Tag Archives: etiquette

“Gruß Gott!”

29 Sep

“Gruß Gott!” is still a common greeting in Austria, or at least in Vienna. Today, reading an interview in the Kurier with Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer, owner of the number one dancing school in Vienna and the Emily Post certainly of Austria if not of the entire German-speaking world, I learned something of the history and associations of the phrase.

He didn’t feel the need to explain but I do: The phrase (word-for-word translation “Greet God!”) is short for “God greet you.” (“Grüß Sie / dich Gott!”) He told a story, though, in which he was speaking at a technical / vocational high school and a student called him on using it because the student considered the greeting too closely associated with the ÖVP or Austrian People’s Party (a.k.a. the Conservatives).

To his credit, Schäfer-Elmayer looked into this claim and discovered that between the world wars it truly was a sign to others that one belonged to the People’s Party. His research showed that during this time–with what amounted to a civil war being waged in the streets of  Vienna–the hate between the Social Democrats (the Reds) and the People’s Party (the Blacks) was so great, people chose to signal their allegiance immediately in how they greeted other people. “Grüß Gott” for the Conversatives; “Guten Tag” for the Social Democrats.

The civil servants, who sought to remain neutral, as good civil servants the world over do, adopted–Schäfer-Elmayer said–the term “Mahlzeit” (usually said before a meal and then taking the place of “Guten Appetit”). This is an interesting take on the greeting, as I always assumed “Mahlzeit” had a similar function as the French “Rebonjour”. In current usage, you say “Guten Morgen” when you first run into someone in your place of work–in the morning–and “Mahlzeit” afterwards to indicate that you remember greeting them the first time. (Apparently, in French companies it is a rather large faux pas to use “Bonjour” twice in one day to the same person. I read that it is tantamount to considering the person so inconsequential that you don’t remember greeting them the first time. Source: Schneider and Barsoux, “Managing across Cultures”)

From 1938 to 1945,  apparently, “Mahlzeit” took on another use. People who wished to avoid saying “Heil Hitler” said “Mahlzeit” instead. I hear my mother–born in Berlin and raised there during the Second World War–saying, “Berliners just kept saying ‘Guten Morgen’.” Her comment is supported by Christabel Bielenberg’s incomparable memoirs, which I am currently re-reading, of living in Berlin as an Englishwoman under the Nazis. Even more of an aside here: that Berliner habit got my grandmother–my German grandmother, that is, not my English grandmother (complicated family)–into trouble when she visited her parents in their small town in Thuringia.

And so a bit of culture and history on this Sunday.

For German speakers, links to the Kurier interview and to the Wikipedia entry on some of the uses of “Mahlzeit” below:

https://kurier.at/freizeit/thomas-schaefer-elmayer-gesteht-ich-mache-auch-viel-falsch/400613615

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahlzeit

 

“Wie geht’s?”

22 Sep

One of the first phrases one learns in any beginning German course, “Wie geht’s?” means “How are you?” Simple, it seems. And yet it is important to know that there is no one-to-one correlation in how those phrases are used in Germany / Austria and the U.S.A.

First of all, in German “Wie geht’s?” by itself is quite informal. Ideally, you remember whether you are “per du” with someone or “per Sie”, the former being the informal you (like “tu” in French) and the latter being the formal you (like “vous”). If you are “per Sie” then the correct phrase is “Wie geht’s Ihnen?”–a German lesson in and of itself including relatively advanced concepts like the dative. If you are “per du” then “Wie geht’s?” by itself is acceptable or you could say “Wie geht’s dir?”

That’s the language lesson associated with that simple phrase. Then there are the intercultural aspects. In German, you only ask the question if you really want to know. This usually means you only ask people you know well, where you are prepared to hear a relatively long and truthful account of their current state of being (no “Fine, thanks, and you?” when someone’s back hurts or life is falling apart). It is acceptable to ask a stranger if there has been some kind of accident and you want to make sure the person is all right, but the general use of “Wie geht’s” simply does not exist here. For example, you would never find a salesperson asking you as you come into the store, even though “Schönen Tag!” (“Have a nice day!”) does seem to have crept into the language.

For years, I had a not entirely earned reputation of being a nice person, because I asked colleagues and clients alike “Wie geht’s” and listened patiently as they chronicled their aches and pains. The danger should one ask and then not listen to the answer is that one is labeled “superficial”–a grave allegation in this relationship-oriented culture.

Because I asked, though, I have also found some answers that have always intrigued me and that are, I believe, typically Viennese. One is “Lei’wand” (short for “Leinwand” or movie screen), which is generally interpreted to mean “Great!” The other goes deeper into the Viennese mindset. Sometimes people, especially those lower down on the socio-economic scale, answer, “Wie die Anderen wollen” or “As the others would have it”, expressing a sense that they do not control their destiny, are subject to the whims of others. So much for “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

Customer service

4 May

I’m doing a bit of clearing out this morning and found a file with the beginnings, in some ways, of this blog. I’ve been jotting down bits and pieces from life in Vienna since long before there was even something called the internet. This one is about quite a controversial topic in the U.S. American / Viennese dialogue, customer service.

One topic that comes up again and again among U.S. American expatriates in Vienna is the quality of customer service. The general opinion is that it isn’t very good. My feeling is that it is different from what you get in the U.S.A. but not always worse. Yes, there can be grumpy and / or rude waiters especially in the traditional coffeehouses, who sometimes—but not always—become less grumpy when addressed in good German. On the other end of the spectrum I have stories of customer service I’ve received in Vienna that is so good it is off the scale.

First of all, there is the kind of customer service that the Viennese miss when they go abroad. In the words of a Viennese who has been a professor at a major U.S. university for over 25 years, “I miss sales clerks who know what they are talking about.” He was referring to the system of training people to be specialists that is still common in Vienna.

Shortly after he said this I experienced vividly what he was talking about. I have the kind of engagement calendar which is like a ring binder and for which I need to buy new inserts every year. I bought it because I liked the look of it, never realizing that it is not a common brand and therefore very hard to get inserts for. For a number of years I went to one store on Kärntnerstraße in the First District. Then they fell victim to the general trend of replacing Viennese stores that had been there for generations with the usual chain stores you find in every European capital.

After asking around, I found out that there was another stationery store, Mayr & Fessler, on Kärntnerstraße that might have what I need. I went off to see if they could help me. The young saleswoman I talked to knew exactly what I was referring to but said she feared they were out but that they usually got their weekly deliveries from that distributor on that very day of the week. She would call down to the stock room to see if the inserts I needed had come in that day’s shipment. In under a minute she was able to confirm that they had. In less than three minutes one of her colleagues had brought them up for me. Having worked in retail myself, I was much impressed that she knew that a shipment should have arrived and that she went to the trouble of checking for me. When I thanked her she said it was “selbstverständlich” (approximately in this context “her job”).

This was the same store that, on another occasion, after selling me the leads for my mechanical pencil offered to refill the pencil for me. When I saw that they put the leads in from the top, not shoved up from the bottom as I am wont to do, I asked the saleswoman to show me how she had done it and got a quick lesson in the manufacturer-approved method.

Then there is the customer service in Vienna that allows the customer as much time as he or she wants. (Granted this can backfire—sometimes you are allowed far more time than you want!). The Viennese are used to being allowed to sit for an entire evening in a restaurant and would be shocked to be rushed or even kicked out. You must ask for the check in a Viennese eatery or you will sit there forever. The waiter will never bring the check without being asked.

I know the system in the U.S. is different. Having worked a short stint as a waitress I am perfectly aware that restaurants live from turnover on tables and the wait staff live from their tips. I still had no comfort or explanation to offer one of my Austrian friends who was in Washington, D.C., on business. After a hard day’s work he went out with some other European colleagues (all high-level employees of an EU government body) to a restaurant recommended to them as one of the best in Washington. They enjoyed the meal and were lingering over their coffee. The waitress brought the check. They were in no rush to pay. The waitress made a few subtle attempts to get them to pay. They resisted. She finally asked them outright to pay and leave as she needed the table. At this point they complied, naturally, in their opinion, leaving no tip. As the waitress confronted them about this they explained their position. At this point the manager got involved—on the side of the waitress! Whatever else you may have to put up with in restaurants in Vienna (grumpy waiters, slower service than you are used to, problems paying at the end) I doubt you will find that you are first asked to leave and then expected to tip for the pleasure!

And then there is the extraordinary customer service, the customer service clearly based on the Golden Rule.

For example, there was the time someone called me from the main post office. She had a postcard for me on which there was no family name and no address but my telephone number. It’s a long story how that happened. The short version is that I had met a student from Korea on a coach between Oxford and London. She thought she might be coming to Vienna so I gave her my telephone number and asked her to call me if she came. She sent the postcard to let me know that she wouldn’t be coming after all and, as all she had was my first name and my phone number, she used that. The lady from the post office asked for my address, I gave it to her, and she sent along the card.

There was also the time when I was so impressed by the customer service that I interrupted a busy day to painstakingly write, in German, a letter to the head of the company about the incident. I had paid for a purchase at my local perfume store with my debit card. Then I made a change to my purchases which entitled me to a credit. I was told that only the amount of my final purchases would be charged. Yet when I did my bookkeeping for the month I saw that the credit hadn’t been taken into account. The store owed me a little over EUR 12. With very little hope I went back to the shop, wondering how on earth I would be able to explain what had happened and back up my claim. I had barely launched into my story when the saleswoman said, “We owe you EUR 12.05.” She reached into a drawer, took out an envelope with the money in it, gave it to me, and gave me a small present to make up for the trouble of having to come back. I shall be their loyal customer until they are taken over by the international chains taking over all the small shops in Vienna.

Auf Wiedersehen

11 Jan

Note to self: The Viennese aren’t famous for speaking with each other on public transportation, but if for some reason you exchange (civil) remarks with someone it’s important to remember then to say “Auf Wiedersehen” when you part.