On Expat Entitlement

by James Glazebrook

smug face garage door

This was going to be a post about how shitty customer service is in Germany. We’ve all heard about, or experienced, things like: surly bar service, valuable deliveries that dropped off the grid without a trace, unanswered emails, ignored tweets, blah blah blah…

…it all started, as it so often does, with an undelivered package. The bourgeois tosspots that we are, we subscribe to a certain service that delivers recipes and their ingredients to your door – at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. This time, they promised to deliver during certain hours, and didn’t. When I emailed their support team, I was told that the delivery had been confirmed for a different time slot, and I should have been waiting for it. I asked them to check the confirmation message I’d originally forwarded them for proof to the contrary, and the email chain went dead.

I gave them a few days before following up via email. Where was my response? Where was my refund? And the answer to the other question I’d asked? Hearing nothing back, I took to Twitter. After a few unanswered tweets, I started to @-mention their UK and US teams (a move I learned from the indomitable @Fauxlie_). Sure enough, the Brits intervened, suggesting I call the German team. In no mood to ease the situation, I sent a shitty tweet asking why I shouldn’t expect to have my problem resolved via the email support channel they do in fact offer. (I’ve since apologised for that – they were just trying to help.)

And then, after a long, frustrated rant to Zoë, it occurred to me: all of my interactions with this company had been in English. Sure, I apologised at first for my crappy German (auf Deutsch) before asking that we switch to my native language. But I might have been even more annoyed if the response had come back in German. And, despite my natural aversion to actually speaking to people, the real thing stopping me picking up the phone was the knowledge that we’d quickly reach the limits of my second language, and I’d have to suck it up and ask, “können wir Englisch sprechen?

This is bonkers. If I was in England, and didn’t speak any English, there would be a 0.001% chance that someone would be willing or able to speak to me in my native language. Yet here, in the German capital, I get by perfectly well with not-that-great German skills. I’ve rented an apartment, registered as a resident, got a dog, started a blog and a business, paid my taxes, and yes, even had my groceries delivered – all by subjecting people to my crappy German, persuading or paying people to speak echtes Deutsch on my behalf, or just expecting everything to be done in English.

This shit doesn’t fly in other places, or in other languages. I work for a company whose customer happiness (oh yes) rating always tops 90%, and we support millions of people all over the world almost entirely in English. I should remember that for a German speaker to be writing or speaking in English, even with the help of Google Translate, they’re going the extra mile. I’m not meeting them halfway, not remotely. If my email or tweet is dropped, it’s probably not because the person the other end is terrible at their job, but because my query is automatically the trickiest one in their queue.  

But I don’t remember that. We don’t remember that. As visitors to this country, no matter how permanent – hell, as owners of businesses here – we get used to a certain amount of English fluency from everyone we interact with. A couple of years ago we published a guest post that I don’t fully agree with, in response to an Exberliner attack on Melbourne Canteen for having (at the time) menus in English only. While the original article was gratingly holier-than-thou, I find it hard to stand behind our writer’s argument that English is more useful to Germans than German is to English speakers. Presumably, that’s the same stance of another business outed recently as having no Deutsch menus, despite proclaiming themselves to be “100% Neukölln”. It seems that expats’ aversion to German is becoming institutionalised.

Yes, as Berlin becomes more and more international, with new arrivals sharing English more than any other language, it’s possible to envision a day when our common tongue is the city’s second semi-official language, as Spanish is in California. But for now, we’re in Germany and we should (try to) speak German. Anyone who is willing to switch to English with you should be treated like the angel they are – after all, they are part of the reason why your dumb ass is able to remain here.

Remember when you moved here, and you were amazed by how perfect everyone’s English is, and how readily they resort to using it? Hold onto that feeling, cherish it. And repeat after me: when someone is using their second language in a country where you should be speaking their mother tongue, they’re incapable of bad customer service. Just by communicating with you on your terms, they’ve already gone the extra mile.

“Wie, bitte?” Ranting back at Exberliner

by Guest Blogger

Lauren Oyler responds to an Exberliner rant about the lack of German fluency among Berlin’s expat community.

I moved to Berlin for myriad reasons, all of which are, seven months later, still difficult to articulate. I had spent two weeks here in May 2011, and while I was certainly technically aware that the city is the capital of Germany, the things I associated it with were tangentially German at best. Instead of sausage and Spätzle, I remembered picnics at an abandoned airport; the first bicycle that didn’t give me flashbacks to the traumatic handlebar accident at age eight; a laid back, noncompetitive atmosphere in which you can live happily on little income and people are generally accepting of whatever weird artsy soul-searching you’re there to do. Obviously not everyone in Berlin does these things, but not everyone in New York wants to be an actor, either. Both are massive cities with many different realities.

I came back in August of last year, and before I did, countless sources — and the existence of several English-language newspapers, blogs and other publications — told me my lack of German skills would be no big deal. This is true and, apparently, infuriating, particularly so for the people who landed here before me.

