I am writing this blog in reference to Matthias Steiner’s recent blog: Cultural Awareness – Working with Israelis which I found very educational.
Matthias’ blog inspired me to collect my wisdom about working with Germans (for Americans) and working with Americans (for Germans). I have no doubt that this will be a controversial blog as all efforts to stereotype the behaviors of a nation logically end up missing the mark to a certain degree. Yet, it can be helpful to avoid some pitfalls and behaviors that have a high probably to elicit certain emotions and responses and to know what to say to build good working relations.
As a German who has lived in the USA for 15 years, I feel qualified to share my personal experiences; while yours might differ. I also surveyed my husband (who is Scottish-American) for this blog about things to keep in mind when working with Germans (he also had opinions about “being married to a German” but I might cover that in a follow up blog). Feel free to disagree :-)!
Here my top 5 list of “Working with Germans” for Americans:
- Be on time. Don’t be 5 minutes late. Punctuality is a sign of respect and manners.
- Be direct. Say exactly what you want and don’t be vague. Say what you will do when and if you agree or disagree. Having to interpret vague answers is not appreciated and might lead to misunderstanding.
- Don’t talk about your private life in a meeting where you don’t know the people well. Being late for a meeting and stating that “you had to take your daughter to Kindergarten” could be considered as unprofessional. I was on a call with Lufthansa once where the US colleague entered the call 20 minutes late with this explanations and a minute of silence followed. Keep it simple and just apologize for being late (explanations and small talk are better made at the end of the meeting, if there is time. If not, ok, as it was a business meeting).
- As you might have already learned from the British series Faulty Towers: “Don’t mention the war”. It’s a sore topic and while Americans (and Brits) can feel comfortable joking about WWII, most Germans have a hard time with that (I for one am still embarrassed and don’t see the funny side).
- When in Germany, going out for a beer (or two) after work can be an excellent way to improve your work relationships. Germans can sometimes be more serious and reserved in the work place but once outside the office real friendships are easily forged. In general, Germans needs a bit more of a “warm up” phase than Americans before they will talk about personal topics. Germans often interpret being “too personal right away” as superficial; stick with work topics initially to gain respect at the office.
And here my top 5 list of “Working with Americans” for Germans:
- Don’t expect American colleagues to be on time. Being 5 minutes late is generally accepted. If you are invited over to somebody’s house, make sure not to be there at 7 PM if that is what the invitation stated. I used to do that and have surprised a few bewildered hosts who were just taking a shower or setting up.
- Refrain from having controversial communications (=being critical) about the USA until you know a person better. This includes comments about our president, politics in general, the food, weight, race, religion, gun control etc. Most Americans are very proud of their country and asking questions that have a negative undertone can seem offensive.
- While this differs regionally, in general, Americans do not tend to be as direct as Germans and can perceive directness as rude or disrespectful. Try to frame negative feedback or criticism in a positive way by first saying something positive and then adding the “suggestions for improvement” (possibly adding another nice comment at the end; this is called “sandwiching”). Sarcasm is also not always appreciated or understood. Trust me, I did offend quite a few people in my first few years in the US and had no idea why, as I thought that I was just being honest…
- “How are you?” is simply the equivalent of saying “Hallo” in German, it means nothing else and generally there is no expectation to engage into a discussion about health, although that can happen. Germans often tell me they find this greeting superficial but simply accept it for what it is.
- Americans are generally very proud of their country. Say something nice about your host country, the lovely weather, the beautiful outdoors…it will be appreciated and make your friends. Americans are a lot less likely than Germans to invite you to their house, especially when they don’t know you well. Going out for a dinner is a good way to acquaint yourself with a person, but don’t expect to sit there all night; in the USA dinners often terminate as soon as the eating part is over; that is no offense to you.