I had the best of times, I had the worst of times

Recently my parents came over from Canada for a two-week visit with me and my husband in our corner of Germany. Towards the end of their stay we decided to take an overnight excursion down to Heidelberg, whose appeal to North American visitors continues to mystify our German friends.

The ride down the Rhine is breathtaking and Heidelberg is an excellent option for a weekend getaway... which I will have to take advantage of some other time soon because my parents and I ended up in ... Luxembourg. It wasn't until we had almost arrived in the city, when the river suddenly disappeared from sight, that it even occurred to me that we had taken the wrong train.

Experienced holiday troopers that we were, however, we scrambled first to the tourist office inside the station to secure lodgings for the night and tickets back to Germany the next day before setting out to explore our unexpected new surroundings. The young man at the booking desk spoke German and quickly processed our connections for the next day, charging me a very reasonable discount for three back to Trier, the next German hub, a half hour away. From there I would have to renegotiate our invalid Heidelberg tickets. Handing me a small stack of tickets, he pointed out that he hadn't charged me for the distance from Trier to Luxembourg..... however, we should know that technically he could have because we had as a matter of fact not paid for that leg of the trip. Our error may be negotiable with German Rail, but of no interest to Luxembourg. Technically, we hadn't paid for that ride. Gee ... no kidding.

The next morning, arriving in Trier main station, I went directly to the German Rail booking desk and launched again into an explanation for my stack of German and Luxembourg train tickets. The young woman cut me off crisply at the point where she must have decided she "got it", and proceeded to type madly away at her computer console. I awaited my fate with held breath. In surprisingly little time her printer had ejected several schedules and receipts, which she then proceeded to itemise clearly for me. Thinking I had better double check if seats were reserved, I was cut off abruptly again and informed that it was not necessary because I wouldn't need it. Never mind that needing it wasn't quite the point, I nonetheless had the distinct feeling that with my problem in effect solved, the matter was closed, my time was up. She handed me a neat folder of tickets. I should know, she pointed out in closing, that there were two extra unused charges on our original Heidelberg tickets that I should get refunded from the travel agency in Aachen where I had booked. Insist on it, she urged, because I have a legal right to it. Not missing my cue, I thanked her for her help, she said you're welcome and I left.

We all have tourist stories to tell. Some better than others, some worse than others, and some like mine, where the case is not so obvious. As soon as people travel, they interact and communicate. When people travel to other countries, they communicate interculturally. Some have good experiences and enthuse about them, just as many have bad experiences and complain, some are jaded enough to take it all in natural stride. But seldom does the exchange of stories and observations ever isolate the essence of many such mishaps and successes, that is, what these experiences mean in terms of intercultural communication.

The most basic, initial tourist experience is similar to mine: the tourist needs help. A visitor seeks assistance in order to achieve his goal, which is to have fun in the time he is in the city, with the least amount of hassle. While he may or may not eventually come into contact with locals, his first contact with the local culture is likely with the customer service personnel at information kiosks, tourist offices, reservation desks, and the like. If the traveller finds himself in my corner of northern Europe, assistance may be, as in my case , if not exceptionally friendly, then accurate, direct, quick, factual (or sachlich). Service was undeniably efficient.

Or was it? I did indeed find a clean and convenient hotel, receive satisfying answers to all my questions in amazingly little time, and was directed to the places I wanted to see. However, I hadn't felt welcomed. On an interpersonal (or zwischenmenschlich) level, the experience was for my parents and me, the visitors, less effective. Even after 14 years as a resident in this part of Europe, I am still frequently caught off guard by otherwise very efficient service delivered with the absence of a simple smile, or even, on many occasions, with the slightest of frowns! Another visitor may expect some small talk, asked how he is enjoying himself so far (also for the purpose of quality control!), where he's from, how long he's in town for, how else he could be further assisted. Yet another may expect to be offered assistance before he has to request it. And yet another may prefer to do it all himself, just be handed a list of information and get out of there as fast as he can. Clearly, individual expectations can be various and sometimes tricky to anticipate. But, if this is not the task of the tourist service industry, then whose is it?

