There was an interesting article in the German newspaper just the other day titled Effekthascherei mit “Denglish” (translation: Denglish for effect snatching). Denglish refers to the sprinkling of English words in German sentences. Conversely, Germisch is when English speakers pepper their sentences with German words. For example, a friend of mine from South Africa, who has lived in Germany longer than me, once said the following: “I bought new pillows last week. They are so nice because you can really stuff them in die Eck” (sic). Many German households prefer feather pillows that often become flattened over time. So she was thrilled with the fresh new feathers that can be bunched up to support her head. Anyway, when bilingual speakers mix languages, linguists refer to this behaviour as “code-switching”. You may find this silly, but it is reality for many who speak more than one language at home. Sometimes it is easier to just borrow words from one language while speaking the other. Normally this is done among others who share the same language, of course. I can tell you from my own experience that during the first week of any visit in the US, I feel as if my hands have been tied behind my back simply because the option of code-switching mid-sentence is not possible.

The use of Denglish here in Germany is, however, a completely different kettle of fish. It appears that businesses find English words to name products and services  more interesting than German equivalents. In response to this trend, a concerned group of people founded an organization called Vereign Deutsche Sprache (VDS) with the aim of keeping the German language “pure”. It is in a way, a Societé Francaise, á la Deutschland. The organization has 35,000 members worldwide, half of whom live in Germany. The members claim having nothing against the English language, they just do not care for Denglish.

According to this group, over 7000 English words have been integrated into the German language. As a result, there are words that have no German equivalent, e.g., clown and steak to name a couple of examples. However, VDS points out that many of the English words that are used, have, in fact, German equivalents. Moreover, they find it difficult to accept that businesses prefer to use words such as slow motion, Mid Season Sales (sic), and Outdoor Kleidung when there are German words for the same thing.

The increased use of English terms also leads to crazy new usages that native speakers of English would find difficult to understand. For example, in 2006 Germany was the Soccer World Cup host. At that time, an exciting new trend of watching a game on large screens set up in city centers or plazas caught on and became known as Public Viewing. Now, 6 years later, it is normal to hear people ask if they are going to watch a game at a Public Viewing. Germans have only recently become aware that in the USA this term refers to corpse identification at the city morgue. Then there is Handy for cell phone. Well, I guess it is handy to have, but as a native speaker of American English, it seems strange to use an adjective to name an object. Another crazy term is the Bodybag for messenger bag. Germans are usually surprised when they find out that body bag refers to the bags used to transport a corpse to the morgue. But because these usages are now accepted, thus “normal” to German ears, they have found their place in the language and the German online dictionary “Leo”.

Not only are English nouns readily accepted and used, verbs are also heard in German conjugation. How about this: ich cancele; du chillst; er updatet; wir outsourcen (I cancel, you chill, he updates, we outsource, respectively). It is also quite common to hear Germans say “sorry” instead of es tut mir Leid or Entschuldigung.

We can see why members of the VDS are afraid that their language will lose itself in English. German is the language of science and philosophy. Goethe, Kant and other great writers wrote great works of literature that have influenced the world. Not to mention the German belief that their language is more logical and expressive than other languages. These fears are therefore understandable. Perhaps, one day, German speakers may experience a linguistic backlash in which English terms are no longer considered necessary. We’ll have to wait and see how things develop.

On a cultural note, Germans do tend to take a dark view of any sort of trend or human folly. Discussions of all the bad things that could happen as a result seem to me to be a form of sport or entertainment. In the meantime, bleiben wir doch cool.

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Those are cute boots!

My husband and I had just arrived in San Francisco from Frankfurt where we had to change planes on our way to San Diego.  The fun of travelling is lost as a result of 9/11. You all know the procedure: you are practically expected to unclothe when entering the secure area of the airport. Yes, this is an exaggeration, but it seems like undressing when a security employee commands you to take off jackets, sweaters, belts, shoes, and to empty your pockets. I always find this part of flying to be the most stressful simply because you have so many people busily unpacking and because you need to get through quickly, and the possibility of making a mistake is the greatest.

So what did I do? I put my sweater, jacket and purse on top of my netbook! Naturally the person screening my tray saw this and it came back to me. I forgot to mention, my boots were placed on top of these items, upside down of course! When the tray was brought back so that I could remove my netbook and place in into an extra tray, a woman behind me loudly exclaimed: “I love those boots!” I was so surprised by this reaction! It was at this moment that I realized two things: 1) I’m back in America; and 2) I have been living outside the US for very long time that I would even take notice of this.

This was only the first incident concerning my shoes. My husband and I flew to the US to join my parents on a cruise to Hawaii. I was not on board a day when a woman, who watched me sit down in the galley, exclaimed: “Where did you get those shoes?! I have been looking for something like that for ages, they look so comfortable. What is the name of the brand?” (This time I was wearing white moccasins). I have to be honest: my shoes are not expensive because I prefer to spend my money on traveling. Hence, I didn’t know the name of the brand. But the point of this story is the difference between German and American style of interacting with strangers. Americans will tell you that you look good; Germans won’t talk to you at all except to say: “Is this chair free?”

