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.