Friday, 23 November 2012

10: Sacrifices to the German workplace

The German workplace is a terrifying arena.
When I was offered the chance to intern for an online news site, I naturally accepted. 

Where Berlin wakens from its slumber.

On my first day, an editor asked me if I could translate something for an English pull-out. “Of course,” I lied. Two minutes later an email arrived in my inbox carrying something far worse than a virus - copy in German. About Merkel’s cabinet reshuffles. Or cabinet shuffling. Or Merkel being shuffled around the cabinet. I entered the whole text into Google Translate, with whom I had become close friends in a short period of time. He agreed that it wasn’t Merkel being shuffled around the cabinet, but was short on further details. The friendship certainly could have been stronger if Google Translate could actually translate, because word-for-word translations are useless in German. You end up with texts that read:

Previously, the ratings agency ailing of Cyprus downgraded credit ratings of New York junk because of the Fitch banking of systems.

I looked around and saw everyone in the compact office typing away. The editor had mentioned that it “shouldn’t take me longer than 45 minutes to translate the task," an estimate surely based on the assumption that my German was fluent.

Presumption is the mother of all fuck ups, son.

 I swiftly sent an SOS message to my girlfriend and forwarded her the translation. I typed an email loudly to cover for my absence of work and waited. Sweat filled the absence of labour while I familiarised myself with the magazine’s surroundings - filter coffee, tube kitchen, cheap art prints and ageing skin: the office had all the reassuring aspects of locations I’d worked in before, except the coffee had so far been free here.

The translation came back perfect half an hour later and I forwarded it to the editor ten minutes ahead of schedule. “Great work, Ex” came the reply. “Here are a couple more.”

The European Central Bank and Eurobonds, obviously two of my favourite subject as a film and music gigger. I felt like a blind man looking for lost coins on a beach: the whole process was a lottery. Each time I ended up with a sentence like:

The bank, which is bond issuing, when times of risk are high, which currently is this time is, when embroiled in conflicts is, EU.

I knew that the ECB’s policy had polarised Europe, but I felt something must have gotten lost in translation.  Sweating like Hitler at a Black Panther’s Bar Mitzvah, I took refuge on the smoking balcony in the German section.

I had been avoiding this haven of false peace since I’d arrived fearing walking into the enemy’s grotto alone. Five Germans from the video department, sat smoking together, only confirmed this fear. I watched them carefully from a distance as I approached, confident I could hold my own in German for the length of a cigarette.

“Hallo,” said a friendly type.

“Jah, arm, Hallo,” I replied, uttering a noise similar to that made by a blender in spasm.

 I pulled out a cigarette and lit it so as to fill my mouth and auto-deprive myself of speech. I waved back at the friendly co-smokers and concentrated on the horizon, keeping the smoke in my mouth all along, only waving and smiling as they left.

But two more came. The new arrivals had questions too.

“Wer bist du?”

Wer bist du…wer bist du…got it, who am I.
“Ex,” I replied with an outstretched hand.

“Ja, okay. Aber was machst du eigentlich hier?”


“What are zyou doing here?” said a man with glasses, pointing first to the terrace and then to me, as if his question required a physical explanation to be understood.  I watched his finger breakdance between us as his explanation petered out.

“Smoking,” I replied.

The Germans looked at each other confused and speculated on what kind of species I was. The bravest of the pack then asked me again: “Are zyou from, wie sagt man, print?” pointing to the other side of the building like a Berlin Wall guard signalling across the frontier.

“Yes, genau,” I said affirmatively.

“Ah,” he gasped with relief. “Okay.”

And that was it. I’d survived my first encounter in the German workplace. It had carried hints of blatant xenophobia and potential misunderstanding, but we’d all returned to work unscarred. By the end of my work experience, I could make jokes about how full the ashtray was and discuss the weather or the slowness of the lift. But overall the Germans would see me coming and all be on the phone when I passed through their offices. If I found myself smoking with any, we’d simply point at the full ashtray and laugh about how hysterically full it had become.