In a previous contribution I discussed the cultural differences that can explain this particular interactive style. While Germans establish relationships through ideas, discussions, rational arguments; Americans, who tend to be more person oriented, prefer to focus in on individual characteristics of a person, strangers or not. And this could be the type of clothes you pick out for yourself, the way you do your hair, how well you speak, how you keep yourself fit, the kind of car you drive, your ability to make others feel comfortable, etc. Naturally some of these are gender specific, e.g., clothing, shoes, hair tend to be female topics; while cars and sports are male specific. Men will comment on women looking attractive. In fact this happened to me one night on the cruise. I was talking to a man who gave me such a compliment – and he didn’t do this as a precursor to: how about you and me baby? While it is flattering, it seemed to strange  to me after 30 years of Germany where no one makes such comments to you, even if they know you.

I don’t want to suggest that these women exclaimed liking my shoes as means to show inclusiveness. In these situations there is no need to. I mean, how close will two strangers become in the short time it takes to go through security control at the airport? But because Americans are used to interacting easily with strangers, they do it frequently and unabashedly. Well, compared to Germans.  In Germany, if you went around telling people they have nice shoes, blouses, hair colour, etc. they might think that something is wrong with you. First of all, you will not come across as “sympathisch” (translation: likeable or nice. By the way German readers, ”sympathetic” in English means Mitleid haben).  In fact, if you want to confuse a German, give them a compliment! The reaction is usually quite amusing. It makes most Germans ask themselves: what did that person want me to do with that information?  Usually it is friends who give compliments and when I say friends, I mean “good” or “best friends”. Germans don’t use the word friend as lightly as we Americans do, who will call someone they have just only met, a friend. And even friends don’t overdo compliments since they tend to make Germans uncomfortable if received too often. It could send the message that someone is making fun of you.

So, when I first moved to Germany, you can imagine how disconcerting it was for me when I never heard anyone make a comment about me, or when the reaction to my comment “that’s a nice dress” was: “Oh this old thing?”. I was expecting “thanks! I got this last month at….” The compliment is always sincere and it is used to get a conversation started. We normally move away from the compliment (because even we Americans find it overdone if we get loads of compliments within the same conversation).  I had to learn to keep my views about the person I deal with to myself. The problem is: conversation with strangers is not easily begun. In fact, it is not even expected!

To end this, Germans like to refer to us Americans as superficial. The reason is because we are quick to give compliments, or begin friendly conversations with strangers. Such conversations are in fact superficial, but they aren’t expected to go deeper since that person is, after all, a  stranger. Germans are considered to be cool and arrogant because they don’t engage easily in conversation with people they don’t know because prefer to show polite regard for others’ privacy.

Well, at least I know one thing: I guess I have good taste in shoes!


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The way Americans really speak English

During our most recent trip to the US we decided to go on a cruise. On the ship, I’d estimate that more than ¾ of the passengers were from the United States which gave me a great opportunity to listen to the way Americans speak English. It is during these visits that I am reminded of how much of what we teach oversees differs from colloquial usage. In fact most of what I hear tends to be colloquial. With this in mind, I started keeping a list of interesting Americanisms I encountered on this cruise. In this contribution, I present such expressions and define them for my German readers.

Now, anyone who has ever been on a cruise will know that there are a lot of people whose main purpose of booking such a trip is to eat. I have watched people eat more food in 1 day than I do in 10! So, it makes sense that I would hear the expression “scarf down” on a regular basis. To” scarf down” refers to eating, but in a quick and complete way. The German expression would be “fressen”. For those of you who don’t speak German, there are two words that translate “to eat”: “essen” and “fressen”. While “essen” is used for people, “fressen” is for animals. Native speakers, imagine what the unsuspecting German interprets when they hear someone say: “Boy, the burgers were scarfed down in no time”. Or, “you better get to the shrimp before it’s all scarfed down”.

I went to a presentation about Geomythology in which Bruce Blackerby, PhD, professor of geology, talked about how old myths such as Jason and the Golden Fleece have their source in explaining geological phenomena. Since we were on our way to Hawaii, Bruce gave a series of talks about volcanos. During his lectures, Bruce used a number of great idiomatic expressions. While telling the story of Jason, he said that this character was actually a “wimp” who relied on the help of Medea, a sorceress, who knew how to deal with the dragon guarding the golden fleece. Like Hollywood films, the two fell in love, but when Jason took Medea back to Greece with him, he turned out to be a “heel”, who “dumped” her for some other “cupcake”. So the wimp is a “Weichei”, or weak and ineffective – not a man. Not only that, he was a “heel”, or insincere in his feelings for Medea because he “dumped her”, or left her. To dump something or someone has the connotation of throwing objects in the rubbish, or as we Americans would say, “trash”. In addition, dumping is rough, as when no caution is shown to how the object lands. Finally, Bruce used the expression “cupcake”, which refers to a pretty, young woman. For the benefit of my German readers, a cupcake is a “muffin”.

