Thursday, January 28, 2010

The German Office Christmas Party

Back when I was wearing the splint and not blogging I said I'd write about a few things and still haven't gotten too far down that list. So, now for the office Christmas party. I thought I'd blogged about the last time I went to an office Christmas party (2007), but if I did, I can't find that post now.

The 2007 office Christmas party wasn't too awesome. We had assigned seating so that people wouldn't interact too much with those they already liked. It didn't matter anyway, because all of my work friends either skipped the party or were already away from Heidelberg for the holidays. I was confused about eating - on the first trip through the food line, before the main dish arrived, I took salad. Then I looked around the room and noticed everyone else had taken cake. Oops. It looked like the Wichteln - the white elephant gift - that I'd brought wasn't exactly right. Well, as a somewhat new expat I didn't have a lot of white-elephant-appropriate things just laying around my apartment at the time - mostly only necessities. And the game was a word game, which they told us we could do in German or English. Everyone else did it in German. (All the fellow foreigners being out of town already.) Word games with a mixed-native-language crowd are a major no-no in my mind. I learned this in Boston when our parties generally included PhD students from all over the world - no word games. No matter how great someone's English gets, the wording of, for example, Trivial Pursuit questions, is going to be too tricky and convoluted. Well, whoever organized the game for the 2007 office Christmas party either never learned that one, or didn't care. Equal chances of both, I'd say.

So, I went back and forth on whether to attend this year's office party. My officemate, another foreigner, swore she wouldn't go. We both went. Not sure why she did. I went because most of my friends were going to be there this time, and also, I kind of liked the idea of getting rid of some junk I had lying around in the Wichteln. (Two years later, even expats manage to accumulate crap they don't want...)

This time, when the food started, I was all prepared to go for the cake instead of salad - when in Rome and all. But when I looked around, everyone else was eating salad!! Good thing I noticed in time to get salad instead of cake. Now I'm really confused. It could be that the 2007 and 2009 parties started at different times and that this activates some kind of special code about whether cake or salad is eaten first. I can't remember when the 2007 started, though, so not sure about that.

There was no seating chart this time. That was a plus. I was one of the last to wander in (my office is off-site now) so I ended up near the door with a bunch of other foreigners - my officemate, two Chinese girls, a good work friend, and one German who apparently hangs out more with foreigners now since having spent a lot of time in different countries. One of the Chinese girls had arrived in Germany within the past month. She couldn't even understand German text messages telling her she had a new voicemail yet.

So, seriously, my English at Work rant bubbled up all over again when it turned out the party was to be conducted entirely in German. The secretary explained the party schedule in German (I was sorry to hear the Wichteln was last so we were all stuck for the long haul) and then....not in English afterward. The boss said some nice words about the year - in German. I really felt for the brand new Chinese girl, not to mention the 3-4 other foreigners whose German is still more limited than mine, and mine is not all that awesome. I started ranting about this at our table. The German guy said he really thought we should say something to the boss and things would change, but I think it's clear that that is not the case. The boss himself just stood up there and spoke only in German. That doesn't sound like a guy who cares whether foreigners or noobs feel welcome.

And it's not like he's not aware that not everyone speaks German. After food, it was game time. A German friend assured me she thought the game would be better this time because she knew some people were really working hard on it. So, imagine my surprise when the game was less inclusive than I could have possibly guessed. Two people got up to explain that the game was all about fairy tales. On paper they had written several riddles and we had to each take a paper and guess which fairy tales the riddles were referring to. At the end were a few quiz questions about more fairy tales. All was explained only in German. They handed them out and said the foreigners should just their neighbors ask for help translating. All was written only in German. The boss, who had been sitting nearby, came over to my table o' foreigners (our one German had gone home long before) and asked us if there was any point helping us translate since we probably wouldn't know the fairy tales anyway, since they were all German. I told him I could read just about everything except a couple of archaic words (riddles tend to be full of crap like that) which he wasn't sure how to translate anyway. He said sorry and wandered off to another table. My friend and I got almost half of them - all the ones that had left German borders, like the Bremen Town Musicians and Little Red Riding Hood. The rest were obscure things no foreigner would ever have heard of.