Julie Colthorpe, who wrote “Sorry, no German!” in this month’s Exberliner, came to Berlin 12 years ago and longs for the days when expats would get kicked out of supermarkets for confusing their datives and accusatives. Calling out an unnamed but obvious brunch-serving Australian restaurant in Neukölln, she argues that all-English businesses and expats with no German skills have no place in the city. Although her complaints weren’t directed towards me — I dutifully brave the umlaut to save myself from accidentally ordering anything pickled — I feel attacked nevertheless. I’m American, I live in Neukölln, and German fluency is almost as fathomable to me as paying more than 1.30€ for a beer. I’ve been to Melbourne Canteen and breathed a sigh of relief when I realized I didn’t have to furrow my eyebrows in despair at the thought of trying to convey a dropped fork.

By contrast, Colthorpe’s clearly proud of her German, so it’s likely she’s unaware that getting a blunt “WIE, BITTE?” in response to a valiant attempt at communication is a cultural tradition alive and well here in the capital city. Add to this the sense that your best accent only comes out when you’re drunk or transforming into your parodic German alter ego, Frau Schadenfreude, and you understand why expats everywhere struggle to learn the languages of the countries they live in. It’s scary and hard. Here, you can avoid that if you want to, but people — usually non-native German speakers — will scold you for it.

Should English speakers take the bait, be ashamed? As Colthorpe says, a German-only restaurant would fail in Melbourne (or New York, or Vancouver)… but not because English speakers are too stupid to grapple with café-level German — or even because they would be unwilling to do so in a reasonable circumstance. But knowing German in Australia will do you about as much good as a first-edition copy of Jane Eyre — nice if you’re into that kind of thing, but otherwise kind of useless. It’s a paradox, sure, that being constantly abused for speaking little to no German can make a potential Berliner less willing to stick around and learn it, but the harsh economic reality is this: it’s just not necessary.

by Josh Bauman

by Josh Bauman

English, on the other hand, kind of is. A series of historical events — uncontrolled by the well-meaning people at Melbourne Canteen, überlin and any given Sameheads party — has made English the lingua franca among the people in Berlin who are here because it’s Berlin, not because it’s Germany. Colthorpe says she spent her New Year’s Eve with a group of people from Italy, France, Spain, Russia, America, and Germany, and instead of appreciating the cosmopolitanism, cooperation and progress that has allowed them to share any common language, she cries “HIPSTER BULLSHIT!” in the face of more than a half-century of diplomacy. If only we could have shown her piece to someone living in 1941. The irony that it’s published in an English-language magazine that caters to the exact audience she risks alienating is apparently completely lost on her; even funnier is that Exberliner suggested going to the Melbourne Canteen in its January 2013 issue (“Where to go in Neukölln,” pg. 50).

The exclusively-English-speaking expat population may indeed be “missing out” on one kind of Berlin experience, but anyone who can read a Wikipedia entry and memorize some definite articles is not some kind of Culture Crusader making the world a better place, one well-pronounced “CH”-sound at a time. The idea that culture consists of an immutable combination of foods, sayings, and historical anecdotes is a perfect definition for those who want to assimilate for the chance to say they have. Expat culture is a part of Berlin’s culture. You can’t praise the city’s international draw in one breath and condemn expatriates as tourist scum the next. If you’re disturbed by the Melbourne Canteen, you’ll have to get over it.

I don’t think learning German is pointless, and as I improve, however slowly, I feel better about whatever it is I’m doing here. More than once I’ve been embarrassed when an American or British friend forgoes even the barest minimum of effort, skipping the regretful-but-polite, “Sprechen Sie Englisch, bitte?” in favor of an unfathomably lazy, “Can I get a Berliner?” That sucks. It’s rude to go into a German restaurant, bar, café or terrifying governmental bureau and speak English to the people there because, despite the way Colthorpe writes about it, the vast majority of cafes, bars, restaurants, and performance/coworking/women’s-only gym spaces in Berlin function fully in Deutsch.

No one’s forcing anyone to go to The Bird, and we all know too well how interchangeable the bars in Neukölln are; if you find one unpleasantly Anglophonic, go to the one next door. Enclaves of English — and French, and German and etc. — exist in any semi-significant city; that’s called globalisation. It’s not going away, and a misguided rant about one of its fairly harmless symptoms accomplishes nothing but animosity. Explicitly English businesses hurt no one, and Colthorpe’s piece is as unthinking, boring, and selfish as an American who lives in Germany for six months without bothering to learn how to order a multi-grain roll. You’d think the constipation would eventually drive her to Google Translate, but that’s her Kreuz to Berg.

For more from Lauren, check out her website laurenoyler.com or follow her on Twitter: @laurenoyler. For tips on learning German, read “Ask überlin – Do I need to learn German?”

3 Schwestern

by James Glazebrook

3 Schwestern

3 Schwestern (“Three Sisters”) is probably the best place to eat when your parents are in town. Last time we went there (with my in-laws), we saw another couple we knew hosting one of their fathers – and they told us that some mutual friends had taken their parents there earlier that week. Located in Kunstquarter Bethanien, the former hospital where we once caught a Chicks on Speed retrospective, 3 Schwestern serves up tasty, traditional German cuisine – and occasionally live rock n’ roll – in a charming historical setting. If you want to know more about the background of the restaurant, read this excellent Slow Travel Berlin review, or just ask Zoë’s dad, who consumed a leaflet about its history along with his potato dumplings. See you there – with your parents, natürlich!

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