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.
First of all, there is no pure "deductive" and "inductive" way of thinking. Anyone who learned philosophy knows this. Even Sherlock Holmes' "deductive method" has both deductive and inductive parts.
The real difference is how we see (solve) problem - either from bottom up, or from top to bottom. Hence we can differentiate only approach used first: either deduction or induction correspondingly. Btw, same divide exists in software methodologies. So all XP/Agile methodologies are "German" and all RUP/MDA methodologies are "American" 😉 [Last statement was written with a bit of irony and a huge exaggeration, don't take it seriously!]
However, I have to agree that this is fundamental difference: sometimes German customers ask to "implement my (customer's) solution", and US customers want us to "find a solution".
The verbal communications is quite interesting topic to me as for native Russian speaker. We manage to combine worst aspects of both German and American approaches 😉 We use to articulate actively, we interrupt (not confirm via "Yes" or via handshake, but really interrupt) other p erson just because something we feel important comes to mind, but we get angry if someone interrupts ourselves 😉
In defense of German language - there is and excellent word in German "Doch" that negates negation (cannot find English analogy used intesively). So if you say "Das ist unmoeglich!" you'll here sometimes as reply "Doch, schau mal..." And this is really encouraging 🙂
But I agree in the context of this exercise, some common traits can be outlined.
In the software context, an interesting extension to your topic could be India and China (the DE-US-IN-CH axis). How do you do successfully do Change Management in light of this reality when not only cultural differences exist but also economic, demographic, and a few more.
Personally having witnessed the industrialization of human capital or white collars in the business process or software industry in India, I'm in awe when I think about the kind of changes that kind of force in motion happening now in India (and China is coming too) the "Western World" will go through in the coming years.
I've always been fascinated by what happened in the textile or manufacturing industries. Well I guess I'll have my chance to experience something similar very soon 🙂
So whether it is a comparison of German to American, Indian to Russian, or even ABAP to Java I think your blogs here will be both an eye opener for most and a guide for all to help bridge the gaps and overcome some of the minor road blocks one tends to come across when mashing cultues together with virtual environments.
PS - Also nice to see meet someone who has experiences along the same lines - I usually use the following to explain the differences in the two: "In the US you can turn right on red unless there is a sign telling you not to; in Germany you can turn right on red ONLY if there is a sign telling you, you CAN."
Actually I have quite a lot of stuff written about this topic covering the 5 years I've been here 😉 maybe one day I'll get around to posting it.
One thing I noticed right from the start was the formality of email communication at this highly German-influenced company. I'm used to just diving into the email conversation flow, but soon realized that I had inadvertently offended some people... they saw the absence of my "Dear xyz" salutation and the absence of my "Best Regards" closing as abrasive and abrupt. I thought I was being efficient and conversational. They thought I was a jerk. (which is still debatable.)
Anyhow, in this "the world is flat," global, always-on, border-less business world, better understanding multicultural issues and modifying our style to be more effective with different cultures is increasingly important. And it's especially relevant and challenging in a change leadership scenario.
I look forward to more insight on this topic.
I did appreciate reading your post especially in a developer network 🙂
There should always be a "communication pack" for every kick-off multinational project.
This will enable people to understand how to better communicate in a project.
Will be happy to read further post : maybe a french vs US or french vs German 🙂
You make fantastic observations.