The most interesting part of Dr Blackerby’s presentation is how he used language. As a professor, he is used to lecturing in an academic code. This means he uses vocabulary rich in Latin and Greek derivatives, and he explains terms in a clear style. But he also peppered his language with colloquialisms, usually after he made an important point. So, his comment about Jason being a heel and dumping Medea for a Greek cupcake was used to summarize his story: a style used quite often in the US. It is a way to establish a positive relationship between the speaker and audience. These comments are funny and able to show that he, the professor, is “down-to-earth” and not lacking in humor.

Other interesting expressions that were used during this talk were:
Acting up”: behaving in an unexpected and inappropriate manner. Such as when children are not behaving properly. For example: “The children started acting up when the adults left the room”

Keep a watch”: to exclusively watch something and nothing else. For example: “We kept watching for our friends to come through the door” (because we didn’t want to miss them).

Wiped out”: destroyed. For Example: “The volcano eruption wiped out the city of Atlantis and its people”. The explanation relates to the Bruce’s talk, but is should be known that it is an idiomatic   expression used for a variety of meanings, such as when you are very tired as in “Yesterday wiped me out”.

During a ukulele lesson (yes, I learned the rudimentaries of this Hawaiian instrument while on board), I heard a man say “pertinear” and means “pretty near”. He said: “A werkt pertinear 30 years on’er train” (I worked for pretty near to 30 years on a train”)  I haven’t heard that since I was a child visiting my grandparents in Arkansas! This man’s southeastern accent was so strong it fascinated me simply because it is falling out of use. Some suggest that TV is responsible for regional accents to flatten out.

How about this one: “How j’ya like summore?” This is the running together of “How-would-you-like- some-more? Or “Whad’ya gonna do layder?” You can always quickly identify a student who has spent a lot of time with American speakers of English when they write “going to” as “gonna”. Some actually think this is the correct spelling!

After a month spent in the US I feel my American is polished up. One thing is certain: am gonna ‘aveta think’bout howta teach is’stuff n’Germinee.


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Can-do vs. Klarheit: The German and American cultural icebergs

In this contribution we are looking at communication values that express cultural style as coded in language. In the diagram below is our iceberg where we can see that Americans tend to prefer a “can-do” approach while Germans value “Klarheit”, or clarity. This particular difference tends to cause friction between these two cultural groups without it ever being detected.

To illustrate, let’s begin with a short dialog between a German and an American working professional. John, the American client has expressed the desire to have a particular change in a product that Wolfgang, the German employee from the supplier company, is developing.  Let’s pay particular attention to the way the German developer disagrees with the American client’s suggestion.  With a trained eye, or ear, it is possible to recognize communicative values particular to Germans and Americans.

John: So this new change should really round out the product. We want to make sure our end customer gets a lot for his money. The trend is moving in that direction too.

Wolfgang: Yes but uh the problem is that we started this project and all this plannings uh around three months three months before and uh all our budgets and all the development had been based on this first inquiry of you. So we had received in the meantime all our quotations from suppliers from the software company and uhm all the project has been uh developed on this uh this […?] so and even the first field tests had started and so we,  I think if we make any changes now we will have a financial problem here also. Because changes mean new development and meaning additional staff and uh time consuming… additional costs.

John: Look, anything is possible if you want it to be. I’m sure you’ll find a solution

Wolfgang: So what I can offer now I can uh we can make uhm a meeting with our project team and we will check how big this new change will involve the the status of the project now and I will let you know maybe by tomorrow then. Maybe if this helps in the meantime and tomorrow we will talk again.

American working professionals value a “can-do” approach to decision making processes, in which ideally, one looks at a situation and focuses on finding solutions, quickly. An employee who is good at finding creative solutions is considered to be “pro-active”: a highly prized characteristic in American society.  Germans on the other hand focus on “Klarheit” and the quality of their product. In the dialog, the “can-do” approach emerges when John says: “anything is possible if you want it to be”. In addition, John has communicated a pro-active style when he suggested making pre-emptive alterations in the product.  At the home office, John’s ability to be one step ahead of the needs in the market is likely to be recognized and valued by his boss. This is not to say that Germans don’t think similarily, rather what I am pointing out is that Americans are known to make continual alternations during a product development even if these cancel earlier decisions. Germans tend to feel this is a poor engineering decision because projects are planned in detail and should not be adjusted. This is b because alterations imply the engineering team was not thorough during the planning stage. Therefore, Wolfgang  is more than likely to want to disagree.