What this reveals is that "quality, efficient customer service" is in fact a standard less universal than commonly assumed. Efficiency is universally valued in all cultures. Factual efficiency measured in rates of time and productivity, or the dispensing of functional information is an expression of an individual culture's inherent values and priorities. How effectively a visitor is assisted will ultimately be judged by the visitor and not by the tourist service structure and staff. Did he feel welcomed, and does he desire to return? The local tourist office can ill-afford to be unclear about its goals, which cannot be to only respond to those visitors who share their particular definition and expectations of "efficient service". What an individual visitor expects may certainly vary. What a foreign visitor expects may differ fundamentally because his expectations and assumptions relating to efficient quality service are highly subjective to his culture's inherent norms and values. What I experienced was the best example of good German service. What I expected was some attempt to first bridge the gap between two strangers. What occurred was a degree of intercultural miscommunication that was in no part language-related but rather based on two different cultural standards of "good customer service".

For every one traveller who finds some service satisfactory, there will be another who pipes up it was terrible. There is never a shortage of exceptions to the rule. However, one will not likely acquire effective skills to negotiate the pitfalls of intercultural communication by concentrating on the singular exceptions but on the broader patterns of behaviour. These broader patterns of behaviour and communication are the ones we are more likely to encounter, especially as these are rooted in inherently different cultural norms and values. At the same time, these will also be the ones we will most likely stumble over because we simply do not expect them. Fact-oriented cultures in our little corner of western Europe can ill-afford to ignore that the majority of cultural groups around the world prioritise interpersonal interaction in varying degrees, which manifests itself in their mode of communication. Miscommunication is possible between any combination of cultures, but the natural advantage enjoyed by members of interpersonal-oriented cultures is that they will more likely come off sounding softer, if not politer. Their mode of communication is simply more naturally predisposed to establishing a "comfort zone".

The inherent danger in individual travel stories is that the story's conclusion is often drawn from what one sees of a culture, in other words, what the other culture looks like, how the other behaves and speaks. What we don't see are the norms and values, assumptions and "givens" of the other culture that produce what we see, in other words the "why".. Therefore, the German visitor who is dazzled by American easy-goingness and open friendliness is profoundly disappointed and even shocked to discover that social friendliness doesn't always equate with an invitation to friendship. He returns home with a story, draws his conclusions of superficial American friendliness, and tells his friends. At the bat of an eye, an inaccurate stereotype takes root as soon as German norms and assumptions are applied to interpret an American pattern of behaviour and communication. Not a thought has been given the possibility of fundamentally different cultural meanings and obligations attached to the American friend and German Freund. The inevitable danger then, unless one is aware of these inherent cultural differences, is to draw highly subjective and inaccurate conclusions. Intercultural miscommunication is inevitable.

A common attitude these days among more seasoned travellers is to place the burden of "good behaviour" on the tourist, which is not necessarily a bad thing. We should all attempt to learn at least the most basic words and phrases in the local language as a gesture of goodwill, and basic respect. On a purely technical level, however, this is a very inefficient way to communicate because insufficient vocabulary and grammatical structure both prevents us from clearly expressing our intent and increases the risk of our intent being misunderstood. Nonetheless, the goodwill of a smile and a few simple words are usually effective enough in creating a comfort zone between two strangers. Ultimately, as a tourist passing through, isn't this our most basic goal? Conversely, even a perfect grasp of the local language does not automatically ensure successful intercultural communication if at least one speaker prioritises how something is said to what is said.

What, on the other hand, is the goal of the tourist service personnel? Shouldn't it be in its greater interest to take the initial steps toward bridging the gap between themselves (the professional cultural go-between) and the visitor? The tourist standing at his counter is there anyway. The goal would not to be to just provide him with lists of hotels and museums and convenient transport. These are only the means toward the goal which is to make his stay comfortable and trouble-free so that he will go home, spread good word of mouth and either come back himself for another visit or send new visitors over. Tourist industry service personnel mustn't make the mistake of assuming that the criteria of good or efficient service are the same for every tourist that comes along, certainly not for foreign tourists. If, for instance, the Parisian tourist office's attitude is to dispense only certain information and services in a manner that only Parisians, or other French, are familiar with or expect, they severely limit their effectiveness and appeal to only either other Parisians or the French at large. Similarly, a German tourist office which intends to improve its services may quite naturally focus on the type of services likely valued by people most like themselves. Unless they specifically inquire into the needs and expectations of people from outside their own cultural environment, they will not be naturally inclined to make these changes. It will therefore aim to improve its efficiency,by, for instance, becoming faster, more accurate, acquiring and dispensing more information, offering more sights and activities. A smile and small talk is nice, and subject to individual character and mood, but not necessary. The staff is not there to be your "friend". In fact, small talk can even compromise efficiency by slowing down customer movement and creating long lines.

