“Distance doesn’t equal coldness”: EnglishBusiness speaks with trainer and senior consultant Michael Dawoodjee, MBA


Smooth Landing Frankfurt: an expat’s perspective on cultural differences in the financial sector between London and Frankfurt.

Skyline of Frankfurt

Photo credit: Dontworry via Wikimedia (photo reformatted)

For those following the financial news, it sometimes feels like a new bank has announced it will move its European headquarters from London to Frankfurt every month. This has a lot of people working in the financial sector, as well as curious onlookers, asking the question, “What do banks need to know when relocating to Frankfurt?” We tackled this exact question in our blog, “Relocating to Frankfurt: four things banks need for a smooth landing”, which details the basics of what companies should have covered if they’re planning a Brexit-inspired move from London to Frankfurt. The first in our “Smooth Landing Frankfurt” series, this post touches on banking licences, accounting processes, office space and cultural awareness.

Today we talk with Michael Dawoodjee to get an expat’s perspective on cultural differences in the financial sector between London and Frankfurt. Michael is one of EB Training’s top consultants and trainers. With years of experience in the financial sector, he has directly advised and coached top management at large companies in every field, ranging from logistics to real estate.

 

EnglishBusiness: Michael, you’ve lived through the experience of moving from a large English-speaking metropolis to a German city. In this case, for Londoners preparing to move to Frankfurt, how would you compare the two cities?

Michael: London is the top global financial hub, and indeed a global city. British individuals moving here will really be struck by the cultural differences when they arrive in Germany. Frankfurt is the second largest financial hub in Europe. I would describe it as maintaining its traditional charm and cultural heritage – it’s much smaller than London and traditionally more laid-back. Those characteristics can be real advantages for networking and meeting up with fellow bankers. Networking really is a great strength of the city!

EnglishBusiness: And what about the financial sector? What are some of the cultural or business differences you’ve seen in terms of how things are done in London versus how they are done in Frankfurt?

Michael: The UK style of banking is one marked by deregulation. Germany does things fairly differently, with much more regulation. However, recently, German investment banking has been catching up to the way things are done in London.

One big difference I see in London and Frankfurt is that in Frankfurt, finance is more woven into the broader framework of the economy. In Frankfurt, finance is less of an end in itself.

Let me explain. German bankers operate in a different environment, and the financial lobbies here don’t have the same political influence compared to the UK. The majority of Germans, for example, feel that bankers should pay their fair share (translation: “pay more”). The German culture is more democratic, more risk averse and slightly calmer than in the UK. And this has an effect on banking culture.

EnglishBusiness: What other cultural differences might those who work in the financial sector face when moving to Frankfurt?

Michael: We’re both expats here, so first let’s talk about the elephant in the room. No, not which football team is better nor which German beer to drink: I am speaking about the German language.

EnglishBusiness: What have your experiences been with said “elephant”?

Michael: Working in Germany for the past 14 years as a business communication consultant, my work is entirely in English, though that doesn’t mean I don’t need the German language. In fact, I need it every day, and so will they.

The language has been the biggest challenge for me outside of my usual business life, since you have to deal with routine tasks, such as contacting government agencies, doctors’ appointments, interacting with the financial authorities, landlord/building management, signing insurance contracts… the list goes on. On a daily basis, you will most likely come into contact with someone who does not speak English or refuses to. And that’s totally fine! It’s just something to get used to and prepare yourself for.

EnglishBusiness: I think I can guess what your advice will be…

Michael: This really is the most important thing! For a smooth landing in Frankfurt, my suggestion is to start learning the German basics now. It will help get you what you want or help you to do what needs to be done.

EnglishBusiness: That’s such good advice. What about the other less language-focused cultural differences that Londoners might face?

Michael: Germans don’t typically do small talk. Most of them view it as a waste of time. If they are pushed into situations where they have to make small talk, their go-to topic is the weather, which will result in a brief conversation. The British, in comparison, can spend hours merely talking about the weather. So, when making small talk with German colleagues for the first time, remember that small talk is precisely that: small. Keep it short and sweet.