The German value of clarity can be seen in the way Gerhard disagrees with John. His strategy was to remind John of the history leading up to the dialog between them. In addition, Wolfgang argued his position with information, facts and technical details. Also note how quickly the disagreement occurred: he came straight to the point with a very short token agreement (i.e., yes, but). There are times when Americans express a direct disagreement, but usually about less important topics.  In this situation Gerhard is the supplier who is talking to his client, which to an American is important and requires a more indirect, softened style. While the need to disagree is apparent, an American may take more time to show a person oriented style by extending the token agreement, and focusing on points that indicate agreement. In contrast, Germans tend to value clarity and discussion in the process of finding a solution. By presenting information one shows cooperation and good-will. In addition, the receiver doesn’t need to interpret the meaning or assume the speaker’s intentions. In Wolfgang’s world, an employee is valued for their ability to show technical know-how by pointing out the “problems” connected with suggestions. Critical thinking is highly valued and often misunderstood by Americans who expect a can-do approach.

The result is the German feels a topic is not properly discussed if one does not look at ideas critically. From this point of view, behavior appears to be superficial, uninformed, and too simple. The American on the other hand feels the German is communicating “no” each time he says: “the problem is” or “yes, but”. The American is not aware that the need to find “clarity” through critical discussion is actually a show of service oriented behavior.

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Frau Schmidt or Anna: What’s in a first name?

An interesting aspect of cultural behaviour is how people go about getting to know each other. What I mean is, when people meet for the first time do they exchange names straight away, or do they wait to see how things develop? And how long do people wait until they feel it is appropriate to introduce themselves? I would like to write about a recent experience that demonstrates beautifully how differently Americans and Germans deal with these questions.

My husband and I went on a 3 week trip through South America where we toured five countries. We decided to book a guided tour so that we could see as much as possible in the short amount of time we had available. The tour was offered in Germany so our co-travellers were naturally German. I was the only American in the group.

As an American,  it is difficult to imagine spending 19 days with a small group of people (15) without knowing their names. Having lived in Germany for 30 years I wouldn’t have minded if last or first names.  Travelling is such an exciting experience because it throws you into new situations that make you marvel or reflect.  And people who share such experiences would naturally want to exchange thoughts and conversation, at least from my personal standpoint. So, the idea of having conversations over 19 days without knowing anyone’s names seems a bit strange, to me.

Germans feel differently about this. It isn’t difficult to interact during this period without knowing each other’s names. My husband ensured me that most don’t even think about it, nor do they feel uncomfortable.  The tour guide who picked us up never initiated a “getting to know each other” activity, so we were left to our own devices.

During the first couple of days I decided first to observe how our co-travellers would deal with getting to know each other. As expected, no one felt uncomfortable about not exchanging names. If Germans introduce themselves, they would normally exchange last names and address each other as Mr and Mrs, or Herr and Frau. On the third day, I decided to do  an American thing by saying: my name is Sabrina and this is Klaus. This nice couple smiled broadly and reciprocated. Keep in mind that I would never just walk up and say this in the minute of the first day because for Germans that can seem quite pushy. You have to give people time and you have try and feel whether it may be possible to initiate first names. The thing is, if I wait too long then it would also be a bit strange. The timing seemed right.

By the end of the first week I had managed to get 11 members of the group to exchange names. I wasn’t so sure about the other 4 because my feeling told me they may not want this. Both couples were older and more reserved, so out of respect I held back. Then I was interested to see if these people would initiate name exchanging on their own, but they never did. These 4 people were comfortable not addressing anyone by name, even though they engaged in most conversations which they seemed to enjoy thoroughly!

What is behind this difference?  Germans tend to value an exclusive communication style whilst the Americans an inclusive style (House, 2005). Exclusiveness refers to the way we communicate with strangers or people we don’t know too well (out-group) and inclusive is how we interact with those we call our family and friends (in-group). An American who learns to speak German is confronted straight away with the use of formal and informal pronouns, Sie and du  (formal and informal you respectively). In other words, Germans learn to respect and value social distance. So, you should use Sie when you normally address a person with last name; and you use du with those you address with first names. By the way,  German is not the only language with formal and informal pronouns; we only need to think of Spanish (usted/tu), French (vous/tu) and Italian (lei/tu).

In America, inclusiveness is highly valued so that communication with people from one’s out-group tends to resemble in-group style. This is a person-oriented communication style meant to put others at ease and help make them feel as if they are a part of one’s in-group. It is interesting how quickly the word “friend” is used to describe another person one has just met – something quite foreign to Germans, who use it sparingly by comparison.  To become a friend one needs a long history (whereby long is relative) with someone who shares many similar affinities. One has many acquaintances, people one knows by name and spends freetime with.  An acquaintance can be addressed with first and last names – it depends on the relationship. Factors such as age and frequency of contact are important in determining whether a person goes from Sie to du. As  soon as two people switch from Sie to du, there is practically no return without causing a terrible loss of face. Therefore, Germans like to take time to see if a relationship can develop into deeper level before making this step.

