“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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9 Comments

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

  1. This is excellent. I think that many of us in this country don’t understand the cultural differences that continue to exist despite the shrinking world we live in. I have done a lot of work with foreign government officials and I’ve been amazed at how different we are. Differences in values, attitudes and beliefs often produce substantial differences in behavior. Anyone doing business for the first time in a foreign country should consider researching those differences before the first trip.

  2. Thank you for this. Interestingly enough I have met a number of people, who in spite of their overseas experience, know very little about the culture of the people they live/have lived among. The overseas sojourn is educational in itself, however it is important to become sensitised to these cultural differences. One of the most important steps is to learn about one’s own cultural upbringing in order to recognise why miscommunication occurs. It is so easy to overlook such differences since we tend not to reflect on our own ways of doing things. Once we know ourselves, it is easier to accept and see cultural differences in a mindful way.

  3. I like the point you make that cultures which are relatively close can perhaps have greater difficulties noticing the differences – so much is taken for granted, which can lead to problems. Working with a culture which is obviously very different can present other challenges, of course, but at least everyone is aware that there are differences.

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  5. Living in Germany for a year as a student, including time with a family, my language skills got very good, but I was (am) seldom happy with how I felt when speaking German. To my American sensibilities, I feel I’m coming across as combative rather than helpful/communicative. Your blog gives me a better understanding of why.

    FYI, there is a nice nine-point comparison of American-German thought patterns available from TMA’s Country Navigator (https://www.countrynavigator.com/).

    • Thank you Alan! Yes, there are different ways of showing cooperation in communication. When we have to learn to do things that conflict with our own up-bringing this can be disconcerting. I used to feel very similarly in my early years in Germany. Thank you for the link. I’ll go take a look. One can never learn enough!

  6. Cej Ronse

    I am a German-American who has lived in both countries, and have been exposed to both systems through-out my life, through family and other sources. As such, I did not have this problem that most people seem. I have sometimes noticed myself bringing the other style to a discussion in one style or just tried to use both at the same time (going into the Auseinandersetzung, while brainstorming on possibilities) and I have found that while discussions might drag on for a while, the people who are interested start to make brilliant plans and always bring new things that may be discussed later in great detail. This creates an ongoing cycle of new ideas to explore and take apart. Sure some problems arise, but it seems to be pretty efficient.
    This blog has definitely helped me understand myself a bit more, both the American and German sides, and gave me a good understanding of how the two view ‘effective working’.

    • Dear Cej, Thank you for sharing your comments – very interesting! When we grow up in a “system”, even one that is bi-cultural, we don’t know anything else. Like you, my children were brought up in a German-American cultural system and are also able to jumb between the two without much thought. However, they tend to be more German than American simply because they were brought up and educated in Germany. The comments you make of “brilliant plans” is a perfect example of cultural synergy.

  7. Excellent analysis! I didn’t realise there was such a potential for misunderstandings between Germans and Americans in the workplace.

    Jon.

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