or get around to minor tasks. Maybe this goes back to the same attitude that it’s important to take your time and not work yourself into the ground. It’s certainly a good idea not to let yourself get distracted by every email,but we both feel that when you’re trying to collaborate with someone, you should at least be able to count on getting a reply within the same day.
Before we get too serious, there’s one more difference between our home countries and Germany worth mentioning — the culture surrounding food in the workplace. In many companies in the US and UK, it’s considered the norm to bring your own lunch or buy a quick bite somewhere nearby — usually just a sandwich or a salad. But Germans insist on a hot meal at lunchtime! Some large companies even have their own canteen. Personally we both find this approach very interesting, as we’re the kind of people who plan our whole lives around food and what we’re going to eat for our next meal. But we see a hot lunch as more of an added bonus than a must-have. In the US and the UK, cold food and the nine-to-five go hand-in-hand, and it’s perfectly fine. It’s in the evening that we absolutely insist on a proper meal. For us, that’s the only way to properly finish the day!
Some things are just the same here in Germany as in our home countries. We have the same conversations in passing in the kitchen, about how we spent the weekend or what the chances are of someone bringing in some snacks to share with the team (a homemade cake is a must on your birthday). Once you’ve found your bearings a little, this foreign country doesn’t seem so foreign after all.