Is all of this confusing? Yes, it is. If you are American you are probably asking: when does one get elevated from the acquaintance to friend category? After all these years, I’m still asking this question!  History is usually an important criteria as well as feeling of similarity. However, I have known some people for over 25 years, who I would call a friend but, who would probably not refer to me as a friend. I have also known people equally long, if not longer who I still address formally.

According to most Germans, the use of Herr or Frau and Sie is a token of respect. One doesn’t want to impose themselves on another person by offering  their first name too quickly (again quick is relative). According to Germans I have interviewed, it is considered to be a privilege to use someone’s first name.  And if you think becoming friends is complicated, knowing when to offer your first name is also not so simple.  If a person becomes too familiar too quickly, I have heard Germans say: Have you and I ever been drunk together? This is a signal that means: I’m not happy about you addressing me by my first name.

For most Americans this is all a bit too stiff and unnecessary. But we should keep in mind that the US has a history of immigration and pioneering that calls for a pragmatic approach to relationships. If American pioneers exercised an exclusive relationship style, they may have had difficulties meeting the challenges of living in a hostile environment.  We all know the “in the same boat” predicament where people have to forget social differences in order to survive. From this perspective, friendliness takes on a whole new dimension.

To end this, I would like to point out that no culture stands still. It is interesting to observe that German society is less strict about the use of first names and formal communication. It still has its place in German relationships, but the boundaries are becoming fuzzier. Young people are much quicker to go from Sie to du in work situations, something that was rare about 10 years ago. The older generation, 40+ was raised in a different period which is why they tend to follow the norms of exclusiveness more strictly. Of the 15 people on our trip through South American, all except three were 50+. Therefore, the need to exchange names was not as important for this group because these people lived their whole lives respecting other peoples’ space. This is not to say they don’t enjoy meeting and interacting with people outside their in-group, they just do it very differently.

One last point, even if cultures don’t stand still, this doesn’t mean the younger generation is moving toward the American way of thinking.  Most young Germans still value the principle of in- and out-groups. This means that they too need time to meet others and become “friendly”, and more often than not, they think like their parents: you can only have a few  “friends”.


Juliane House (2005) Politeness in Germany. In Politeness in Europe Leo Hickey and Miranda Stewart (eds) 


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White lies vs. Painful Honesty

Germans can be painfully honest. As an American living in Germany I had to learn to accept and expect the naked truth because it can really take you by surprise. Today it makes me smirk, but in the past it used to really hurt.

Today I held a seminar for a well-known German company in which my job was to explain how American work culture operates. This company deals with American suppliers and customers and they find Americans behave rather curiously, if not very strange. At the end of a seminar I usually ask the participants what they found especially interesting or surprising.  One man told me that he doesn’t particularly like Americans. Clunk!  He went on to say that they talk too much when they should be quiet and listen; and they say nothing when they should give a response. They are too sensitive when it comes to differences in opinions and are not honest enough.  I should explain that in Germany not everyone in likes to be this honest, but it is a behavior I frequently encounter here. This man made this statement to an American and felt no remorse, nor embarrassment; however, I was able to see by their reactions that a couple of people in the room found it a bit too direct.

How can this honesty be explained? How is it cultural? If we refer back to the cultural iceberg (see my earlier blog contribution Metaphors of Culture) we see that Klarheit, or clarity are values important to Germans. This means that in the best case, topics are discussed freely and it is believed that opinions should be accepted even if they differ from those of others. The ability to be completely honest is seen as a sign of a sovereign, incorruptible person. Even if another individual prefers to be less honest, a clear statement from a more open individual is respected and even revered.

Americans also value honesty; however, there are times in which the potential impact of such a statement is considered to be harsh. The belief is that such honesty may  cause the receiver to lose face, which in turn can cause the speaker to appear unfeeling and lacking in politeness. It is exactly this sort of thinking that makes Germans feel Americans are superficial and too sensitive. They feel that the truth is always better than saying nice words to make someone feel comfortable.

These two attitudes towards honesty are deeply ingrained ways of seeing the world. In other words, a German cannot be expected to tell a “white lie” (eine harmlose Lüge um das Gesicht der Andere zu bewahren) because it is contrary to their upbringing. German parenting does not include a lot of praise as a means to build up child self-esteem, as it tends to in American families.  Americans on the other hand cannot be expected to express their true opinions if they think they may hurt someone since they tend to grow up hearing: “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. Such honesty does occur in American communication but it tends to be regarded as a way to intentionally hurt the receiver. And in Germany there are times when the truth is held back but this behaviour is not necessarily seen positively since it could mean that the speaker lacks in  self-confidence.