But as I grew into the job I realised getting there was a far bigger challenge than smoking. Every country has its lift and subway etiquette, but Germans have a unique lift salute. You can’t break the ice with a lazy “Good morning” while waiting for the lift.  Ice doesn’t break in Germany - you’ll be left cold.

For good lift etiquette simply stand back from the lift and make a feasibility study to best engineer your approach as soon as the lift doors open. Enter quietly and stare only at either the lift buttons or the ceiling. Remember; do not look at the other people in the lift. If you have some paperwork at hand, I encourage you to consult it. As people leave the lift and turn out of view, you will hear them say “tschüss.” This is not an invitation to a tropical chewing convention: This is where you spring into action. A chorus will soon echo this “tschüss” and you want to make sure your effort is fine-tuned to theirs. In Germany, it’s all about how you leave the lift, not how you get in. Nobody wants to say the last thank you at a dinner party, and lift salutes engender a similar form of competition in Germany,

Once you arrive at your arbeit station, your holy grail, you’ll want to treat it with respect. Maybe name it and offer it quarterly sacrifices. Don’t, for example, sprinkle your croissant on the desk (especially if you’re late and forgot to lift salute). You could consider buying some wet wipes to polish your computer screen to show your commitment to desk-hygiene.

Working nine to five anywhere is bad enough, but there is an ethic in the German workplace, an attention to duty so meticulous and punctilious, it far outweighs the general devotion shown to labour by mankind. Five minutes late is a different sort of crime in Germany than, say, in Tanzania. Germans abhor lateness and even if they should say things like “Make no worries for yourself. We understand it iz possible, due to unforeseeable miscalculation of estimates, to sometimes late be,” they find the idea of tardiness disgustingly decadent and perverse. The goal of 100 percent,  24/7 punctuality, the antithesis of the siesta, lies at the heart of the German national spirit, like a permanent zeitgeist that transcends generations. Germany is a nation where announcements for jobs are made months in advance. Festival line-ups are planned by the decade, childbirth by the century.

Should you ever be late, don’t explain why to anyone. As long as you aren’t blind or recently paralyzed (the long term disabled have no excuse), Germans will feel you had a reasonable chance to reach a given meeting on schedule. Germans, note, also use different definitions of time. An appointment can be scheduled contempus (CT) and sinetempus (ST). If it’s 8 a.m. CT, they mean 8.15. If it’s 8 a.m. ST, get there at 7.50 and lift salute.

Do not mention public transport or children in your excuse should you be late; you should have made an adequate plan B, C and D for both. The only way to be late in Germany is if you are an artist, in which case you should always attempt to give off the impression that your delay was merely a philosophical transition you undertook that was necessary before you entered the Now.

Germans like to operate on a calculated schedule, whereby the variables are known and pre-quantifiable, with little margin for diversion or surprise: like a software code. The country's social DNA is an operating system with enough bureaucratic numbers to fill a maths manual, enough paperwork to wipe out a rainforest and enough files to give any hard drive a headache.
Germans do not like to be caught off hand or be surprised. It deranges the pre-ordained timetable of forthcoming events.

“Why iz something new to happen when it is to program instead possible?”

Something unknown could come forth with millions of new variables, insurmountable misunderstandings and unpredictable futures. If there is a need for a surprise, then better to place it within a given schedule or season such as Christmas or New Year to reduce the potential for awkward unforeseen wonder. At best surprises should be conducted by alerting everybody concerned in advance and reminding everyone to act surprised.


  1. Ok, but perhaps Berlin is not really such a case. They always talk about "Berlin time" as opposed to German time, meaning that in Berlin people are always a bit late. I will agree about surprises, if it's planned that way, you do it that way, no second thoughts or last minute changes allowed, ever. Nice blog!

  2. Couple of weeks ago, on the U-Bahn TVs, i saw one article reminding everybody that winter and snow are in no case an excuse for being late for work. Public service announcement.