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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9 responses to “White lies vs. Painful Honesty

  1. Interesting. As an American of mid western German stock, I have found being honest and direct to be almost a detriment for relations at the public school I used to work at, in California. My father is a very honest person and was hounded out of his career at a major university here for his unpopular stance on agribusinness and his directness. I am disgusted by the dishonesty and indirect communication styles I encounter here. Germany looks pretty good right now.

  2. stormwatch

    Hi, I have read your article and I could completely agree with you. Germans are completely painfully honest, In my opinion that is extremely good because although I’m not a German I was raised to be completely honest…..but….there is only one but….Germans are actually extremely honest when THEY have a chance for painful honesty, but when they receive a bit of honesty themselves, even if it doesn’t have to be the painful honesty but simple truth about them they completely change! Usually they get very very hurt, even at some points aggressive, and in most cases they do not want to speak with you anymore. So the German painful honesty works only the ONE WAY…them towards you.

  3. Hooman

    I have known some germans over the years, and I have found that it is easiest to get along with them, than with any other nationality. The only difficult part is to break through the ice. Afterwards, if they become friends with you, you can always count on their honesty and loyalty. I myself am persian-american, and i always find the cultural differences very interesting. it provides an interesting contrast.

    • Your comments mirror my experiences 100%. You can imagine what it is like to move to Germany and how long it takes to make some sort of friendly contacts, much less friends! If you should ever move to Germany, my suggestion is thus: either 1) have a child; or 2) get a dog. Those are the best bridges to establishing
      contacts. And dogs are actually the best of the 2 alternatives. If you want to break the ice, a dog will do it. Took me 30 years to figure that out. We got a dog not too long ago, and all of a sudden my contacts have widened expontentially!

    • Oh, and one other alternative: join a “club”. There is a joke about Germans: what happens when 2 Germans meet? They start a club. This is a way to break the ice and get accepted into a group. My experience is that Germans tend to be cliquish.

  4. Pingback: Chelsea Handler is no fan of Germany | IQ-Atrophie

  5. Hooman

    i like many german things : german dogs, german philosophers, german cars, bismark, etc.

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