So what did I do during the training? Today this sort of behavior doesn’t upset me as it did in the past. I used to feel confused, embarrassed and upset; ready to strike back. Today I understand that this remark is not meant to hurt me – it is only a means to share an opinion. The speaker feels a responsibility to express this since the context is a seminar where one is allowed to discuss their opinions openly. Such a statement is not to be taken personally because it is not about me as a person. But I can imagine how an unsuspecting American would feel if they were to receive this kind of ‘brutal’ truth.


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American and German Culture Icebergs

In this diagramme we can see those American and German cultural values that often lead to clashes in communication. I would like to point out that these values are not the only ones held by either of these cultures; moreover, these values are not necessarily characteristic of only one group. The important point to keep in mind is the way these groups express such values. This is wheremisunderstandings, whether positive or negative can occur.



American iceberg                       deutscher Eisberg

Can-do                                            Klarheit

Pro-active                                      Qualität

Bottom-line                                    Seriösität

         Friendly/inclusive                          Respect/exclusive

 So what do I mean by “can-do” or “Klarheit”? In the American sense, can-do refers to the view that anything (e.g., action, result, etc)  is possible if you really want it and try hard to achieve it. An American child learns this value early on with  books such as “The Little Engine That Could”. In this story a little engine is made to believe that it can climb a steep mountain if it repeats “I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can, …” If you read Wikipedia you will find that some suggest this story is a metaphor  representing the American dream while others claim it teaches children to be optimistic and work hard. Comments such as  “there are no problems, only challenges” reflect this can-do approach to solving life’s  many obstacles. Germans were fascinated by the power of Obama’s election slogan “yes, we can”. What Germans are not aware of is this cultural “artefact”  and that it was used as a means to remind the American public of one of their important values, while at the same time allow them to shake off the pessimistic shackles brought on during the Bush era.

Klarheit (clarity) refers to the German value of saying exactly what you mean. To do this, the speaker relies on facts that should be presented in logical and rational means. Through clarity a speaker shows cooperation simply because the listener is not put into a position of having to interpret meaning. Germans are known to tell you how things are without hedging around. Americans also like clarity, but they believe a white lie is acceptable as a means to avoid hurting someone’s feelings – a belief that Germans find unacceptable. The belief here is that truth is always better, even if it hurts. A person who tells the truth in a factual, clear way is therefore following the value of Seriösität, or seriousness. You can recognise cultural values by their use in language and conversation and Germans often refer to behaviours in terms of them being “seriös”.

A pro-active approach is related to the can-do value. If a “challenge” (synonymous for a “problem”) arises, one should begin finding solutions to eradicate it.  Sitting around and waiting for someone to find a solution or tell me what to do would not be pro-active. This means that if I want to appear like a good employee, I would already have a solution to present to my superior.  This is not to say that Germans do value finding solutions, but their way of doing this is different. They tend to want to discuss the problem in detail first with another person and then together find a solution. I will write about this in another contribution.

The bottom-line refers to how much things/activities cost in terms of time and money. America is a commerical culture in which sales and services make up a large part of the economy. Naturally there are companies that design and produce goods, but the emphasis is put on being enterprising. This contrasts with Germany which is a craftsman  culture. The German terms would be Handelskultur (commerical culture) and Handwerkerkultur (craftsman culture). I’m not saying that craftsman don’t want to earn money, naturally they do. The difference is that craftsman cultures put more emphasis and energy into  craftmanship as a means to make a living. Qualität is therefore highly valuated. The result is that products are more expensive since they require more money and time to produce. And the appreciation for such products is higher in these cultures which is why people are willing to pay more, generally speaking. For Americans, quality is also sought, but it is defined in terms of “just enough” to be useful at a price that is affordable, e.g., quantity over quality.

Finally we come to friendliness or inclusiveness. By inclusiveness I mean the belief that to be polite towards others, one should make others, including strangers, feel as if they are “friends”. Most anyone I have taught who has traveled to the US has reported to me the incredible friendly and hospitable style of Americans. It is usually one of the first attributes that Germans recognise when they travel around the US. In Germany, exclusiveness refers to respecting boundaries between those who are close to you (ingroup) and those you have casual interaction to none at all such as with strangers. From a German point of view, one should allow others time to get to know each other. If you try to be too friendly at the oneset of a relationship it could cause others to feel under pressure, and it is possible that this person will not want to pursue more interaction. Americans tend to come on too strong for many Germans; and to Americans, Germans are just too cool (e.g., unfriendly). The German language has exclusiveness built into its pronoun system. Sie and du both mean you and can be likened to Spanish Usted/tu, or the French Vous/tu. There are people who are neighbours for 30 years  and still address each other with the formal Sie out of respect.

