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.