The delightful chaos of the private sector

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 08.03.2019

The private sector in Luxembourg has a bizarre culture all to itself. Normally, company cultures are defined, or at least guided, by national overtones: American firms celebrate overtime and love it when employees work through lunch; French personnel communicate to each other with the utmost formality; Italian workers expect each other to arrive late to meetings; and so on. But Luxembourg, ever a cultural mashup, offers something different.

It offers total chaos.

In the Grand Duchy, large companies tend to be governed by two opposing forces: the Germans and the French. Despite what, deep down, is love and reverence for one another, these cultural giants represent an impressive variance in their principles of professionality. Complicating matters tenfold are all the Brits, Spaniards, Chinese, Dutch, Indians, and so on (and even a few Luxembourgers) who round out the workforce.

Of course, nationality is hardly the sole indicator of behavior: there are generational gaps, as well as the effect of individuals who are actively trying to break free of any stereotype. Plus, lots of people, outside of all earthly reason, are just weird.

One obvious obstacle to a unified professional culture in Luxembourg’s private sector is the lack of a widely shared native tongue. If francophone coworkers email in French with a German colleague in copy, this is akin to an act of war. For the most part, in large international offices, emails in English are flying to and fro at every second of the day. Writing in a second language naturally can limit the subtlety of your tone, leading to problems of expression and thus of interpretation.

But these are just tiny pimples on the face of the real debate, which surrounds the essential question of what an email is supposed to be. Is it a polite letter or a casual line of dialogue? Does using an informal tone with your boss show confidence or disrespect? Does that smiley face indicate goodwill or imply that the sender finds you an absolute garbage can of a person?

One wonderful source of tension in emails is formality, which comes in two extremes. On one side are those who favor the sort of insane style of a Victorian-era professor high on opium:

“Please find hereunder the document alluded to in the foregoing email, as per the wishes of the requester; should any question arise, kindly abandon any hesitation and contact me forthwith. With utmost regards, Dave from HR.”

These emailers, with many exceptions of course, tend to have been educated in one of Luxembourg’s neighboring countries. They were taught “business English” as a subject of its own, and understand the world in spheres: in the work sphere you must exude a dry, distanced persona whereas in the personal sphere you may be whatever you like. They believe in the system and want to rise within it, if they haven’t already. Not being correct, for them, equals vulnerability.

Balancing them out on the other side, however, are those who go for the quick and sloppy tone of drunken high schoolers:

“Thx for the docs ! haha thought it was too late. will be back to office after 3, accidentally drove my BMW into a food truck :/ Tim”

These offenders often, though by no means always, studied in the English-speaking world or, if not, are nevertheless Anglophiles. They don’t believe as much in spheres, but rather consider every individual to have a single universal persona, blurring the lines between colleague, friend, and enemy. They are more likely to email on weekends or during their commutes, and probably learned English from TV. They believe the system is outdated, too slow, or maybe just uninteresting. Speedy and voluminous productivity, rather than decorum and rank, are the markers of their success.

Writers in both camps, of course, run the full gamut of intelligence, capability, and effectiveness. The chaos arises in the sense that neither style is considered normative. Teams, departments, or other groups can form local ideas of what’s normal, but these are fragile and ephemeral. The unity of the clan is determined by the strength of the warlord. And while sometimes it’s easy to practice multiculturalism and bend to the style of another, at other times you are confronted with such a preposterous flop of communication that – after printing it out and laughing at it with all of your friends – you have no choice but to retaliate.

Then, emails and calls having been awkwardly concluded, it’s time for a meeting. The obvious catastrophic element here is tardiness. There is no need to name the cultures most responsible for lost time, as they are widely known (and judged) already, but it gets more complex than simply who turns up late. How prepared should you be for a meeting? What justifies calling a meeting at all? If you’re invited to a meeting, does that mean you can – should – must – speak?

In the average American workplace, meetings are democratic. They are your chance, as a nobody, to make a name for yourself by suggesting clever ideas and pointing out flaws when you see them. Meanwhile, in Japan, the maxim famously goes “the nail that’s sticking out gets whacked.” In Luxembourg, no rules apply whatsoever. Every meeting takes place in the lawless zone of international waters, where everything is legal until the captain, eyes rabid and razor blade in hand, forbids it. Senior bosses from warmer climates will call meetings merely to hear themselves speak, while those from colder places will freak out junior employees by asking for, and then politely destroying, their ideas.

Anyway, there do exist positive spins on all of this too: strange and wonderful norms can be built and maintained in microscale, within a department or even a whole firm. But most powerful of all is the force of a larger contrast: outside of these variously constructed corporate realities is the undeniable backdrop of Luxembourg itself. After the workday ends, the chaos relaxes into the birdcalls echoing across the Pétrusse Valley and the salty taste of Gromperekichelcher… the effect is like being on holiday or getting a break from yourself, just by virtue of going home.

Jeffrey Palms
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