I appreciate the time the two coworkers put into writing riddles and typing this up and everything (unless they got it online) and coming up with clever fairy-tale related prizes for the winners, but WTF?! Could you be more exclusionary? The two Chinese girls just talked to each other in Chinese the whole time. My officemate just watched my friend and I try to fill it in. Our department is more than a quarter foreigners now! Even if the game had been in English none of us would have known the less famous ones since we didn't grow up here.

Of course I am taking it too seriously, it's just a game. What I don't like is what it represents in general, which is just not giving a shit about being inclusive. Something that grates on inclusivity-obsessed Americans, I guess.

Anyway, that was all! The good thing was that I got rid of three things (yeah I just pack up lots of junk for one non-lucky Wichteln recipient) and received a photo frame which actually turned out to be pretty handy. And I got to feel all irritatingly self-righteous about the language thing. Um, yay.

(I'm just a ball of cheer lately eh? :D Next post will be more fun, I swear!)


  1. Ay ay ay!

    I feel your pain. At our Christmas party, which was officially a year-end workshop with dinner, my boss' boss called the opening meeting to order with a glance at my team (composed of three non-German-speaking Romanians and Yours Truly) and our resident Mexican office mate and "Zo.......I sink we heff to do zis in Englisch, right?"

    Ugh. This is a guy whom I normally respect. But not when he puts the people who report to me on the spot like that. I talked about it with one of the more well-traveled department members, and he agreed it was very poor form. Especially considering the kerfuffle involved in scheduling my workshop (their original purpose in visiting Germany) around and in the middle of his (much larger scope) -- he knows they don't work in German and were hired specifically for their excellent English skills. Asking them, in front of everyone at the meeting, to confirm that they can only participate if the meeting were conducted in English, was very poor form.

    Yours sounds a helluva lot worse though. Fairy tales are a little more universal than Handball Championship Teams of the '90s, for Western Europeans and North Americans, perhaps, but I'd wager not for anyone else.

  2. The last couple of posts seem to exhibit a bit of the bitterness I used to feel when I was told:"It's the German tradition to close shops on Sunday, have shopping on Saturday, and throw pig by-products and/or enzymes in everything, while not listing pig as an ingredient-suck it up, you imperialist American! And by the way, Christianity is the only religion and yet although it's everywhere, we really mean it all in a secular way: Enjoy!".
    Some sunshine (or perhaps a SADD machine) should help with these feelings. Time for a trip to Italy?
    Now I just laugh in cheerful amazement.

  3. There's always something strange about office parties - but yours sounds particularly grim.

  4. LOL! I missed my Xmas party due to being out of town. Maybe I should be thankful!

    I AM, however, still astounded that supposedly "International" businesses not only have employees working that can't speak English (when English is clearly the 2nd language at that business) but also continue to operate as though they were not International. Laziness? Nationalism? I still haven't figured it out. At least it makes for amusing blog posts... :)

  5. Bremen Town Musicians?? That made it past the German borders? I've never heard of it.

    We're going to try to make Mohnkranz tomorrow!

  6. That's really frustrating. I'm sorry. You should be made to feel welcome and at home - especially with your co-workers.

  7. In other awesome language-at-work news, the office of the Betriebsarzt is currently harrassing the hell out of me to get me to come in for my visit. I am putting it off because I do not like the principle of the whole thing, although I know eventually they will really make me do it. Anyway, they have sent me something like six reminders now. SIX INCREASINGLY ANNOYED REMINDERS which go out to everyone who hasn't come.

    None of them with any English. Seriously, my employer employs TONS of foreigners. Some departments are probably half or more foreigners. It's so god damn stubborn, I'd think they were Iowans....:D

  8. Your post is really informative sharing the wonderful information about the
    Office Christmas Parties and its other aspects


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