I would like to stress that these values are exactly that – only values. In other words, a cultural value is not prescriptive; it is rather descriptive.  These can be likened to pictures or actions a person has in their head to evaluate their own behaviour and the behaviours of others in any giving situation. There may be times in which I find it impossible to be pro-active. For example, if my superiors are autocratic and harsh, and I carry a constant fear losing my job, I may take the safe route and keep quiet until told otherwise. At the same token, because a pro-active value is held high, I will probably despise this job because it doesn’t allow me to express my creativity, nor foster the development of my skills and talents.

At the same token, there are times in any German worker’s  life in which the value of Klarheit may not be followed, for similar reasons. I know of a company in which the German owner/boss tells her employees that they are too stupid to do their jobs whenever a mistake has been made. And her husband has regular temper tantrums directed at the staff when things go wrong. In that environment, the German employees are certainly not willing to be open and clear about their opinions for fear of being treated in such a heinous way. By the way,  behaviour such as this is considered to be as unacceptable in Germany as it is in America, which is why this company has problems keeping employees.

Now that I have described the culture iceberg, each of these values will be illustrated in various work related situations in the following contributions.

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Metaphors of Culture

Working professionals, German or American, usually sign up for an intercultural communication training because they want to learn how to deal with their foreign counterpart/s. Their expectations are simply to learn what things they should say, or do, which will make the American or German do as they think is most pragmatic or logical for a given situation. This expectation is based on the belief that cultural differences are easily dealt with if you know what “buttons” to push. Life would be so easy if this was the case, unfortunately the reality is much more complex.  This example shows too that many people are not fully aware of what “culture” is and how it can influence behaviour.

The term “culture” is derived from Latin and means to “cultivate”. Earlier usages of this term were used to refer to agriculture, later extending to education and upbringing. In the 20th century, “culture” became the central notion of anthropology and was used to explain human actions and activities. There is a plethora of works dedicated to defining and explaining culture, which hints at the complexity of the notion.  While it is all very interesting, most of this literature is too cumbersome and theoretical for a 2 day culture and communication training in which working professionals look for solutions to help them deal with the challenges of a globalised economy. For this reason, intercultural communications trainers tend to rely on metaphors that represent “culture” in a tangible and helpful way; and there are several.

The first metaphor I learned was in one of my first anthropology lectures during my undergrad studies. The professor teaching that class said that “culture” can be likened to a “city map”. According to this metaphor, culture provides its members with a representations of how to do things. Keep in mind that there is more than one road leading to Rome! For example, a city map shows us how to get from our house to an address where our next doctor appointment is, and it helps us find the best way to get there in the least amount of time and with the least amount of effort. Culture functions similarly: it is a map that contains information we need so that we know how to interpret behaviours, whether linguistic or non-verbal. For example: if someone says “I hate to bother you, but…” most Americans will recognise that a request is about to be made because it is a cultural pattern typical to Americans, as well as other English speaking communities. Germans don’t use this linguistic pattern because they find the word “hate” to be too strong. Instead, Germans prefer to begin a request with background information concerning a situation that needs action, and then end with a request formula. (Naturally these are not the only ways to make a request). Our map is learned over the many years that we are socialised when we were children, youngsters and young adults.

Other metaphors include Hofstede’s “software of the mind”: a reference that fits well in our technologically dominated world. We all have the same “hardware”, or ability to become socialised, but during our socialisation, we learn “ways of doing things” that differ from social group to social group. Although Hofstede didn’t mean it, this representation also suggests that one only needs to know the right button in order to behave appropriately. As attractive as that may be, it is not realistic because people are not machines. We don’t always act the same way simply because each situation is  different. Humans are able to differentiate and choose behaviours they believe to be appropriate for the situation.

Culture has been compared to an onion, a metaphor that suggests it is multi-layered. For example, someone like myself is American of Irish-English background, white, female, born in the 1950s, educated in the social sciences, hobby musician, etc. Each of these layers come together to make up me.  In this way we should see that as individuals we belong to many different social communities, each of which has its own rules, languages and conventions, and ways of seeing the world. It helps to point out that people are individuals and not just nationalities. In other words, people of a particular nationality are not all going to behave in the same way in any given situation.

The metaphor I like to use is the “cultural iceberg”.  With this representation, the notion of culture focuses on observable and unobservable phenomena. Above the waterline we have eating habits, dress, architecture, music, greeting styles, language, etc. Values, attitudes and beliefs are those aspects of a culture that one cannot easily observe and are therefore  placed below the waterline. The behaviours above the waterline are relatively easy to learn, or even imitate, mainly because we can see them. As a classic example take Japan greeting style: it is not uncommon to observe westerners automatically bow back to  Japanese business partner. As humans we want to appear polite! But to understand the “why” of bowing, and its complexities (e.g., how low to bow to whom?), we need to take a look below the iceberg’s waterline.

It is important to keep in mind that rather than prescriptions for behaviour, cultural values, attitudes, beliefs are filters for interpreting observed behaviours and making decisions for one’s own behaviour. In the next contribution we will look at German and American icebergs.




