Friday, July 17, 2015

Responding versus Reacting

I get roughly 20 emails from the department and the university every day. I delete all of them. Because every time, they are written in German.

I deleted a similar email one morning. However, I knew the content of the email. It was about a summer potluck party at the department. I knew that all my colleagues would go. However, my knee-jerk reaction was- “If they don't care about telling me things in a language I understand, I do not care to go.” I hit delete. I thought that I would forget about it. I did not.

Something just left me feeling sour. I am one of the very few international hires here, maybe one out of 2-3. My biggest frustration in Germany has been the language barrier. Although one of the main goals of my institute is to get noticed globally and go international, they do not make any effort to do so. People email in German. People speak in German. Meetings are in German. It is pointless for me to attend any meeting or social event. Isolation and loneliness have been my biggest concerns here. Quite contrary to my social nature, I see people, and I run in the opposite direction.

However, I wondered if there was anything I could do to change the situation. An hour after I had deleted the email, I retrieved it from the trash, and sent a polite reply, asking if the person could kindly translate the email for me. Within less than five minutes, I got a reply, apologizing to me about not remembering to do it, and promising that they would do it right away. The matter was resolved.

I realize that isolation is cyclic. People write emails in German, hence I delete them, do not go to these socializing events, and hence feel isolated. Since I do not show up, people do not notice me, and continue to communicate in German. This way, the chain of isolation never breaks. People are not bad by nature. They just tend to forget things they are not used to doing. I am a minority, and people forget about me. But instead of doing what I do every time (get mad, delete email, whine, get distressed, repeat behavior in a negative-feedback loop), I stopped reacting, and responded for a change. I became the change I wanted to see. I empowered myself. I realized that people are willing to help you, but you have to take the first step and ask for help. 

The summer party was excellent. I have never seen a more delicious spread. I am so glad that I went.  



Kumitaa TD said...

Hi there, can't remember how I first stumbled upon your blog but I've always loved reading your entries since then because I feel like I can always relate. We don't know each other, but I just wanted to say I'm glad you did what you did and attended the event. It's tough being alone in a new place otherwise. Take care and good luck. :)

Parmanu said...

Even in a multinational company, such situations are common. Their first instinct is to send a mail in German, or to speak in German. As you say, they are "not bad by nature. They just tend to forget things they are not used to doing."

What you did is the only way one can break the language barrier here. Joining them at such parties is the first step. Even after this, you may find yourselves stuck in German-only discussions. They've forgotten, again -- we need to remind them we are around :-)