Making the Chattanooga-German Connection – by Deborah Levine

Tennessee is home to hundreds of international companies worth billions of dollars. Chattanooga, the smallest of Tennessee’s four major cities, is the site of the only Volkswagen plant in the United States. VW is not the only German company in our area, but its arrival made cultural competence a high priority. German companies orient their executives to Southern culture, energizing Chattanooga’s globalization and investment in cross-cultural training.

When Volkswagen built the plant on an old WW II military base, the Chattanooga area underwent major changes. A railroad was revived, industrial parks were developed, roads were built, vendors arrived, and new businesses sprouted up creating thousands of new jobs. Education began to include German language courses and German-style internships. Volkswagen helped fuel our passion for technology and we’re now known as Gig City. Chattanooga is becoming a Southern-style global village, a process that’s unlikely to be derailed.

Several weeks after the news broke about Volkswagen’s diesel cars, the International Business Council (IBC) of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, presented “Doing Business Between Germans and Americans.” Entrepreneurs, financial experts, professors, and students gathered to hear IBC’s panel of cross-cultural experts.

The panel’s moderator is Eric Kruger, a cross-cultural management consultant and Professor of Economics at the College of Business UTC (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga). With roots in England, France, New York, and now Chattanooga,  Eric’s mellow multicultural voice is an attention-grabber. Years ago, Eric and I coached newly arrived VW executives with a duet serenade of Chattanooga Choo Choo. As he introduced the panel, I wonder if he heard me humming, “I want a one way ticket down to Tennessee…”

Panelist Karen Claypool is an American business linguist and cultural consultant to German and international companies. She ran an import business in Germany and a language school in Brazil. Now a Chattanoogan, Claypool provides multicultural and diversity training, and language training.

Christian Höferle, originally from Germany, is President of The Culture Mastery, LLC,  Höferle relocated to the Chattanooga area in 2004. As a cross-cultural consultant, trainer, and coach, he helps American companies master cultural issues, improve their international businesses, and develop global leaders who work effectively across cultures.

Eric began the discussion quoting sociologist, Geert Hofstede. “If the minds of human beings are their hardware, then cultures are their software.” Attempting to upgrade our software, Eric explained how 90% of culture is hidden from us. The panelists tackled the hidden assumptions behind cultural differences in everything from meetings to meals. Stressing the German discomfort caused by being late, making last minute changes, and insisting on instant informality. the panelists emphasized the value of order. “Without Order, there is Chaos.” Acknowledging that Germans can be brutally honesty when Order is disrupted, Christian urged us not to take German criticism personally.

Christian then addressed “the elephant in the room.” He explained how the Volkswagen scandal has become a matter of national identity. “The German people today are eager to change the view that the world has of them.” Given Christian’s description of Volkswagen’s  Chattanooga plant, Tennessee may be a factor in that change. The plant is unlike other VW plants with its open spaces and lack of doors. An informal uniform is worn by all employees. The innovation is unique to the Chattanooga plant.

Will Chattanooga impact Volkswagen’s future path? Time will tell. In the meantime, we continue to Go Global. The experts training us in cross-cultural communication not only help Chattanooga make the American-German connection, but they also help transform Chattanooga into a successful global village.


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