Austria cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
When meeting Austrians for the first time good conversation topics can be downhill skiing, soccer, Austrian cuisine, Austrian classical music, art or peacekeeping. Also, since the European Union has welcomed countries from Eastern Europe, Austria is proud of its role in helping foreign companies to establish themselves in the East. While there are certainly good discussion topics when getting to know Austrians, first and foremost it is important not to ask questions if one is not genuinely interested. Many Austrians are somewhat reserved towards foreigners upon a first meeting and may find the outgoing and very positive attitude of North Americans overbearing or even superficial and insincere. Self-introduction is seen as pushy and even unprofessional. Some North Americans, have been taken aback by Austrians' initial lack of casual conversation about family and hobbies.
Conversations topics which can offend are politics and/or Joerg Haider, Austria's role in WW2, religion or the movie Sound of Music. Also, never compare Austrians with Germans, however similar you might find these two cultures. The reasons are somewhat similar to the tensions between Americans and Canadians. Regarding the Sound of Music, an Austrian journalist suggested that the problem may be that the von Trapps, the family at the centre of the film, "emigrated to America and made their fortunes there while Austrians where rebuilding the country". Also, for Austrians, the movie does not pay enough attention to the dilemmas of wartime Austria. Do remember that it is important to also recognise the regional diversity which impacts on mentality and lifestyle between the capital and the regions (Bundeslaender).
It is important at the beginning of a relationship to talk about generalities. As it is the case everywhere in the world, Austrians like to talk about the weather, especially in winter, for this is the season that seems so much harder than the others. People are also interested in knowing about your country, your language, and the reasons that brought you to Austria. Austrians like to talk about their native region. Sometimes, I call this country the country of 10,000 villages because even though most of the people live in cities, a lot of them are originally form the country and feel a sense of belonging there, even if they have left the countryside a while ago. There aren't too many subjects that should be avoided when talking to Austrians except for the Second World War and particularly if the person you're talking too belongs to the older generations. The feeling of collective responsibility still trouble some Austrians and the passing of time did not alter that feeling. In the same vein, the rise of the Extreme Right in the South of the country (Carinthia) and in Vienna since 2000 (coalition of the Conservatives and Extreme Right) are making some people ill at ease because they feel responsible for the gains of the Extreme Right. Austrian humour is timid and subtle; most of the time people take seriously a subtle or implied joke. It is best to be pleasant.
Personal space that is maintained during conversation is approximately 2 feet. Eye contact is important, however, between people in hierarchical relationship, it is considered respectful to lower ones gaze every now and then. It is customary to shake hands with both men and women when meeting and leaving - this is even practiced in many families. However, also when shaking hands, hierarchy plays a role. The higher ranking or older person usually initiates the handshake. Observe and follow the most senior person's lead. Handshakes are firm and require direct eye contact. For some Austrians, a weak hand shake may imply a weak character. The younger generation may hug and kiss on both cheeks when greeting a person. During a conversation, refrain from touching until you are well acquainted with the person. Chewing gum is considered inappropriate when speaking to a person. The same is true for hands in pockets. Beckoning a waiter or some other person is done by simply raising the hand with the index finger extended, showing the palm of the hand. Keep your hands above the table while eating. Avoid cutting fish, potatoes or Knoedel with a knife, because it suggests that they are tough. Place your knife and fork parallel on the plate when you are done. Crossing them signals that you would like a second helping. For good luck, make two fists with the thumbs tucked inside the fist and gesturing as if you where pounding lightly on an imaginary table. On highways, a rude gesture would be to screw the forefinger into the temple of the head. It means "You are crazy". The O.K. sign, thumbs up, "the finger" and "V" for victory are known in Austria.
Austrians are fairly direct in their communication, especially in written communication. A simple request for information would differ as follows: Austrians would say or write "we need this information by...", while Canadians would say or write "we would like this information by....". This polite request signals to an Austrian that the deadline is a "ballpark" and consequently the information may not be delivered on the date specified.
