Expat Blog Interview: Katharina, From Munich To Chicago
This month we kick off the first in a series where we will feature a different expat blog interview each month.
Each interview will be either a German blogger living abroad and looking in on what makes their home country tick, and reflecting on what they have gained from their expat experience. Or we will talk to foreigners living as expats here in Germany and sharing what they have learned from living here, and giving any advice or tips they have picked up to help others on their journey.
Katharina, originally from Munich, who moved to Chicago just over a year ago.
As a German expat in the United States for just over a year, Katharina strives to consult with and empower expat spouses worldwide on her website Share The Love. She has profound experience in the corporate world as a Marketing & Business Development Manager. Her mission to inspire expat partners by sharing her own personal experience and advice on how to live a happy life abroad.
So, Katharina, what were the biggest culture shocks for you as a German living in the States?
I was very surprised that our cultures are so different from each other. I was living in Taiwan, for example, and I expected to have a culture crisis there. I mean, I can't speak the language, the food and culture are different, so I prepared for that. But when we decided to move to the States I thought “Oh, this will be easy”, I can speak English. I was raised by American television, movies, songs, I was already doing negotiations with some Americans, so I wasn't expecting to have that culture shock. But when I came here I was really surprised to find out that there is a huge difference in culture. For me, somehow even more of a difference than in Asia, because in Asia the differences were obvious, but here we are so much more different than I thought at the beginning.
In what regard?
In the end, for me, it comes down to how the society communicates. It's kind of superficial but of course also really friendly. When you talk to people you have the best time ever, you ask each other “how are you?” and “do you need help, do you want a cup of coffee?”. They're so welcoming in embracing you into their friendship. But then a week later you find out that wasn't a promise, it was just chit chat, friendly small talk. With Germans when you say “let's go for a cup of coffee”, then you say that because you want to. I'm not being friendly, I just want to meet. But here it's more about appearing friendly and wanting to seem helpful.
That's interesting, I guess from a British perspective we're probably somewhere in the middle.
Could be, yeah. What's so fascinating for me is the job interviews I had at the beginning. I left the interviews and I thought “Oh my God, that went so well! What's going on?” But of course it didn't. That was just the feeling I got from what the other person was saying to me. So that was the biggest struggle for me in the beginning. Trying to read what is just being friendly, and what is being genuine and honest.
Yeah… Americans are certainly very in your face sometimes with their enthusiasm and cheerfulness. I get that. So it was really just about cultural differences in communication, more than anything else?
Yeah, everything else – you know, how they consume and all that stuff, for me that's okay. They're just cultural differences that are easy to handle. But the one thing I'm still struggling with, is their way of communicating. To me they seem very over friendly, and I must seem very unfriendly to them. I guess they think I'm rude, and I think they're fake. So it's hard for me to find the middle ground when it comes to business, for example. When it comes to “okay, so does that mean we are actually going to be friends now, or not?”
I guess doing business with Americans internationally is different from a business relationship in their own country, I can see that. So, what are the little things you miss the most from home?
First, maybe the typical stereotype: You know, I miss the German bread. Obviously, we Germans are into our dark bread, and that's true. So I really miss having a fresh croissant in the morning for breakfast, or just going to any supermarket to get bread. But here in the US, I have to specifically plan my routine and shopping to get fresh bread and not just toast. Food wise, that's probably the biggest obstacle.
In more generic terms, I miss having value for money. For example, when we moved here the flat was empty. You know, we had to buy everything, the couch, the bed, table. Everything. And you can buy things which are kind of cheap. You can have a whole Ikea apartment if you want, which is fairly the same price as in Germany I guess. And you can have a luxury apartment and have to pay five digits for a couch or something. But we really missed having something in between. It's the same for fashion, it's the same for groceries. There's a lot of really cheap stuff and a lot of really expensive stuff. But I'm missing paying a normal amount of money for normal quality. Because even the luxury items aren't really that high quality.
That's true, actually. I would say in Germany if you want to buy good quality food then it's relatively affordable. I would agree there, and it's pretty easy to find as well. You have your Aldi and Lidl but it's also easy to go to a higher end supermarket if you want. Bread, haha, I'm not surprised, all Germans say that!
Yeah, I am a stereotype. I am completely a stereotype, I've found out now since being abroad.
You didn't say Nutella? 🙂
I can buy Nutella here. You go shopping and there are ten kinds of peanut butter and one Nutella but still there is one! One other thing, I'm also a vegetarian, and it's tricky for me being here in Chicago – it's much easier in California but the Midwest is still tricky in those terms.
You've been there just over a year now, what are the things that you most appreciate now about Germany, and what things drive you crazy when you're flying back?
This is going to sound such a boring German stereotype but one thing is communication and reliability. If a person says something, he or she means it and owns it and you can trust him or her on that. I'm missing that here a lot. That's something I guess Germans have, they're direct, and that can be negative, but for me the positive thing about being reliable in communication is that you know what the other person is thinking. You know how to approach people. I guess that's something I appreciate about Germany.
