A misunderstood gesture, a misinterpreted look - a DW Akademie workshop for Germany's Foreign Office candidates looks at the subtleties of intercultural communication.
It has been a nice evening in good company. The restaurant is almost empty and the waiter brings the bill. The Italian guests insist on paying for their German colleagues but the Germans adamently refuse and call the waiter back. "I would like to pay for the salad, the pasta and a quarter of the wine bottle," says one. "I would like to see the menu again to work out my share of the bill," says another. Laughter fills the training room as employees of Germany's Foreign Office re-enact the scene. Everyone here knows this is a typical German situation".
But what is "typically German"? That's the question the 30 participants of this intercultural training have been asked to explore. In short sequences they initially look at types of "German behavior" that can backfire in international meetings. And it soon becomes obvious that it's not usually the words or phrases that lead to misunderstandings but everyday habits, gestures and facial expressions. "I've traveled a lot and am aware of some possible faux pas," says Sabine Müller, a contender for higher service. "This workshop, though, points out how many traps there can be on a day-to-day basis. Keeping an open mind is very important."
And that's what the practical training sessions are about. The young diplomats, for example, are asked whether they could get through a negotiation without having eye contact. "That's incredibly hard," says one participant. "It comes across as very impersonal and I’m used to looking at the person I’m speaking to." Trainer Merjam Wakili encourages the workshop participants to constantly question obvious cultural norms."You see, in many cultures having eye contact is considered to be rude or even aggressive." Although there are no rights or wrongs in intercultural communication, she stresses, it's important to be aware of the cultural norms of others.
Human rights activists and village elders up close
Candidates for mid and senior career levels need to attend numerous seminars and trainings before taking up their first foreign assignment. Intercultural training is very beneficial, says Kai Baldow, deputy head of the Foreign Service Academy. "Having this awareness is key to future careers. It's important that young diplomats learn to adjust their own behavior without overly comprimising their own personalities."
The afternoon is dedicated to practical exercises. Together with three Deutsche Welle coaches from China, Burkina Faso and Afghanistan participants in small groups explore various cultural norms. Journalist Shi Ming plays a Chinese human rights activist and wants to know how a German embassy employee would address him on the street. Eric Segueda plays a village elder from Burkina Faso and asks a participant to inaugurate a new well. And Safi Ibrahimkhail welcomes the future embassy staff to his house and with constant body contact - which is common in Afghanistan - definitely overwhelms them.
"DW Akademie offers intercultural expertise," says Daniela Wiesler, Head of DW Akademie's Media Training Division. "Our trainers frequently travel abroad and have extensive intercultural skills. We also have international colleagues who live in Germany and send reports back to their home countries. They're familiar with intercultural challenges and know what can be ambiguous or require explanation and how to convey this."
DW Akademie's Media Training offers a variety of workshops in Bonn and Berlin both in intercultural communication and in dealing professionally with the media. Training sessions are tailored to the needs of employees and executives from politics, business and NGOs. A wide range of journalism workshops are also available, including mobile reporting and TV hosting.