The distance or personal space, to keep between people having a conversation is a lot greater than here, especially in Quebec. One should avoid invading this personal space too soon. Kissing an Austrian (man or woman) on a first encounter will paralyze this person. A hand shake is preferable. Visual contact is important and advisable. The urban salutations are still very much in use in the world of business, in universities and the services industries. Gesturing is not very common; people express themselves more through words than gestures.
Display of emotion
Austrians conduct themselves with polite formality in public. Avoid public displays of affection, anger or emotion. In general, one should not draw attention to oneself through a loud voice, extravagant compliments or inappropriate dress. Austrians are formal but carry their formality with a bit more lightness than their German neighbours. Social interactions can be more relaxed depending on the occasion.
Physical contact, anger and happiness in public are very rare. One better act like the Austrians and keep one's emotions for friends or acquaintances. Two good friends will kiss on both cheeks when they meet.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Workplaces differ depending on industry, regional diversity and average age. The appropriate form of dress is conservative but stylish, serious but modern. During the summer months dress tends to become more informal. In general it is appreciated to be dressed for "the occasion" e.g. don't wear running shoes unless you are working out. While not a fashion capital itself, Austrian style of dress is influenced by Italian and French couture.
You should acknowledge people with a formal greeting before starting a conversation; the most common salutation is Grüß Gott. This includes anyone you meet in whatever context and not just your primary contacts. The formal "Sie" is a must until told otherwise and the "Du" is offered by the higher ranking or older person. When addressing colleagues make sure you acknowledge their titles using an address such as Herr Magister Schmid or Frau Ingeneur Huber. The importance of titles is reflected on a person's business card. Should somebody have two Ph.D.s this person might even be addressed as "double doctor" such as Dr. Dr. Lang. Titles ensure respect so make sure you add yours to your business card.
Austrian culture mostly follows the concept of monochronic time. Meetings have agendas, which are to be followed and to be right on time, may be interpreted as being late. Being late for appointments or work is not excused easily. Explanations such as "I couldn't find a parking spot" only means that one did not allow enough time for this eventuality.
The concept of working overtime can be viewed quite differently depending on the organizational culture. It can be interpreted as a hard-working attitude but this is not a given. However, Austrian colleagues might just as well think that one has been inefficient and unproductive during the day or has made incorrect projections of the level of work.
Being on time is a must! As a matter of fact, people arrive ahead of time. Clothing is dependent on one's profession, but usually you should dress conservatively. When addressing someone, you should use his or her academic title(s). The linguistic quality is fairly high, objectives and deadlines are usually kept.
Preferred managerial qualities
The Austrian workplace is fairly hierarchical and relationships between superiors and subordinates are unequal. Traditionally, management is more autocratic and it is not custom to ask subordinates for their ideas or opinions unless for change management purposes. However, as the younger generation is adopting newer and more democratic management practices, this may change somewhat.
Managers are supposed to lead and are expected to have more experience. Superiors should have a good sense of their subordinates' work. If a superior frequently asks employees about their ideas and opinions, this can be interpreted as incompetence. While staff would certainly appreciate a personable boss, a certain social distance should be maintained between hierarchical levels. Great managers are their employees' mentors but not friends.
Austrians are always respectful of the title and position of others. A manager should always project the image of someone who clearly knows his files. Image is very important (the way we dress and the quality of the language used) as well as the results. Foreigners easily adapt to their business environment, without many problems. Vienna is the place that attracts the most foreign workers and it is fairly common to meet them. The regions are less used to foreigners, and one has to be fluent in German.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Decision making power is usually outlined very clearly, either through signing authority or specifically linked to a person's job duties. Idea generation is often limited to the management cadre or institutionalized through the creation of advisory positions. Initiative is valued as long as it is within one's own area of responsibility. Employees are expected to ask their superiors for advice or help if a new situation, which is not outlined in a process document, arises. In return, superiors are expected to have the answers. Some organizations create "comment boxes" to encourage innovation and change.
