Friday, 22 February 2013

Danke - a Potential Minefield for Non-Native Speakers

It is one of the first words you learn in any language "Danke - Thank you - Grazie - Merci" etc. And yet it is not quite as straightforward as those Travel Guides with an attached vocabulary section make out. Just think of how certain languages - Irish is a good example - totally go over board when it comes to thanking, and how many gradations there are. Go raibh míle míle maith agat for example, even without understanding  it exactly, sounds different from "cheers". German isn't quite so fulsome, but when it comes to saying "Thank you" in German, there are many shadings you want to be aware of.

Anglophone speakers in particular are at peril here. Firstly, they tend not to credit German (and Germans) with being capable of irony, and therefore take German words at face value. Big mistake! Secondly, English language natives are influenced by the similarity of their mother tongue, and tend to translate one to one. Thus, there is a tendency to use "Vielen Dank" (the pronunciation "vealen dank" is optional) rather inflationarily, and "Danke sehr" is also far more popular than it should be. In fact, neither is used very much in German at all. The former has a sort of non-committal, throw-away character, and the latter having definite unfortunate irony markers attached to it. (Similar to "Oh, thanks a lot." in English)

So what should you use then? Well, as so often, it's the tone that makes the difference. Whilst as a non-native speaker you'd assume that the simple "Danke" is far too plain, and might make you out not to be very proficient, it should in fact be your thanking word of choice. Except - be aware of your tone, how expressive you sound! Spoken flatly, it obviously hasn't got much resonance. With a heavy stress on the first syllable however, and a (gradated) enthusiasms marker, if will be always be appropriate. In German, it is extremely important to sound friendly and approachable. Which incidentally is another cardinal oversight on the part of Anglophone speakers. They are simply not aware that there is an "approachability marker" in the German language. As a result, their German often sounds flat, unfriendly, and near-hostile even when grammatically correct.

In written German, you obviously don't have the intonation factor, and have to convey friendliness differently. A good way of expressing a personal appreciation would therefore be "Danke dir", or adding an extra phrase like "Danke dir, das ist (aber) nett". A fashionable, but to many people slightly over the top way of thanking would be "lieben Dank".

Quite obviously, there's a lot more to say about this topic, in fact I think it might well be thesis-worthy. Here, I just wanted to draw attention to the fact, that there's a lot more to such a small word than at first meets the eye.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

How to Find a Job in Germany - 5 Tips

In my last post I emphasized how difficult it is to come to Germany with the expectation of finding a job. Regulations, certificates, a pretty inflexible attitude, and intransparent selection criteria make applying for a job a decidedly laborious process. But then again, every country has its own arcane procedures and preferences when it comes to employment. At least nobody will ask you to do one of those excruciating Myers-Briggs type of tests.

So, how DO you go about finding a job in Germany?

1. Learn the language
However despotic this may sound - there is no way round it. If your German isn't fluent, you won't get a look-in. Fact. Pick up conversational German even before you arrive here, and hone your skills in your particular area of expertise. Practice speaking under pressure, as you will have to do so in the interviewing process. No good being all fluent at home with your partner, and sitting there like a lemon when the HR person gives you a grilling.

2.  Establish Leads
From your home country, when you already know you want to live and work in Germany, try and establish some leads. It's unlikely (if not impossible) that you will have secured a proper job offer, but make sure  you're at least in contact (e.g. via Social Media) with companies in your chosen field. Once in Germany, you can then refer back to your previous communication and build stronger ties. Make sure you spread those leads as wide as possible, as most of them might not result directly in a job offer. However,

3.Contacts are important in Germany
Sometimes knowing "somebody" will get you round that pesky need for the right certificate double-quick. So the more people you've already established contact with, the better. Even if your contacts aren't in a postition to leverage you into a position, you will pick up industry gossip, tips, and some insider information. Vacancies often get announced internally first, so if you have advance information, you can apply before the job even gets advertised. A definite bonus!

4. Take the initiative!
It is quite common in Germany to just write off to a company asking whether there is a job going in your specific field. Make it a proper application (including your detailed c.v. and as many photocopied "certificates" you can rustle up). German companies will keep those applications on file, and contact you  if and when a vacancy arises. And last, but not least:

5. Don't go to Berlin!
Unless you want to be an "artist", or a "Social Media Consultant"(in other words, unemployed) Berlin is not the best place in Germany for finding a job. In fact with an unemployment rate of 12 percent, (by far the highest in the country) it may well be the worst. There simply aren't enough companies in Berlin, and there are by far too many people. Unless you're after having a fun time on the dole, avoid the capital, and do some smart exploring instead. The south-west (Stuttgart area) and the south (Munich etc) are the hotspots for well-paid jobs. And don't worry: Germany is very de-centralised, so just because you're not living in Berlin doesn't mean you won't be having any fun!

