Tag Archives: Germans

Can-do vs. Klarheit: The German and American cultural icebergs

In this contribution we are looking at communication values that express cultural style as coded in language. In the diagram below is our iceberg where we can see that Americans tend to prefer a “can-do” approach while Germans value “Klarheit”, or clarity. This particular difference tends to cause friction between these two cultural groups without it ever being detected.

To illustrate, let’s begin with a short dialog between a German and an American working professional. John, the American client has expressed the desire to have a particular change in a product that Wolfgang, the German employee from the supplier company, is developing.  Let’s pay particular attention to the way the German developer disagrees with the American client’s suggestion.  With a trained eye, or ear, it is possible to recognize communicative values particular to Germans and Americans.

John: So this new change should really round out the product. We want to make sure our end customer gets a lot for his money. The trend is moving in that direction too.

Wolfgang: Yes but uh the problem is that we started this project and all this plannings uh around three months three months before and uh all our budgets and all the development had been based on this first inquiry of you. So we had received in the meantime all our quotations from suppliers from the software company and uhm all the project has been uh developed on this uh this […?] so and even the first field tests had started and so we,  I think if we make any changes now we will have a financial problem here also. Because changes mean new development and meaning additional staff and uh time consuming… additional costs.

John: Look, anything is possible if you want it to be. I’m sure you’ll find a solution

Wolfgang: So what I can offer now I can uh we can make uhm a meeting with our project team and we will check how big this new change will involve the the status of the project now and I will let you know maybe by tomorrow then. Maybe if this helps in the meantime and tomorrow we will talk again.

American working professionals value a “can-do” approach to decision making processes, in which ideally, one looks at a situation and focuses on finding solutions, quickly. An employee who is good at finding creative solutions is considered to be “pro-active”: a highly prized characteristic in American society.  Germans on the other hand focus on “Klarheit” and the quality of their product. In the dialog, the “can-do” approach emerges when John says: “anything is possible if you want it to be”. In addition, John has communicated a pro-active style when he suggested making pre-emptive alterations in the product.  At the home office, John’s ability to be one step ahead of the needs in the market is likely to be recognized and valued by his boss. This is not to say that Germans don’t think similarily, rather what I am pointing out is that Americans are known to make continual alternations during a product development even if these cancel earlier decisions. Germans tend to feel this is a poor engineering decision because projects are planned in detail and should not be adjusted. This is b because alterations imply the engineering team was not thorough during the planning stage. Therefore, Wolfgang  is more than likely to want to disagree.

The German value of clarity can be seen in the way Gerhard disagrees with John. His strategy was to remind John of the history leading up to the dialog between them. In addition, Wolfgang argued his position with information, facts and technical details. Also note how quickly the disagreement occurred: he came straight to the point with a very short token agreement (i.e., yes, but). There are times when Americans express a direct disagreement, but usually about less important topics.  In this situation Gerhard is the supplier who is talking to his client, which to an American is important and requires a more indirect, softened style. While the need to disagree is apparent, an American may take more time to show a person oriented style by extending the token agreement, and focusing on points that indicate agreement. In contrast, Germans tend to value clarity and discussion in the process of finding a solution. By presenting information one shows cooperation and good-will. In addition, the receiver doesn’t need to interpret the meaning or assume the speaker’s intentions. In Wolfgang’s world, an employee is valued for their ability to show technical know-how by pointing out the “problems” connected with suggestions. Critical thinking is highly valued and often misunderstood by Americans who expect a can-do approach.

The result is the German feels a topic is not properly discussed if one does not look at ideas critically. From this point of view, behavior appears to be superficial, uninformed, and too simple. The American on the other hand feels the German is communicating “no” each time he says: “the problem is” or “yes, but”. The American is not aware that the need to find “clarity” through critical discussion is actually a show of service oriented behavior.

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Frau Schmidt or Anna: What’s in a first name?

An interesting aspect of cultural behaviour is how people go about getting to know each other. What I mean is, when people meet for the first time do they exchange names straight away, or do they wait to see how things develop? And how long do people wait until they feel it is appropriate to introduce themselves? I would like to write about a recent experience that demonstrates beautifully how differently Americans and Germans deal with these questions.

My husband and I went on a 3 week trip through South America where we toured five countries. We decided to book a guided tour so that we could see as much as possible in the short amount of time we had available. The tour was offered in Germany so our co-travellers were naturally German. I was the only American in the group.

As an American,  it is difficult to imagine spending 19 days with a small group of people (15) without knowing their names. Having lived in Germany for 30 years I wouldn’t have minded if last or first names.  Travelling is such an exciting experience because it throws you into new situations that make you marvel or reflect.  And people who share such experiences would naturally want to exchange thoughts and conversation, at least from my personal standpoint. So, the idea of having conversations over 19 days without knowing anyone’s names seems a bit strange, to me.

