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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