Monday, 11 February 2013

Finding a Job in Germany

...isn't easy at all. Really by no stretch of the imagination. Whereas in Britain, you could theoretically arrive on  Day 1 and - given you're not fussy, and are just looking for something to tie you over -  be clocking in for work on Day 2.  Granted, it would most likely be re-filling the shelves in Pret a Manger, or manning the flower stall outside the supermarket for 3 hours per day. But you would find something. Not so in Germany. An endless list of requirements stands in your every way. I just checked some ads for "Bürokraft" - an office help. Badly paid, and really a dogsbody (or more quaintly, A Girl Friday) mainly in charge of fetching more coffee. But in Germany you're required to have "at least 5 years experience in office work" (huh?) you need to have previous experience working for "a travel agency, shipping company or such like" (again huh?, the job was just about doing some online filing.) Every reasonably intelligent person can pick up the ropes for such a job in half a day. But no, without previous experience they wouldn't even be prepared to look at you.

If you're looking for a more highly qualified job (executive or management level) ... well, I'm tempted to say "forget it". You'd be practically required to have worked for the very same company you're applying for already. Well they might give you an interview if it was their direct competition. I'm exaggerating slightly, but the reality is uncomfortably close to this scenario.

Even a common default-idea like getting a job in a bookshop (something I did in London, and enjoyed a lot)  would not be possible in Gemany - unless you have completed an apprenticeship as a bookseller (German certificate required!).

The whole job market is so static, so lethargic, and unwieldy, it makes you despair. But if you're thinking of setting up your own business instead - beware! Bureaucratic requirements involving the Inland Revenue, considerable capital to set up a registered company, and arcane regulations will make you think twice about this option. And that's not to mention the sheer impossibility of finding clients. In a socially extremely conservative society, this is a battle in itself.

Sorry to be the harbinger of mainly negative information - but everybody here has at one stage or other been totally and utterly fed up with the organisation of the German job market. It often seems the only way to land a job is to by-pass all the official channels, and rely on personal information and recommendation. Not alas, the most reliable and quick way to get one into employment!

If you have specific questions about finding a job in Germany, feel free to contact me. I'm also in the process of setting up a network called "Opportunities Exchange Germany" - a forum for freelancers in the creative sector who're looking to find clients or work in Germany. (see here for more detail

Monday, 4 February 2013

How Pinterest Changed My Perception of American Food

Let me say first of all that I'm by no means an expert on either America or American food. I've been to New York and to the Hamptons, and...well that's it, I'm afraid. Hardly in-depth research material to base any sort of claim on. Food as I remember it,was excellent, either the home-grown, often steak-based meals, or ethnic food we sampled. So why am I writing about it then?

Well, my impression of American food has changed somewhat since I look at Pinterest. And if their "Food & Drink" board is an ordinary cross-section of American food, then American food is extraordinary indeed. I'm not even querying the health credentials of "Cheerio snack", a simple after-school treat jammed with sugar, syrup and peanut butter which must contain about 5,000kcl and will do wonders for the national obesity graph.

Just looking at that Pinterest board say twice a day (and taking in the comments underneath the photos as well) makes you realise that a combinaton of starch-bacon-cheese is a recurring winner. (I knew there was Philly Steak, but I had not known about the vast appetite (judging from the pins) for "cheesy pasta with 3 types of bacon, sprinkled with parm to make it loook like it's been snowed on" - nice touch the latter! And "parm"?

But the really baflling stuff - and also the most frequent - is something like this- decorated food:
 Or this

Do Americans really love food like this as much as Pinterest suggests? Do whole armies of American "moms" really spend their precious free time shaping bizarre food pictures out of cupboard staples? Do they really make little banana bunnies, strawberry faces, shape spinach into Harry Potter faces etc etc.? Call me ignorant - but I didn't even know such food existed. Let alone would I like to eat it. And what on earth do you say when you're face to face with such elaborate concoctions, and they give you a friendly twinkle from underneath  their eggy hats?