The task of writing an article about my Austrian "home"-culture
turned out to be an even more complex exercise than capturing the
various "culture shock"-experiences during the first few
years of entry into a new cultural system. Being an Austrian in
Canada with the goal to find evidence of what Austrian culture is
led me down three paths: First, a comparative perspective between
Austrian and mainstream Canadian (North American) culture seemed
necessary. Comparisons turned out to be rather difficult to be wrapped
up in an essay style, hence I chose Graybridge Malkam's much-appreciated Culture-Quiz
to present various differences found or observed. Second, the quest
for cultural insight made me think of the always up-to-date discussion
of why Austrians are and at the same time are not like Germans.
A glance into history shed some light on this complex issue and
reminded once again that defining culture within the boundaries
of country borders can be limiting. Third, facing information travelling
in units of nanoseconds all over the world and the presence of continuous
change made me realize how difficult it is to capture a moment in
the constant evolution of culture.
Austria - a factual overview
Located in Central Europe, Austria shares its borders
with several countries including Italy and Slovenia and Hungary
to the south and east, Germany and the Czech Republic to the north.
Austria is a Federal Republic with 9 states, which
are called Bundesland.
Founded in 1918 after the First World War and re-established
after the Second World War, in the State Treaty of 1955.
With an area of 84,000 square kilometers Austria
is slightly bigger than the Canadian province of New Brunswick or
slightly smaller than the U.S. State of Maine. However, given its
size, its geography is extremely diverse. In the West and South
there are alpine mountain regions with peaks reaching as high as
4,000 meters. In contrast, the eastern and northern regions are
mostly flat or gently sloping.
Austria has a population of 7.7 million people
with 88% German ethnicity, 12% are Croatians, Slovenes, Hungarian,
Czech, Slovaks and Gypsis referred to ‘Roma’ in Austria.
More than 80% of the population is Christian with
an overwhelming majority of Roman Catholics. 10% have other religions
such as Muslim, Jewish or Orthodox. The remainder has no denomination.
The influence of the Roman Catholic Church is decreasing but still
Austrians speak a German dialect and write German.
The Austrian dialect, of which there are again many variations,
presents a hurdle for the foreigner who has been trained in "High
German". There are many different words and different pronunciations.
However, English is taught from 3rd grade and French or Italian
from grade 9 onward.
Contrary to a common perception, agriculture only
contributes 2% to the annual GDP, whereas industry accounts for
a third and the tertiary sector with 65% produces 2/3 of Austria's
Austria's central geographical position provides
ideal access to the emerging markets of Central & Eastern Europe.
It serves as a center for a large number of service companies with
outstanding Central & Eastern European know-how. Many companies
have set up East-West headquarters in Austria’s capital, Vienna.
After the Second World War the Austrian government,
as well as industries and trade unions, realized that the country
could not afford to repeat the continuous social, political, and
economic conflict that marked the 1920s and 1930s, which in the
end led to the annexation in 1938. They wanted to avoid ruinous
social and industrial conflict, strikes, lock-outs, and the kind
of persistent social battles that had contributed to the paralysis
of the Austrian economy and its political body during the interwar
years. The famous "social partnership" was established
to ensure collaborative decision-making among stakeholders. For
this reason Austria had one of the lowest strike rates in the world
for many years. However the value of the social partnership in the
21st century is being re-evaluated by some of its stakeholders and
it might be time to re-think the concept.
"Austrian" - a country and its national consciousness
In an attempt to define what Austrian culture is and where it comes
from, it makes it more comprehensive to look back into history rather
than present day. For quite some time in the 18th century, the Austria
of today was part of multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic empires,
its history even goes back as much as a millenium. In fact for quite
some time Austria was so large and spread out that "the sun
never set" . The nation we know today, was only formed in 1918.
Before 1918 there had not been much strive for a small German-speaking
nation separated from Hungary or Germany, no fight for independence
shaped a unique nation. One had been proud of the rather large and
influential empire one belonged to. After 1918, studies show that
many Austrians, German-speaking as they were, identified themselves
as being members of a "German nation", sharing linguistic,
cultural and ethnic characteristics. Only with the annexation of
Austria into the Third Reich and the outcome of after-war negotiations,
did it seem that Austria started to unconsciously develop a national
Austrian consciousness. The State Treaty signed in 1955 recognized
Austria's independence and forbade unification with Germany. In
addition as a condition for Soviet military withdrawal, a constitutional
law declaring the nation's "perpetual neutrality" was
passed. The small nation of Austria we know today is only a little
bit more than half a century old but it still shares a lot of history
with regions and nations surrounding it dating back as many as 1000
years, making it impossible to draw a border for Austrian culture.
