4 Days In Germany Or How I Broke My Stereotype
Have you ever, before going to a new place, made a point of keeping your expectations low?
A few days ago, that’s exactly what I did.. There are so many reasons for a person to do this, but in my case it wasn’t something I usually tell people – because it has to do with a nasty little thing called stereotypes.
I’ve always worked against stereotypes and I’ve been trying really hard to participate in initiatives that help break down those annoying, oversimplified images, especially when it comes to nations.
See, I don’t think absolutism is a virtue in the world we live in today. This is why it took me some time to realize that I actually had a stereotype of my own – and it had to do with Germany.
So, obviously, I decided to exit this cute and cozy place a.k.a my comfort zone and go on a mission to break the stereotype.
For 4 days I was a trainer at a conference there, with sessions connected to leadership and self-leadership and I met over a hundred people that surprised the crap out of me and for that, I couldn’t be more thankful.
Here’s the thing: I’ve been to Germany a few times but I never really got to know any locals during my stay, so my connection to the culture wasn’t strong.
I was basing my knowledge about German people on those I’d met in my university in Denmark, as well my few German friends. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I had a good impression (except from my friends, of course, but they were also constantly saying how they are “very different from typical Germans”?).
To get behind the “why”, here are a few stories that only a handful of people know about. When you see them, you’ll probably understand why I don’t like telling anyone.
True story #1: I’ve been a part of one of the best volunteer organizations in the world for over 2 years now – AIESEC.
I’m not an active member, but I still get to do extremely cool things, like being a trainer. Back when AIESEC was what I spent every free minute on, a German girl joined the organization.
I hadn’t talked to her at all; I just knew she was working on a project that ended up unsuccessful. At the time I was working on my first project as a team leader (ah, the nostalgia) and I was pretty happy with how things were going, especially in regards to how close my team had gotten.
One day I found out that this girl had told many people extremely weird stuff about me, and, even though I’m not easily surprised, this was a big shock.
Apparently, I grabbed this girl while she was in the hallway of our university and told her she wasn’t not a good team leader, I was so much better than her, she wasn’t motivated enough so she should just leave AIESEC now. She repeated that story to quite a lot of (German) people and from what I was told, also made up a lot of other things.
Some friends told me she was drinking when saying some of this crap, so I have a pretty good guess as to why she did it.
She probably needed a reason to quit an organization that she couldn’t benefit from (due to her attitude), and she made one up, featuring someone she, for some reason, didn’t like (me).
And then she kept repeating it to make herself feel better.
Let me say it again: I’d never talked to this girl and when I heard the story, I had to see a picture to understand who she was (she’s not really one of those people you’d remember). The story spread around pretty quickly, and since, like most Germans I’d met in my university, she hung out mostly with other Germans, many of them started treating me like I’m Joseph Mengele.
It was really great to see how they were willing to believe anything without even talking to a person. Oh, by the way, she also used to say “Hi” to me when she saw me around. The nerve…
True story #2: Just a typical day in the university, so I went into our classroom and sat down. The German girl next to me glanced at my direction, stood up and went to sit next to someone else. This was actually hilarious, considering there were almost no empty seats left, so it took her some time.
Granted, I can’t be sure it was connected to the last story, but I couldn’t think of anything else (unless, maybe, I’m such a horrible person that my horribleness is visible by just sitting next to me. Jeez, I have to work on that).
This is not a rare occurrence, since many of the people I’ve met have looked down on me because of my nationality, and Germans occupy the top of the list (How do I know? Because afterwards, I was told what they said. Yes, people are snitches. Deal with it).
True story #3: The fake-story-spreading girl’s friends who were also people I was friendly with, stopped talking to me. I couldn’t figure out why until I saw them on pictures together. Who does that?
Last true story: Once, a German girl stood up during classes and shared her opinion about Eastern Europe with everyone. Her sharing ended with the teacher (also German) advising her to be careful about the way she expresses herself. I’m not going to repeat what she said, just imagine me sitting with multiple consecutive images of chainsaws running through my brain.
So… This had been most of my contact with people from Germany, and even though I always say that stereotypes are something we should work against, apparently I had my own. Until this weekend, that is.
The 140 people that I met in Droyßig were something different. I’ve been to many conferences, but this time I made a pact with myself that I’d talk to as many people as I could, and at lunch, I’d sit with those I hadn’t yet talked to.
Guess what – there wasn’t a single person there that wasn’t completely open towards me.
And not just that – they were interested in me, in my story and they were incredibly intelligent, funny and… I’m just going to throw it in there: awesome.
It’s tough to stay motivated 24/7 for 4 days when you’re either delivering sessions, working on your sessions or partying until 5AM (while thinking about the sessions you need to deliver in a few hours).
This is the conference where I reached my best motivation level ever and managed to stay focused and productive despite my 2 hours of sleep every night.
You know how sometimes when you go to a place where you don’t know anyone and you’re surrounded by hundreds of people, you feel awkward and don’t know where to sit or who to talk to?
I didn’t feel that way even once.
My delegates were those who contributed the most to this experience – imagine meeting 5 people for the first time and delivering sessions about leadership to them. It’s a hell of a challenge because you need to really open yourself up and share your knowledge and your experience with people who came to listen to you.
It’s scary, it’s exciting, it’s terrifying and it’s something I want to experience again and again. The biggest surprise was that it took me going to Germany to realize this.
The end of the conference was the cherry on top, convincing me what a bunch of awesome (German) people I had met, especially when my delegates came to say goodbye. I’d never received so much great feedback and, although I’m sure I probably fucked up a lot of things in the process, I made a connection with these guys, which means they heard me.
In this insane world, to have someone really listen to you instead of constantly doubting why he should, is something big. [Tweet this]
At this conference, people listened.
They listened with a mindset that 24-year olds like me probably don’t encounter that often: a growth mindset.
They made me feel like I have something important to share and like I could be this little spec in their universe that hopefully they managed to learn something from.
I went to this conference with many reasons in mind, but the one that really made me apply and buy the plane ticket, was my stereotype.
I didn’t want to be one of those people who have a certain idea about something and never question it.
I wanted to see whether I’ll witness the same attitude towards me and, honestly, I expected to meet many great people, but I didn’t expect for everyone to be this open-minded and accepting. I may not have met people from all age groups or all regions of Germany, and it may seem strange that something so simple can change a person’s mind, but the fact that I’ve never felt more welcomed definitely means something.
From now on, I’ll never judge a country based on isolated experiences, even if they keep happening from time to time.
Also, I’ll be aware of the fact that even though you dedicate a lot of your time to fight against something, there’s a big possibility it exists in you as well.
Plus, I realized having friends from a specific country doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not housing a certain stereotype – it may even amplify it.
The fact that someone was ignorant enough to look at me and think: “I don’t want to deal with Bulgarians” is not going to mean that most other people from that nationality will do the same. If I think this way, I’m just as bad as the ignoramus.
I officially proclaim this stereotype as: