Personal experiences form the core of Karin Schreiner’s training. Examples illustrate intercultural situations relating to everyday business, international assignments, culture shock and returning home.
Ms Habib is new in the IT department of our insurance company. She was recruited because she has many years of experience in the branch. Her German is good but she finds the specialist terminology difficult. Her colleagues have to speak English to her and that does not go down well with some of them. They come to me to complain: “Ms Habib is ok and does her job very well but her German is not good. This causes delays because we first have to explain everything to her in English. It is not our mother tongue and we find this difficult.“
I make a suggestion: “Let‘s leave the German language aside for a moment. She’ll learn that in due time. Instead, let’s ask ourselves what Ms Habib can do well? What can she do that we cannot? How could you benefit from her?“
My team tried very hard to follow my advice – successfully!
You know, in our culture we always say yes and never admit to not having understood something. I did this here in the company at the start too. When I was new, there were a lot of things which had to be explained to me and I always said yes. However, at some stage it was awkward because I didn’t understand an essential point. I learned from this - now I always say if something isn’t clear. I have changed my behaviour and this goes down well with my colleagues.
Arrival in New Delhi at dawn: Intolerable heat hits you in the face and engulfs you. People are squatting or standing everywhere. They look different, move differently, speak differently and wear different clothes; many are barefoot. They have much darker complexions than Europeans. The roads are lined with endless rows of shacks and cardboard huts where families live. Many sleep on the pavement. Beggars and mutilated children sell snacks at street junctions. Old women, dressed miserably, stand with blank stares. People, noise, turmoil and loud car horns. Other smells, other sounds. A completely different world.
My first experience living outside Europe was in India. I spent three years in New Delhi. Streets there still look very different to those in Europe. Not only because of the many forms of transport - the amount of begging men, women and children, who often live in cardboard huts at the side of the road, is a strange sight for Europeans. I often travelled in cars with Indian colleagues and observed their reaction when we stopped at a junction, the beggars surrounding our car with imploring looks and gestures. My colleagues ignored them completely and treated them as if they weren’t there. They didn’t see these people because they had no connection to them. I, on the other hand, felt sympathy for them but couldn’t see a way of changing their life considerably by giving them a small amount of money. Experiences like these left me feeling helpless. Suddenly I realized that I was part of a Western Christian tradition which places great emphasis on charity.
When I returned to Vienna after nine years abroad, I felt like a foreigner in my own country. I wasn’t used to only speaking German. Daily life had changed and I didn’t know what was going on. It was strange having to ask questions as if I was a foreigner although I was neither a tourist nor a foreigner. I found myself in awkward situations where different behaviour was expected. I was disconcerted. It was exactly the same as in a foreign country. I had to learn how to behave all over again.
After returning to my “passport country”, I had the feeling that I did not belong. I am fundamentally more open than the others. People constantly badmouth foreigners. But, after half a year, I feel comfortable again. However, I still miss my old friends.”