Again, hierarchy is paramount. It is quite possible to talk to one's superiors (preferably an immediate supervisor) of a problem, an idea or a need. Unions still carry a lot of weight in the society, it is a fact that no one should ignore. You have to proceed discretely and politely.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Legislation, such as pay equity, shared parental leave etc. intends to achieve total equality between men and women, however, traditional gender roles do still exist, especially within the older generations. Some women do still enjoy the traditional ways of men showing respect (such as the famous "Kuess die Hand Gnaedige Frau" or letting the woman walk through a door first). Also, some argue that the government's initiative of giving families extra money for each child born is really intended to keep mothers from going back to work too early.
80% of the population is Christian with an overwhelming majority being Roman Catholic. 10% are Muslim, Jewish or Orthodox. The influence of the roman catholic church is still strong but decreasing. Currently Austria, like many other European countries, is trying to come to terms that Turkey, a Muslim country, applied for EU membership.
Class and ethnicity
88% of Austrians are of German ethnicity, the remaining 12% are descendents from neighbouring cultures such as Croatians, Slovenes, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks and Roma. The population is very homogeneous, since almost all of these minority cultures were at some point in time part of former multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic empires. Class related to ethnicity and profession does impact on how one is perceived and sometimes also how one is treated. Guest workers, immigrants from Eastern countries, refugees and established minorities such as the "Roma" may be perceived as lower class than the Austrian-born population. While government funded post-secondary education supports to transcend class barriers, stereotypical views of different groups exist.
These factors impact on the workplace in a way that there are less women than men in leadership positions. Workplaces become more ethnically diverse as more guest workers and refugees enter the Austrian workforce. Unfortunately, many are employed in low image manual labour position, which are often the types of jobs, Austrians rather don't do.
Gender equality is a well known and understood question. Nevertheless, there are still a lot of women at home and wage equity is nothing but an evolving theory. The loyalty to the traditional way of life is slowing down the process.
Catholicism is the State religion, and the overwhelming majority of Austrians are Catholics. Other religions include Protestants and Muslims, especially since the arrival of immigrants from Turkey and Bosnia. Islam has become the fastest growing religion. Tolerance is widely practiced, but some bias still lingers towards Muslins.
Class distinction is almost non-existent. The large groups are the farmers, the middle class and the politicians. They all coexist.
For Austrians, ethnic origins are very important, especially considering the history of the country itself which, at the beginning of the 20th century, included more than seven ethnic groups. There are ethnic minorities in almost every province. Differences are much more pronounced between Europeans and non-Europeans. Vienna is a good example of minorities gathering in certain neighbourhoods where Austrians are not in the majority anymore.
Gender and ethnic origin can sometimes impact negatively the workplace relationships, hiring and promotions of employees.
Relationships with clients or colleagues may be built over time if commonalties are present. Personal relationships may certainly put one at an advantage in business dealings, but they are not the norm. This is somewhat of a grey area, meaning that what is and what should be may diverge.
One can fairly easily establish professional relationships with others without having to spend a lot of time preparing for it. Frankness and the need for efficiency drastically shorten the process of getting acquainted. A good way of doing it is to get in touch with the Chambers of Commerce or Labour, or professional associations of the chosen sector of activity (Health, Law, etc.).
Privileges and favouritism
Nepotism is neither encouraged nor seen as entirely improper, it's appropriateness is evaluated on a case by case basis. It is fairly common that employees lobby with their employer to employ their children or nieces and nephews for the duration of internships or co-op placements. The informal term "Vitamin B" (the B stands for the German word "Beziehung") refers to the power of knowing the "right people".
Everybody plays by the rules. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to grant privileges for reasons other than for exceptional performance of an employee, colleague or business partner. In the public service as well as in the chambers and associations, it is possible, depending on your political affiliation, to be considered differently. But, it is very important to note that the rules have to be followed and that rewards given according to performance take precedence over favouritism.