The second thing is efficiency. That sounds, again, a stereotype but it's true. I can see here there are many processes that aren't really efficient. Here a lot of time is about work, and everybody has to work and go do something, no matter if it's useful or not. I guess Germans tend to be very efficient in their work process.
I'm laughing because I think the opposite. In any sort of service industry, or government function, I think it's almost the opposite. When you go to any sort of street festival here for example, I always think it's crazy that each different stand has their own glasses and deposit. I think it would be much more efficient if someone was there at the entrance handing out glasses, you pay 2 or 3 euro, and you keep it with you the whole evening. You would save a lot of time standing in line.
That's true, you'd only miss the branding opportunity for that wine company. But yeah, it's true definitely for the public sector everything like that. I was more referring to the business context. One thing I notice, here it's a lot more talking, whereas Germans are more doing. Maybe they're going in the wrong direction, but at least the approach is developing somehow.
Another difference is the lack of a long-term mindset. A simple example is that in Germany when you rent a flat, I guess you're planning to stay there for a couple of years. Older generations may have planned to stay there for the rest of their lives, but for my generation a few years, maybe. And over here now, in the US, I've almost lived here for a year and all my neighbours are now different to when we moved here. It feels like Americans change their apartment every year. It's the same with work, they stay in a job for a couple of months and then change. The same in fashion, they love fast fashion, changing trends all the time. Which is good, but I kind of like that in Germany we are quite traditionally minded still, to want to have that value and stability.
I didn't know I liked it before I moved, but seeing that it doesn't add any value to change your clothes and your friends every two weeks, I kind of like the other approach better.
One more thing that's easier in Germany than in America is to achieve a certain standard of living. I was prepared for that, and the salaries are that little bit higher, but it's still very difficult to get that standard of living here. Eating good food, going out to nice restaurants, having a nice apartment… you have to earn a lot here in Chicago to keep up that standard of living. There is a bit more stability in Germany. We are paying for that of course through taxation and social contributions in Germany, but it's still interesting to see that if you want a certain standard of living, and to keep it, you have to work a lot harder here in the US.
I used to live in Munich, which is also a really expensive city too, but now going back there it seems cheap. It's weird how that changed for me, living here. You have to have a really good job here to have that same standard of living. They don't save money here, they just spend whatever they earn each month, and they need to do that to pay the rent. Whereas on my old salary in Germany it was easier to live a really comfortable, good life.
Yes, I get that, especially what you say about jobs. I do think Germans tend to be more loyal to their employer and still believe in the job-for-life mentality to a certain extent.
That's interesting what you say about cost of living. I suppose it depends on where you are and what you earn. From my limited experience of the US I'd say it's true that in the big US cities most things are more expensive than in Germany, especially when you have to add sales tax and tipping. But if you're living in a smaller town in the US, I imagine you're better off than in Germany as taxes are pretty low and outside of the major metro areas, housing must be more affordable as they have such a big, empty country.
I suppose so? I can only really compare Chicago and Munich, which I think is a fair comparison. There's a high standard of living when it comes to cultural life, lots of theatres, they're very lively cities, you can do anything. But you have to have the money. Nothing is free. You have to spend money. Going out for dinner is easily a hundred bucks for two people if you want to have a glass of wine. Going out to the grocery store can easily cost two hundred dollars at the end and you don't know how you spent it!
So what are the things that make you roll your eyes and really irritate you whenever you go back home to Germany?
Well, the first one is that we are quite closed and are not really a very welcoming culture, especially comparing it to the US where everybody at least on the outside superficially is really friendly. In Germany approaching a stranger and engaging in conversation and going for a coffee is, well, it just takes a lot longer to get to know us and I wish we would become more sociable to strangers.
You also mentioned it before but negativity is another one. The glass is more half empty than half full. We see failure as something bad. If you tried 2 startups in the US you’re respected and kind of a hero, whereas in Germany you’re bankrupt and nobody wants to be friends with you. We only see the negative sides and do not really embrace the key learnings and positive outcomes of having failed at something.
Another thing that’s true that Germans tend to not think outside the box. If you're introducing new processes or ideas into an existing framework, we tend to think that what worked in the past will work in the future and not think about new approaches. That's something I could really learn from how things work here in the US.
It's also very easy to invent yourself from scratch here, or start over in completely different industries.
So, in Germany you wouldn't feel able to do that without having a certain qualification or piece of paper? Whereas in the US, if you have practical experience that's considered more legitimate?
Yeah, exactly. It's just a different culture here. In Germany there are things that if I put on my CV it would feel like cheating. Here, not putting those things on my CV would be wrong. I guess that's a good thing about this culture. It's easier to start over, here. Easier than it would be for an American in Germany, I guess.
What do you think? Is Katharina right, or do you disagree with her comments? Join the debate in the comments below and we will bring you another expat blog interview next month!