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“Hey, I have a German grandmother!” – The Similarity Assumption

There is a general tendency for Germans and Americans to think they are culturally similar. When one considers the number of Germans who immigrated to the US over a span of 400 years this isn’t such a preposterous assumption. Apparently the largest self-reported ancestral group in the US is the German-American at 17%.  And in reality there are similarities – for example: both are categorized as western cultures that are predominately Christian. Both groups believe in democracy, freedom, pursuit of happiness. And a direct and clear communication style is highly valued by Germans and Americans alike.

In spite of these similarities, when American and German working professionals start projects based on similar business goals, and begin to put their ideas into action, many of the troubles can be attributed to unanticipated cultural differences. This is because German and American employees are not aware of how differently similar beliefs are expressed and communicated.  In fact, whenever I have a group of Germans or Americans in an intercultural communication seminar, one of the biggest “ah-ha moments”, as the Germans like to call it, is when they discover that there is more than an ocean and a language between them. Once this recognition is made, they begin to realize how many of the problems they have experienced are possibly the result of misunderstanding caused by the sameness-assumption.

To demonstrate what I mean, let’s look at a typical German-American difference I often encounter in my work. Americans tend to complain that Germans are negative, obstinate, and difficult to please, while Germans complain that Americans are superficial, naïve, and flighty. Whenever I ask seminar participants to explain how they came to these judgments, I usually find that the difference lies in the way problem-solving activities are exercised. Germans and Americans have different ways of showing involvement, interest and cooperation when searching for the solution to a problem. Americans prefer brain-storming in which ideas are generated but not evaluated as viable until a later point when implementation is considered. Germans, on the other hand, value discussion based on “Auseinandersetzung”. This is a compound noun which means “taking apart”, and refers to literally plucking ideas or suggestions apart, as well as describing the context in which the problem exists. “Playing the devil’s advocate” would be a good way to describe the German style of discussion. 

 So where is the problem in these differences? Why would German and American working professionals call each other obstinate or naïve?  The answer is that all contexts have a set of norms for behavior. In an American context, individuals are socialized to show support which contrasts with extended disagreement, or pointing out the weakness of an idea. Germans on the other hand tend to be educated in the tradition of critical questioning through which elegant solutions  can be discovered. Therefore, in an American context, the “Auseinandersetzung” is interpreted as brusque and uncooperative behavior; and in the German context, brainstorming without discussion is perceived of as lacking in substance.

 So how do these styles look in terms of language? Since Germans prefer to debate, they tend to focus on problems and engage in extended disagreement. A common phrase used by Germans is: “Yes but, the problem is…” which shows the speaker is interested and involved in the discussion. I usually tell Americans that when a German is debating their suggestions, this is a good sign. This is because it means the German counterpart is taking you seriously. Silence or no disagreeing (e.g., discussion) could mean the German is not convinced, or finds your contributions uninteresting and is just being nice.  Americans need to realize that they will probably not receive supportive comments to their ideas; moreover, they should not interpret opposition as a “no”. Opposition means interest and willingness to be involved. Usually when Germans oppose an idea, they do this explicitly.

 Americans on the other hand tend to mark their interest in the use of future tenses, suggestions, and agreement. For example, “we can”; “we could”, “we will”, “that’s a great idea”, “how about”. All of these belong to brainstorming and should help in generating new ideas. Germans need to learn that the positive, agreeable sounding responses to their ideas may not mean it will be implemented. This particular behavior is difficult to adjust to because it leaves Germans unsure of the future.

So we see here how Germans and Americans perceive each other’s behaviors. The American style seems superficial to Germans who expect to engage in in-depth discussions, while the German style makes Americans feel unsure that their ideas have been accepted.


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Let me introduce myself

My name is Sabrina and I was born in the United States, California.  In 1981 I met my husband Klaus, a German, and became what he likes to call his “American souvenir”.  After his 18 month stint in the US, Klaus brought me to Germany where I have lived since.

Living in any new country means learning the language and adjusting to the culture. I can tell you from experience that no one is truly prepared for culture shock. In the meantime I have learned that most people first realize having lived through this shock once they are relatively assimilated to life in the new culture. For some people culture shock can be so upsetting that they return home shortly after. Sometimes I wanted to return to the US too. But now after 30 years I feel quite comfortable living in Europe and “doing as the Germans do”.  

 If someone had been able to explain to me then, the differences between Germans and Americans, I probably would have had an easier time in my early years. Instead I had to learn so many things on my own: an exercise that took many years of research, asking questions, and reflection.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but my adjustment was preparation for my current profession: today I am an intercultural communication specialist. This means I share my knowledge and life experience with working professionals who find working with people from other parts of the world confusing and upsetting. In this function I help others to learn that we live and think differently as a result of our up-bringing, education, and social context. 

 This blog should reflect my work and share with you, dear reader, the interesting world of cross-cultural interaction, with a special focus on German-American relations.


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