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Cultural Differences in Austrian Service Culture

I'll never forget my first interaction with an Austrian waiter while visiting a restaurant upon my arrival in Vienna. I was wandering around the historical center of town and chose a restaurant that had a rustic, yet distinctly classy atmosphere for a late lunch.  I sat down at a table, hungry and eager to experience some authentic Austrian fare.

The place was not too busy, as the lunch crowd had already departed. I sat down and waited to be given a menu… And waited… And waited. After a few minutes I flagged down a waiter and asked him (speaking only rudimentary German, I rehearsed my request in my mind a few times before actually speaking it out loud), if I could order. His response was an emphatic, “Natürlich, aber ein bisschen Geduld- wir sind nicht auf der Flucht hier!”- “Of course, but patience, we are not on the run here!”. 

Having arrived from Los Angeles, California, where tips can constitute well over 50% of a waiter’s income, my Austrian waiter’s response was shocking. Not only was I being made to wait, but upon the slightest inquiry I received a pointed, one-sentence reprimand for impatience! I must admit that inwardly I felt insulted, but being new in town I simply exercised patience until the waiter came back and matter-of-factly took my order without any hint of animosity- and also without the ongoing pampering which I would have expected from an American waiter.

What I later discovered was that my waiter’s quip was almost certainly not intended to be a personal insult or display of contempt (which was how I originally perceived it).  It was just a very poignant cultural difference between American and Austrian service culture. There are a myriad social and political elements and dynamics that inform customer service orientation, and even a brief glance at a couple of these can help dispel potential misunderstandings.

In contrast to the US, in Austria, a decent government-mandated minimum salary and social health insurance ensure that waiters do not subsist on the tips they receive from their patrons. They thus do not have the same kind of motivation to ingratiate themselves to their customers as their American counterparts. This can translate to a more genuine interaction on the side of the waiter- a dynamic which can cut both ways depending on what kind of day your waiter is having.

Furthermore, Austrian social norms suggests that by asserting strong boundaries, and establishing himself as a professional equal in our interaction my waiter’s behavior was actually a sign of competence, experience, and (as perceived from within a Viennese cultural context) even a bit of wry charm.

Cultural differences can be observed in virtually every area of social interaction. The results of a divergence in cultural modalities can range from fascinating, to charming and amusing, and even to hurtful and insulting. The negative effects of differences in culture can however be readily diffused through a healthy dose of awareness and understanding. Once we are aware that a certain act or behavior can be attributed to a cultural norm rather than associating it personally with ourselves, we can more easily reframe our interpretation of a situation and avoid potential misunderstandings.

Many years later, still in Vienna (a city which I love even more now that when I first arrived more than 20 years ago), I founded Executive Relocations Austria (E.R.A.), a full service relocation company based in Vienna with consultants in various cities throughout the country. The learning from that first interaction with my waiter, and many subsequent customer service-related interactions in Austria continue to have a huge influence the way I design E.R.A.’s approach to elite customer orientation. It is one of the reasons why I continue to compose our team of individuals who are either long-term expats themselves, or are Austrians who have spent considerable time living abroad. Cultural sensitivity is much better and more thoroughly learned by experience, than by explanation or study.

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