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'Making it' by interpreting culture

Published: 02 Jan 2012 07:03 GMT+01:00

John Magee came to Germany for the history. He stayed for its business.

After coming to Germany from the United States decades ago because he was interested in its history, Magee ended up as one of Germany's country's most in-demand business consultants.

Today the 52-year-old is based Philadelphia and Bonn, where he runs his firm Culture Influences Business. It aims to teach big companies like Siemens, BASF or Dupont with operations in the United States and Germany how to handle cultural differences among employees.

Yes, he admits, Germans and Americans seem similar at first glance. They have a shared history and similar national traditions and heritage.

“But there are differences in how we communicate and work,” he told The Local. “We have to acknowledge those.”

Magee can speak with authority because for years he has been interpreting those differences for the highest echelons of German government and business.

Shortly after his 1981 graduation from Georgetown University in Washington DC, Magee came to Germany for an internship with the US Embassy in Germany before heading back home.

He had various telecommunications jobs over the following few years before deciding to return to Germany in 1988 - and staying. He improved his German, earned a Master’s degree with Berlin’s Free University and caught the attention of Christian Democrat officials, who hired him to work as an advisor on German-American relations from the West German capital Bonn.

“I had an incredible nexus of good fortune,” Magee told The Local, explaining how he worked directly with Wolfgang Schäuble, who is now Germany’s finance minister.

He went on to work for Siemens before establishing his own private consulting business in 2002.

Magee’s key skill is interpreting the subtle differences between how Americans and Germans approach business and helping companies work through them, through his own original seminars. He has also written a book about the subject.

Some of the common German-American differences are well-known: Americans tend to be more indirect in their management styles while Germans are more to the point. German business meetings are often rigidly structured while Americans tend to appreciate a more free-flowing, informal exchange of information.

The point, Magee explained, is not that everyone can be stuck into a neat cultural box, but that our background affects how we interact in the workplace and with each other in our personal lives. People can be saying different things even if they’re speaking the same language.

“These differences can create quite contentious situations before you even know they’re happening,” he said. “You get people fighting against each other, fighting about product designs, about different ideas.”

So what does it take to truly make it in Germany as a foreigner? Magee told The Local that expats needed to acknowledge that coming here closes doors in their home country. But it opens new ones too. To be truly successful, he said, you have to throw yourself all the way in. A couple of imperatives: learning the language and having a genuine interest in the country.

“You can’t really sink into another culture without completely leaving yours,” he said. “You have to have a sincere and authentic curiosity in the Germans.”

Know someone who's "made it" in Germany? Email us at: editorial@thelocal.de

Moises Mendoza

moises.mendoza@thelocal.de

twitter.com/moisesdmendoza

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

09:53 January 2, 2012 by bartschaff
Bad piece of advertising.

And a very incoherent one: "You can¦#39;t really sink into another culture without completely leaving yours". Sure, he does that by being based in Philadelphia and Bonn and, supposedly, is able to teach about American culture - after "leaving it completely" for about 30 years.
10:22 January 2, 2012 by Snapply
Mendozaaaa!!!
11:42 January 2, 2012 by michael4096
@bartschaff

The first time I accepted another culture as different but equally valid to the one I was raised with, I found I could not look at my own culture the same way again. In effect, I did leave it behind.

Additionally, over time, my old culture changed and I changed and one day it came as a big shock to find that the culture I once cherished didn't exist any more. I couldn't relate to my family, old friends and colleagues as I used to. However, in many ways I can see things about them and the way that they relate with others in ways they cannot see because they are so immersed. So I can also understand how Mr Magee can consult in Philidelphia.

This is probably true for many long-term expats here
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