Another thing that I’ve faced as an expat from an English-speaking culture is a sense of my expressions being too “big” or “over the top” for the German cultural context. The British courtesy of calling everything “lovely” and the American habit of finding everything “amazing” or “awesome” can make our German colleagues feel a bit awkward when interacting with us. Why do we always speak in such exaggerated terms? Are we being inauthentic? Sarcastic? No, it’s really just a cultural difference. So, prepare yourself for those moments. In contrast, Germans often don’t have a poker face. Their culture values showing how you feel and being direct.

EnglishBusiness: OK, so this is a leading question, but… how might someone prepare to handle these cultural differences?

Michael: Germans have been receiving skills training for years (e.g. in negotiation skills and presentation skills) to have a better working relationship with their foreign counterparts. More importantly, cross-cultural awareness has been their top priority for some time. I’ve been leading intercultural training and soft skills training for Germans for over eleven years, and I always find that they love to learn about culture and intercultural interactions. They’re information seekers, and they find these differences fascinating. But just because they love being conscious of cultural differences when it comes to business, that doesn’t mean that UK expats are off the hook. They’re on German turf. So, since there is so much to prepare for, my suggestion is for them to look into attending a cross-cultural awareness workshop with a focus on how to work with Germans and work in the German business world in Frankfurt.

EnglishBusiness: What about office culture? What are some differences you’ve experienced there?

Michael: I will never get used to the fact that most Germans refer to each other by their surnames. We native English speakers typically refer to our colleagues by their first names. This would be unthinkable for the majority of Germans. It’s a good example of German formality; being on unfamiliar terms with someone is just a matter of respect and distance until they get to know you better. They have the accompanying forms of “you” in their language to match this. If you know someone well, and are allowed to use the familiar “you” (“du”), you can use their first name. If you are more distant to someone, you must use the formal “you” (“Sie”) and Mr or Ms.

But distance doesn’t equal coldness at all. Don’t make the mistake of being anti-social at the office and eating lunch at your desk while you browse the internet. This might fly in London, but in Frankfurt, it would be unusual. Lunch breaks are there for people to take a break and socialise together. It’s the norm to go for a one-hour lunch with your colleagues outside of the office in what’s called the “Freßgass” (roughly translatable as the  “Grazing Street”). This is the park-like pedestrian zone between Opernplatz and Börsenstraße. Technically, it’s called “Große Bockenheimer Straße”, but for the locals, it’ll always be the “Freßgass”.

But don’t necessarily expect to socialise with your colleagues during lunch AND after work. There is much less of a happy hour culture in Frankfurt. London has a vast variety of bars and clubs in the upscale West End and in the hipster East End where you can pop in for a pint after work. But Frankfurt is a lot more limited in its “pub culture”. At the end of the day, your German colleagues will say “Tschüss” (bye) and “Schönen Feierabend” (“enjoy your evening off”), and they will go spend the evening with their family or their friends from outside the office.

EnglishBusiness: So, if there’s not much of a pub culture, tell me what else there is for people to enjoy after relocating to Frankfurt from London.

Michael: First of all, there’s the proximity and the affordability. Frankfurt is much less expensive than London. After working long days in London, most bankers want to live in Zone 1, 2 or 3, close to the office (if they can afford it). In Frankfurt, where you live often depends on your family situation; most individuals and couples without kids live in the city centre to enjoy and spend their evenings and weekends on the banks of the River Main. The riverside seems to be the unofficial meeting place in Frankfurt. On warm days and evenings, you can enjoy cycling, jogging and even trying out a bar or restaurant with a view.

Families typically live outside of the city to enjoy the comfortable feeling and charm of German villages and small towns, with their characteristic and traditional houses. And as an added bonus, Frankfurt has an excellent public transport network that is quite convenient.

While London has its fascinating museums and beautiful architecture, there are also many museums in Frankfurt devoted to modern art, film and architecture, to name just a few.

EnglishBusiness: Great – thank you, Michael. Any last tips?

Michael: Make sure to enjoy a glass of Frankfurt’s famous apple wine (“Apfelwein”)!

 

If you’re interested in booking a cross-cultural training session for your company like the one Michael describes, get in touch!



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