Painting with a broad (toilet) brush
Published on: 16 May 2011 17:55 CET
The Klobürste, or toilet brush, has been a bone of contention in every German office I've worked in.
I'll admit I was a bit taken aback when I first moved to Germany and I was expected to do light housekeeping after dropping the kids off at the pool. But in the office I've always wielded it with abandon, lest I be criticized by my co-workers. Unfortunately, it's always been to no avail – the Germans always accused the foreigners at my various jobs of being too conservative with the Bremsspur removal tool.
At my first job in Frankfurt I worked in an open office that was divided into sales and editorial. Since the sales staff was all German and the editorial all English-speaking, this meant the workplace was essentially two distinct worlds. Both departments had their own restrooms.
From the start, my German colleagues would corner me in the break room and harangue me about the state of our toilets. The lack of use of the Klobürste was the main thrust, but there were criticisms about the general lack of cleanliness. Even the women's room on our side was a mess, my German colleagues assured me. The lambasting always ended with nationalistic tones about how orderly the Germans were and what a disaster the Brits and Americans were.
Finally one day I thought, "If they have their own bathrooms, how do they know what condition ours are in?" When I asked a German colleague, I got to the truth. The sales force didn't use their bathrooms because the boss could monitor who was going in and out, how often and for how long. Instead, they used ours, out of sight of their manager. The bathrooms were a mess because 30 people were relieving themselves where 10 were supposed to. But I'm sure my former German colleagues still feel they're much better at maintaining the lav.
The rule of thumb while on holiday in a foreign land is to at least attempt a few words in the native language. I've found the opposite to be true in German offices. At a recent freelance gig, I sent emails in German to executives I was supposed to interview. I quickly got an email in (very poor) English from the head of the company's PR department. "We prefer us," he wrote, "that people write emails in their native language." I figured if they were so open-minded, I'd write the English email as if I were writing an American or British executive. I was then slammed – in German – by the PR hack for addressing the executives by their first names.
The executives, it has to be said, seemed to have had no problem with it. I got my article, with no help from the language-meister.
I also once interviewed for a big job at a PR company. One partner loved me and was ready to hire me. Partner No. 2 wasn't so enthralled. Even though the interview had been entirely in German, at the end he asked what seemed to be the defining question – "Can you write a grammatically correct email in German?" I told him my conjugation might be off but otherwise I'd do fine. "I've got enough foreigners here who can write in broken German," he said. "I need someone who can communicate with customers in perfect German."
We quickly agreed – I didn't want to work for him and he didn't want me to work for him.
Part of the problem is this German belief that emails are essentially letters, where as I see it as a quick way to communicate with people. Typing out "Sehr geehrter" just takes too long. I prefer "Hi." I've also been criticized for not making a comment in the end about where I live – Mit sonnigen Grüssen aus der Hauptstadt! – or for apologizing using titbits from my personal life (I turned in a project late because my daughter had been sick). You never apologize in a German email, a colleague told me. It’s inappropriate apparently. You just say what you've done and what needs to be done.
This is probably why, for nine of the 13 years I've lived here, I've been self-employed and worked at home. There’s no inappropriateness. One man, one toilet brush.
Since a good German Stammtisch is a place where pub regulars come to talk over the issues of the day, Portnoy welcomes a lively conversation in the comments area below.