Adapting To Conflict Through A Language Barrier

The past week has been eventful and in my opinion has been the most interesting as both an employee and a traveler. I was able to get in touch more with those from other U.S. universities within our Intrax group which I was always looking forward to. It is always good to see others in the same boat and sharing experiences about living, working and adapting to the environment and is interesting to me because it is a new experience for all of us. I always find our different experiences to have notes of the same ideas; Whether it is a harsher workplace or a difficulty to adapt to a new language barrier, the struggles are not unique to anyone. During the week it is nice to go to the park with others in the Pitt group and reflect on the different faux pas we possibly had done and not taking it too seriously with one another. Having a sense of community around me makes it easier to remember that assimilation is not an easy thing to do and takes longer than two months. 

Within the workplace, there are many aspects of the job that I feel are difficult to get used to given my background and the new culture at hand. The language barrier is the obvious one; many people in the office I work in expect German off the bat, and I always feel awkward needing to consistently tell them that I only speak English. It becomes even more difficult when I interact with outside members of the community. For example, I was hanging up flyers on Friday afternoon in preparation for the upcoming energy conference. I was told by my supervisor that I should put them on the doors of apartments because people are generally welcome to that. After taping it to an apartment door, an older gentleman yanked the door open and yelled at me in German. Then he reached for the flier, ripped it to shreds and then spat at me, all while screaming at me in an extremely harsh tone. This situation was more difficult for me in this instance because I could not respond in any way. I had to just say sorry and move on, while he continued to follow me down the street. 

This experience was an extreme case of feeling totally useless in an interaction because people are typically not angry, but it was almost as if I was defenseless. It did teach me that in this case it’s just easier to walk away in general, no matter the language barrier. On another note, I feel as though a big aspect that I struggle with assimilating to is the culture of not praising one another. Since I am used to the practice of giving compliments at work and having a lot of small talk, this is definitely a learning curve. It is sometimes difficult to know what my supervisor is thinking about my work, but I have to keep reminding myself that no praise means high praise. Compared to the other jobs I have worked, it is normal for a lot of small talk throughout the day while continuously saying stuff like “nice job, keep up the good work” or something along those lines. To me, that gives me positive reinforcement and even helps me do better work. So in a way I wish my supervisor sparingly said good job, but it never really comes, which I know is part of the culture here. I think it comes from my parents as well to tell someone if they are doing a good or bad job, so no praise at all is totally a different way of operating.

Outside of work, I honestly do not find it that difficult to assimilate to. Especially because almost everyone I talk to knows English – especially young people – it feels easy to get around and connect with others. In addition, I feel as though German youth are more outgoing than I expected and I have made friends with many while going out to bars or clubs. They tell me that they like to break the stereotype and realistically they are friendly for the most part. I have found it just takes a little more prodding to get them to come out of their shell, but once that happens it’s easy. The one thing that is different is the stereotypes that they have about me as an American. It seems as though many Germans believe certain things about Americans and generalize without having visited the country at all. I tell them that there is not one American prototype, and hopefully break their stereotypical outlook on us. Besides that, outside of work is pretty seamless and has become normal for me. Although many little difficulties may come up going forward, it’s not too different in a lot of ways.

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