The danger of course is that all the while that skills are becoming more efficient, they are not necessarily becoming more effective if the new skills acquired are not the kind that may really count. Ultimately, the goal of the service staff cannot be to respond only to guests from within their own culture who share the same tastes or expectations. It must be to also anticipate and accommodate those visitors coming from outside the local cultural environment. A good, effective service staff needs to acquire those communication skills necessary to interact effectively with a wide range of customer requests, expectations and problems at large. A good service staff serving foreign customers needs to understand that these visitors can bring with them to the counter a variety of different expectations and standards of good service. These may be unpredictable at first, but the goal should be to acquire the tools that would make them less so.

If, however, one is culturally conditioned to speak and behave the way he does, how can he be expected to communicate in other ways that are not "natural" to him? In reality, we spend a great deal of our lives acquiring new skills. Some we discover come easier than others, but very few things happen magically overnight. We strive to acquire a certain skills, like a foreign language, if we recognize the goal it will serve. Therefore, if I intend to live in Italy, I try to learn Italian. It's not necessarily going to come naturally to me because I'm a native English speaker, but if I must or want to interact with local Italians badly enough, I'll take my lessons and study my books. Just because something doesn't feel "natural" doesn't mean it can't or shouldn't be learned. It also certainly doesn't mean it must be "unnatural" (speaking Italian is certainly natural enough for Italians!). It only means it is a skill unknown to me. This is a distinction the tourist service sector cannot afford to overlook. Anyone who desires to market anything, no matter what product or service at what price, he better get his goals straight.

Related to cultural standards of service is also a culture's standard of hospitality. In other words, what is offered? How is it offered? To whom is it offered? In more fact-oriented cultures, such as the German one, cultivating interpersonal skills between perfect strangers (which is who you deal with in the tourism sector) may be increasingly encouraged for the sake of a good turnover but it is not prioritised over factual knowledge and competence. Therefore, suspicions of excessive friendliness, superficiality and even dishonesty are not at all unusual conclusions drawn from behaviour that appear to have no reason in a factual context. Interpersonal feelings and obligations are indeed substantial, but these generally extend to family members and friends. Care taken to cultivate a "comfort zone" is neither an obligation to nor generally expected by those outside of this closed, private social circle. Interaction with colleagues, service personnel, casual acquaintances remain factual and professional, unless one enters into a special relationship. Therefore, German Gemütlichkeit, which is often misunderstood to mean hospitality, describes the feeling of cosiness and togetherness built around a warm fire, good wine and conversation with people you know, not with strangers.

In many cultural regions, however (Anglo-speaking, Latin and Middle and Far eastern), hospitality shown to family and friends is a natural given. Hospitality extended to a complete stranger can be at the very least a commonplace social courtesy or at the very most an obligation. This can in fact lead to situations where, for instance, even if someone doesn't know the way to point B, he will nonetheless take great care to give you a set of directions. In such cases, the interpersonal connection created by the attempt to assist is prioritised over the factual results of actually getting you to point B.

Travel stories, including my own, are examples of how different cultural norms and values manifest themselves in how we interact across cultures. They may be considerably less momentous than an executive negotiating a contract abroad, but are probably of greater consequence because they are so ubiquitous and involve a much larger number and broader range of people. In the end, effective intercultural communication skills are not only those that enable you to negotiate multi-million dollar contracts in other countries. They enable you to negotiate any tricky situation, big or small, with people who speak or act based on different motivations and assumptions. Acquiring the knowledge to identify barriers, and developing the skills to surmount them offers you more options to act on, enables you to be more flexible and adaptable in achieving your ultimate goal.

Despite the commonality of such tourist experiences, many are often not recognised and understood in terms of intercultural communication. One tourist goes home pronouncing the French to be just "great"; another is equally convinced that they are an entirely "rude and arrogant" bunch; yet a third dismisses them disinterestedly as just "weird". Yet, these conclusions likely reveal more about the nature and proximity of the tourist's own cultural values and norms to those of the French than anything accurate and substantial about the French themselves.

There will always be people we meet who think differently, and therefore communicate differently. It's not half as interesting to observe merely what they do (that's actually quite obvious ) as it is to understand why it is so (which is seldom that obvious). It may very well be that some things just "suck". But, as one former professor used to say, it would be an "instructive exercise" to get to know more about it.

Alexia Petersen, June 2001

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