Conflicts in the workplace
One strategy of addressing an issue with a colleague, who is neither your superior or subordinate, might be to go for lunch with this person and bring it up in an informal and non-threatening manner. Many Austrian organisations do have in-house cafeterias to which work teams and colleagues flock during lunch time. Informal coffee breaks might also provide a relaxed atmosphere where issues could be discussed. Of course, either of those are only suitable if privacy can be guaranteed.
In return, if a colleague has an issue with you, he or she will probably cut social contact at work to a minimum.
Problems are better handled directly with the person involved. For unionized employees, a union representative will be called upon in order to jointly find a solution to the problem. But first, the person involved must be contacted directly. If you need to know whether you have offended someone, you have to ask other colleagues and not the person involved because the latter would never criticize you overtly, out of politeness.
Motivating local colleagues
Individuals are motivated by a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. It is probably best to discuss this in an initial meeting. To name a few: fair pay, a work climate where colleagues get along, a superior who pulls his or her weight, a clearly defined area of responsibility and growth opportunities may very well be some of these factors.
A worker's priorities are: to do a good job, to satisfy his own objectives as well as the company's, and ensure that recognition for good performance is known by colleagues.
Recommended books, films & foods
Check out the works of:
- Thomas Bernard, "Victor Halbnarr" or "Ein Kind"
- Ingeborg Bachmann, "Ein Geschäft mit Träumen" (Audio)
- Franz Kafka, "Der Process"
- Movies directed by Michael Haneke: "Funny Games", "Benny's video", "Code Inconnu"
- "Die Klavierspielerin" based on the book of Elfriede Jelinek
- Movies with Senta Berger: "Bella Ciao", "Ich heirate Herrn Direktor"
- Movies with "Klaus Maria Brandauer", "Jedermanns Fest", "Oberst Redl"
- "Sissi" (Series of movies about the last Austrian Queen, Elisabeth)
Schlosshotel Ort, MAZ 2412, Ein echter Wiener geht nicht unter, Kottan vermittelt
- Der Rosenkavalier
- Austrian Press and Information Service
- View the Austrian Picture Gallery @ www.austria.org
- Places to Visit - Fast Facts: http://www.aboutaustria.org
- Austrian Food @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austrian_Food
- E-Book Austria @ http://www.photoglobe.info/ebooks/austria/
- Austria Search @ http://www.austrosearch.at/ ; www.austria.com ; http://www.tiscover.at
- English Language News @ http://www.diepresse.com/Ressort.aspx?ressort=ee ; http://www.wienerzeitung.at/frameless/english.htm
- Multi-Lingual Austria Links @ http://www.viennaonline-ezine.com/ai/ai0302.html
- Radio Austria International (Online) @ http://oe1.orf.at/service/international_en
The most famous cities of Austria are Vienna and Salzburg. Innsbruck is also widely visited. The Alps are the main attraction of the country.
State TV stations (ORF) broadcast news bulletins and sports. There also German TV channels.Radio broadcasting is also under the purview of the State, but there are some private stations, one of them multilingual (German, English and French).
Newspapers play a significant role in the information of Austrians (Der Standard, Die Presse, Salzburger Nachrichten, etc.).
Media is always a great source of culture. It publishes what interests the readers. Austria has several regional and national newspapers. They are independent but not completely objective. Some of the biggest newspapers are: Der Standard, Der Kourier, Die Nachrichten, Die Kronen Zeitung, Die Presse, Wiener Zeitung.
Austria has two official TV channels: ORF 1 and ORF 2 (and 3Sat). Most other TV stations available are German and some are from other European countries. A good strategy to get a feel for Austrian culture is to immerse oneself into the "Kaffeehauskultur" (coffee shop culture), where one might sit, read the newspaper and observe Austrians for as much as the better part of the afternoon.
