Since 1990, Germany's military has been permitted to operate beyond its own borders. To better understand people in other countries, officers are now undergoing training to learn about cultural differences.
Ethnologist Youssouf Diallo talks about very simple things. "Hello," "Goodbye," "How are you?" Everyone understands these everyday phrases, but how do you say them in another country? Not in terms of the language, but as gestures? And there are still more questions: Is offering your hand a polite gesture everywhere or does it come off as rude? Should women be greeted first or could this be misconstrued as an insult to the husband? Is eye contact necessary, or is it impolite?
Different countries have different cultural codes
Diallo is originally from Burkina Faso. He is familiar with the cultural codes of different countries. He is one of many teachers at the German military's Center for Internal Leadership in Koblenz who prepare soldiers for missions abroad - and that includes a separate seminar on intercultural sensitivity.
Diallo says the first and most important step is to understand who you are and how you are perceived. "Let's try to describe what German culture is. Consider examples such as the German bureaucracy or the German love of order or automobiles," he said. While we may laugh about such things, there is a kernel of truth in the stereotypes, he said. The point is to stop and reflect on yourself. If you know who you are, you can better deal with people from other cultures and their habits, Diallo said.
Role playing is intended as a simple tool to convey knowledge. In it, the soldiers are confronted with unfamiliar gestures during the seminar. How do others react if you speak very softly or when you tap on their shoulder every other sentence? Even being a neutral observer requires practice. Therefore one of the three practice partners only watches. The aim is broader awareness. The officers can then pass on the experiences they have gained to a larger number of their comrades during their mission.
Personal space issues
Simone Fiedler, international coach for intercultural competence, also tries to convey knowledge with role-playing. In one of these exercises, she lets soldiers form two rows, looking in the same direction. Then one row has to turn around and stand only 30 to 40 centimeters in front of the other.
The proximity clearly makes many people feel uncomfortable. The soldiers must then walk hand in hand around the room. It was a strange feeling for many of them, Fiedler said, but one connected with an insight: "I sometimes have to overcome my inhibitions to avoid jeopardizing the mission," she said.
An advanced level of discussion
Most of the "intercultural competence" seminar is made up, not of exercises, but of lectures and discussions about the culture, history and politics of other countries. On the topic of Islam in particular, the organizers invite experts to the center. Most seminar participants are between 25 and 35 years old and already have plenty of experience with the topic of "intercultural competence," which is also reflected in the advanced level of the discussions.
"This has been very important for a long time," press officer Lieutenant-Colonel Harald Reichardt said. "We discussed these issues in the army at many points in officer schools and universities. Three years ago, then-Inspector General Wolfgang Schneiderhahn recognized this and said we were wasting our energy." Instead of talking about the issue in many different places in the army, the energies should be concentrated, Reichardt said. The Inspector General therefore gave the order to establish a central coordinating body at the Center for Internal Leadership, he said.
Mission in Afghanistan
Since 2010, a course on "intercultural competence" has been offered five times a year to around 20 soldiers. The army says 160 people have been trained so far. There is no test of what the soldiers retain from the many subjects addressed. But the organizers are confident that the participants bring many of the suggestions from Koblenz to their future work. Lieutenant Isabelle Teufert said: "It has definitely been worth it to be here. I think that I can now put together a high quality course of my own." However, Teufert admitted she really did not learn much that was new.
Her colleague, Captain H., who did not wish to give his name, says that, apart from the practical exercises, he did not learn a lot. But the week was still enriching for him. "We can take it as a starting point to easily sensitize people for intercultural competence. Most of my colleagues will be working directly in Afghanistan. They, at least, should develop a sense for it. There is still time. Once they are there, it may be too late."