German-American Cooperation: Unexpected Cultural Differences
The Way We Think
Cultural differences affect our patterns of thinking. The way Germans and Americans think is fundamentally opposite. Germans are trained to think “deductively”. This is a more scientific way of thinking, the way an engineer might approach a task. ‘Deductive’ means that all of the details are thought of first and then put together to form the goal. Americans are trained to think “inductively”, typical of a more pioneer-society. They start with a goal or vision and then figure it out as they go along or fill in the details later.
Because of these different thought patterns, Germans and Americans approach problems differently. The Germans are thought to be “focused on the problem”, that is weighing the details and variables of a decision, and the Americans are “focused on the solution”, thus jumping in to fix it, even temporarily and then moving on.
On the positive side the Americans have been labeled great visionaries and the Germans perfect planners. The negative side in business for example, is the Americans tend to act too quickly, launching products of lesser quality. And the Germans may analyze too much and not get a product to market quickly enough to stay competitive. There are opportunities for an ideal synergy between the two ways of thinking. Perfect products, fast on the market.
Differences in Values
Can-do vs. “Es geht nicht”
The U.S. generally has a “can-do” attitude. They believe anything is possible; there are no obstacles that can’t be overcome. Americans teach their children they can be anything they want when they grow up, even President. This seems over-optimistic and unrealistic to Germans, and therefore, possibly doomed for failure. Their reaction could go as far as withdrawal from the American and a lack of faith in what they say.
Germans tend to be more cautious and accept that things may not be possible. “Es geht nicht” or “it doesn’t work” is one of the sentences Americans remember most in working with Germans. This phrase is perceived as a pessimistic attitude by Americans and can be so irritating that they associate this with a lack of creativity, flexibility and an overall sense of obstinence or laziness. The American reaction can be high frustration to the point of anger. Avoidance may also occur, which doesn’t make for very easy teamwork overall.
Being more distanced and formal in the beginning of cooperation is a sign of respect for Germans. Americans may perceive this as ‘too serious’ or ‘unfriendly’. If one thinks about the difference between a peach, soft, sweet, easy to get in contact with, but then a private sphere in the center where the pit is, and compares this to American culture. Vs. German culture more like a coconut, having the private sphere on the outside, taking time to crack before you reach the sweet milk inside. Then it is easier to understand and accept the differences.
Formality in Germany includes, rituals such as clinking glasses before drinking or saying “Guten Appetite” before eating. And one wouldn’t eat in a meeting or while talking.
Americans appear very informal by German standards. Relaxed postures with a hand in the front pants pocket, first names upon a first meeting and “Hi” instead of hand-shaking is known and excepted by Germans but it is still sometimes awkward.
Often times, hierarchy is confused with formality. Actually Americans are technically more hierarchical in companies. An American would rarely argue with their boss and most decisions are confirmed with top management. Germans also rely on upper management for ultimate decision-making, however it is not uncommon for a subordinate to argue or disagree openly with their supervisor. And the supervisor may see their perspective and agree to doing it their way.
Basic Communication Differences
Words (in English)
Generally speaking, Americans do not like to directly disagree with another person. They are more harmonious in negotiating and like to find a “Win-Win” solution. Therefore, Americans don’t usually use the word “No”. When disagreeing they may say, “I see your point, however you might want to consider…” or “Additionally, I would add…” or “Perhaps we might want to look at this way…”
Germans prefer to debate a point to find the best option, and this debate can be quite direct, and even hurtful for Americans. When Germans disagree they will start a sentence with, “No, I think…” or directly say, “I disagree.” Or even, ‘That idea doesn’t make any sense.’
Americans interpret “No” as a blocking the conversation. It ends the conversation for them. As well as seeing it as rude and potentially harming the relationship. Germans interpret someone agreeing all the time as weak and not able to make a good point. “No” for Germans is making a good argument by offering another idea. But it does not necessarily mean they have made up their mind in a final manner. Additionally, the American subtle (positive) way of disagreeing is misunderstood by Germans and they can walk out of a meeting thinking they have agreement when they don’t.
Another word that is different is “problem”. Germans use problem to describe any issue, concern, worry, difficulty, and obstacle or possible mistake. To an American’s ears everything is a problem to Germans and again they interpret this as a block to a solution. The word “problem” for an American is usually a crisis. It is something that may not be easily solvable. For a German a problem is something that can most likely be solved. It does not sound as negative to a German as to an American. Americans use “issue”, “concern”, “challenge”, or “opportunity” for the word “problem”. And in turn, these words may be confusing to the German who again may think there isn’t a problem.
There are also tremendous differences in how Germans and Americans communicate non-verbally. Let’s take listening as an example, Americans are active listeners, they look at someone while they are listening, nod, gesture and respond verbally with “I know what you mean.” or “Yep, I gotcha.” This participatory listening is considered polite and respectful. It shows someone that they are really listening to you.
The German way of listening is quite different. Germans will quietly sit without saying anything or gesturing or even making eye contact and they will wait for a pause to then answer the other person.
The American style of listening can be perceived as disruptive and irritating for Germans, and in fact, seen as NOT listening. The German style of listening bothers the American because they are not sure if the German understands, agrees with them, or also may NOT be listening to them.
These are some cultural considerations in German-American Cooperation, but there are many others to consider. It may be interesting to organize an intercultural team training or session on cultural differences within the framework of a project team gathering. However, it is a start to know that cultural differences play an important role in business communication and building relationships across cultures.