What is typically Austrian is enjoyed with the eyes, the ears and the mouth. Opera is a Viennese tradition that should not be missed. Vienna also offers a variety of cafés that provide taste, atmosphere and refinement; they are the pride of Austrians. Salzburg is visited for Mozart mostly, but the city itself is rich in history. Classical music, waltz, polka and balls are all activities that appeal to all social classes and Austria can be proud of being the champion in this field!
Skiing is the national sport. In the province of Salzburg, and especially in the Tyrol, people live only for the mountains. The collective pride of having alpine skiing champions is as big as the mountains; these cover a large proportion of the Austrian territory.
Some traditional Austrian authors: Thomas Bernhard, Hermann Broch, Fritz Habeck, Robert Musil, Arnold Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig.
Heroes are often specific to a generation or an era. Definitely famous Austrians are Franz Klammer (Alpine Skier), Niki Lauda (Race Car Driver and Entrepreneur), Rudolf Kirchschlaeger (Premier and Diplomat) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (actor and governor of California).
Other famous Austrians who are dead, are: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (composer), Bruno Kreisky (politician, among many achievements he negotiated the State Treaty of 1955, he promoted the welfare state, decriminalized abortion, homosexuality etc.), Luis Trenker (mountaineer), Heinrich Harrer (mountaineer and author of 7 years in Tibet), Ferdinand Porsche (inventor of the VW Golf), Victor Kaplan (inventor of the turbine used in river power plants, which provides a large amount of Austria's electricity), Andreas Doppler (Physicist, Doppler Effect), Johannes Kepler (astronomer), Sigmund Freud (Psycho Analyst).
Skiers: Renate Götschl, Franz Klammer, Annemarie Moser-Pröll, and Hermann Maier. Classical composers: Mozart, Strauss, Schubert, Mahler, Bruckner, and contemporary, Schönberg; the first psychoanalyst: Sigmund Freud. Painters like Gustav Klimmt and Egon Schiele; the former Formula 1 driver Niki Lauda. Some represent past glories of the Austrian Empire, while others keep alive the excellence of this drastically shrunken country since 1918.
Shared historical events with Canada
As two nations that tend to stay neutral towards conflict, Canada and Austria share a presence in the global peacekeeping community. There were no historical events that would impact on relations in a negative way.
There is no common historic event shared by Austria and Canada that might affect relations negatively, be it on a professional or a social basis.
Many Austrians do not distinguish between Americans and Canadians, nuances in language, behaviour and culture are not detected, some believe that Canada is a state of the U.S. and do not know that Quebec is a province of Canada. This is very similar to the fact that many non-Europeans do not see a distinction between Germans and Austrians. Both cultures are fairly sensitive to not being acknowledged as a unique and distinct culture, this perception can be damaging to relationships on either side. Interestingly, this similar experience and sentiment should offer a great opportunity to connect and build a relationship. Many Austrians feel that North Americans have little culture, or that the culture they have is really what's left of their emigrant ancestors. Some Austrians may also be unaware that there is more to Canada than igloos and lumberjacks.
There are very little stereotypes; they usually are generalizations that have no place in international relations. The seemingly cold attitude of Austrians could affect the way Canadians perceive them at a first meeting.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Gmunden, Upper Austria, as the youngest of four children. She was raised in this town until the age of 19 in the north of Austria. She moved to Linz to continue her studies. In 2000, she completed a full year at the Copenhagen Business School, Copenhagen, Denmark. In 2002, upon the completion of her Master's degree in Business Education, your cultural interpreter moved to Canada to live with her Canadian partner.
Your cultural interpreter is born a single child in Victoriaville, Quebec. He studied at the Université de Montréal where he obtained his B.A. in German Studies. He made his first trip to Europe in 1998. Later he travelled and resided for a while in the West Indies, Asia and the American west coast. He is taking part this year in an inter-university exchange between Université de Montréal and Karl-Franzens University in Graz, Austria.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.