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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