The work week
A 5-day week is the norm and many firms let employees leave earlier
on Wednesdays or Fridays. Bank’s often close one afternoon
a week. Business offices generally operate Mondays to Fridays, from
8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. allowing for as much as one hour for lunch
break. Government offices serve their customers in the morning and
automated switchboards are not available. Stores open as early as
7 a.m. and as late as 10 a.m., they close between 5 and 7:30 p.m.
Beware that smaller stores in towns and villages outside of Vienna
may close over lunch, as long as 3 hours. Sunday openings are currently
discussed and denied. The opposition seems to derive from fear over
losing Sunday as a day of rest and family. Obviously the church
uses its influence with the government in order to keep stores closed
It is essential to arrange meetings well in advance taking into
account that people have and take up to five weeks of holidays.
Although most executives or managers understand and speak sufficient
English, they might still prefer doing business in German. A nice
and practical gesture is to get materials translated into German.
Forms of address are very important and failing to address a person
in the correct way would be interpreted as disrespect or ignorance
- both would not make for a good start in a business relationship
(see below for more information on forms of address). The pace of
decision-making is slower than in North America. The assumption
is that it takes time to do a job properly.
Austrians do not address each other by their first names, unless
the older or higher ranking person has offered this. This might
very likely be due to what monarchies and aristrocrats left behind.
It frequently takes a while until business relationships become
informal. Initially the appreciated address would be "Herr"
or "Frau" followed by an academic or professional title
and sometimes the last name. As titles such as MA, Engineer, Ph.D.
are very respected, make sure your Business Card includes all this
information. (Note: Austria's education system does not split post-secondary
university education into Baccalaureate and Master level. The equivalent
to the Bachelor does not exist and the equivalent to the Master
is called "Magister" for men and "Magistra"
for women.) Hierarchy is important and often persons with the same
"rank" discuss business together. One usually doesn't
introduce oneself, as this tends to seem pushy or needy. Compliments
are rarely given and not well received, they might be interpreted
as superficial. Communication is rather direct and might at times
even seem impolite to somebody from Canada or the United States.
Equality between man and women is appreciated and fought for, the
old "traditional" customs how man showed respect to women
might still be seen here and there. Opening the door, getting up
when a woman leaves or arrives at the table, in the capital "kissing
the hand, Madame", helping to put on a coat etc. can still
be noticed. Compliments towards women from the opposite sex are
also a remainder of the traditional "Austrian charm".
and Don’ts in Conversation
Austrians are generally well informed about politics, most have
firm opinions and like to talk about it. Skiing, hiking and beer
are suitable, cheerful and neutral topics. Avoid topics connected
to the Second World War as well as politics all together. In 2001,
Austria faced fierce opposition and exclusion from the European
Union when the Freedom Party formed the government in coalition
with the People's Party.
restaurants and etiquette
At business lunches or dinners, it is expected to say "Prost"
(=Cheers) before having the first sip of your beer or wine and you
do not cheer with non-alcoholic beverages. It is also considered
polite to wait until everybody is served and to say:"Guten
Appetit" or "Mahlzeit" before beginning the meal.
After the meal you signal the waiter that you are finished by arranging
knife and fork parallel on the plate. Restaurants usually do not
serve water for free and it is rather ‘cheap’ of a person
to order tap water. If you choose to order water, make sure you
order "Leitungswasser". People usually drink "Mineralwasser",
which is carbonated, many drink it with lemon. The tip is generally
less and unless you are in a very exclusive restaurant your tip
doesn't need to exceed 1.5 EURO per person, which is the equivalent
of 3 CAN$.
Eating is a
social event. The main meal is taken at lunch-time and meals are
not enjoyed very much if one has to eat by him/herself. Many (200+)
companies have subsidized cafeterias where employees can have 3
course-meals for as little as 2.5 CAN$. Affordable public restaurants
are rather comfortable and invite the customer to stay beyond the
last bite. If one has the time, a coffee and desert add another
30 minutes to the social event called lunch. With the increasing
number of dual-income families many switch their main meal to the
evening in order to have everybody around the table at least once
a day. Family breakfasts are not usual as school starts between
7:30 and 8:00 a.m.
By Eva Schausberger
Development Associate @ Graybridge Malkam