Germans feel differently about this. It isn’t difficult to interact during this period without knowing each other’s names. My husband ensured me that most don’t even think about it, nor do they feel uncomfortable.  The tour guide who picked us up never initiated a “getting to know each other” activity, so we were left to our own devices.

During the first couple of days I decided first to observe how our co-travellers would deal with getting to know each other. As expected, no one felt uncomfortable about not exchanging names. If Germans introduce themselves, they would normally exchange last names and address each other as Mr and Mrs, or Herr and Frau. On the third day, I decided to do  an American thing by saying: my name is Sabrina and this is Klaus. This nice couple smiled broadly and reciprocated. Keep in mind that I would never just walk up and say this in the minute of the first day because for Germans that can seem quite pushy. You have to give people time and you have try and feel whether it may be possible to initiate first names. The thing is, if I wait too long then it would also be a bit strange. The timing seemed right.

By the end of the first week I had managed to get 11 members of the group to exchange names. I wasn’t so sure about the other 4 because my feeling told me they may not want this. Both couples were older and more reserved, so out of respect I held back. Then I was interested to see if these people would initiate name exchanging on their own, but they never did. These 4 people were comfortable not addressing anyone by name, even though they engaged in most conversations which they seemed to enjoy thoroughly!

What is behind this difference?  Germans tend to value an exclusive communication style whilst the Americans an inclusive style (House, 2005). Exclusiveness refers to the way we communicate with strangers or people we don’t know too well (out-group) and inclusive is how we interact with those we call our family and friends (in-group). An American who learns to speak German is confronted straight away with the use of formal and informal pronouns, Sie and du  (formal and informal you respectively). In other words, Germans learn to respect and value social distance. So, you should use Sie when you normally address a person with last name; and you use du with those you address with first names. By the way,  German is not the only language with formal and informal pronouns; we only need to think of Spanish (usted/tu), French (vous/tu) and Italian (lei/tu).

In America, inclusiveness is highly valued so that communication with people from one’s out-group tends to resemble in-group style. This is a person-oriented communication style meant to put others at ease and help make them feel as if they are a part of one’s in-group. It is interesting how quickly the word “friend” is used to describe another person one has just met – something quite foreign to Germans, who use it sparingly by comparison.  To become a friend one needs a long history (whereby long is relative) with someone who shares many similar affinities. One has many acquaintances, people one knows by name and spends freetime with.  An acquaintance can be addressed with first and last names – it depends on the relationship. Factors such as age and frequency of contact are important in determining whether a person goes from Sie to du. As  soon as two people switch from Sie to du, there is practically no return without causing a terrible loss of face. Therefore, Germans like to take time to see if a relationship can develop into deeper level before making this step.

Is all of this confusing? Yes, it is. If you are American you are probably asking: when does one get elevated from the acquaintance to friend category? After all these years, I’m still asking this question!  History is usually an important criteria as well as feeling of similarity. However, I have known some people for over 25 years, who I would call a friend but, who would probably not refer to me as a friend. I have also known people equally long, if not longer who I still address formally.

According to most Germans, the use of Herr or Frau and Sie is a token of respect. One doesn’t want to impose themselves on another person by offering  their first name too quickly (again quick is relative). According to Germans I have interviewed, it is considered to be a privilege to use someone’s first name.  And if you think becoming friends is complicated, knowing when to offer your first name is also not so simple.  If a person becomes too familiar too quickly, I have heard Germans say: Have you and I ever been drunk together? This is a signal that means: I’m not happy about you addressing me by my first name.

For most Americans this is all a bit too stiff and unnecessary. But we should keep in mind that the US has a history of immigration and pioneering that calls for a pragmatic approach to relationships. If American pioneers exercised an exclusive relationship style, they may have had difficulties meeting the challenges of living in a hostile environment.  We all know the “in the same boat” predicament where people have to forget social differences in order to survive. From this perspective, friendliness takes on a whole new dimension.

To end this, I would like to point out that no culture stands still. It is interesting to observe that German society is less strict about the use of first names and formal communication. It still has its place in German relationships, but the boundaries are becoming fuzzier. Young people are much quicker to go from Sie to du in work situations, something that was rare about 10 years ago. The older generation, 40+ was raised in a different period which is why they tend to follow the norms of exclusiveness more strictly. Of the 15 people on our trip through South American, all except three were 50+. Therefore, the need to exchange names was not as important for this group because these people lived their whole lives respecting other peoples’ space. This is not to say they don’t enjoy meeting and interacting with people outside their in-group, they just do it very differently.

One last point, even if cultures don’t stand still, this doesn’t mean the younger generation is moving toward the American way of thinking.  Most young Germans still value the principle of in- and out-groups. This means that they too need time to meet others and become “friendly”, and more often than not, they think like their parents: you can only have a few  “friends”.


Juliane House (2005) Politeness in Germany. In Politeness in Europe Leo Hickey and Miranda Stewart (eds) 


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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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