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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:

  1. Be on time. Don’t be 5 minutes late. Punctuality is a sign of respect and manners.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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).
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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…
  4. “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.
  5. 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.
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  1. Frank Koehntopp
    Excellent job, Natascha!

    (although I have to say some of the items show you’ve been in the US for quite some time – like lots of my UK friends insisting that german trains will always be on time 😉 )

    I will try to remember this blog when I’m coming to Palo Alto in September – maybe there’ll even be a few more items in Marilyn’s culture cue cards until then (http://wiki.sdn.sap.com/wiki/display/Community/Community+Culture+Cue+Card)!

    Maybe one additional thing that will make DE/US relations easier: don’t bother with “sorry, that was inappropriate” too much – it’s really hard to offend a german, and likewise please excuse us if we say something you might feel is inappropriate – it’s really really not intended to be, it’s just the way we are 😉
    (at least that was an item I took away from my last visit).

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    1. Natascha Thomson Post author
      Frank, really appreciate your kind and “additive” feedback! I think SAP is doing pretty well at the US-German relations as that is such a big part of our culture. I’ve worked in other companies where that was much more difficult… :-).
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    2. Marilyn Pratt
      Thanks so much Frank for pointing back to my Culture Cue Cards and big thanks to Natascha for this very thoughtful piece that shows equal respect for “both sides” of the pond.

      I feel so proud and happy to work for a company that is so diverse.  These last 12 years have been very enriching.  What I’ve found is that individual cultures have such diversity within the culture.  It almost defies any kind of generalizations and yet, its so important to have awareness of ways of being that don’t transport well from one culture to the next.

      I’d love to have this kind of blog or Culture Cue card for  India .

      As often as I have been privileged to visit, I have so much more to learn.

      Any takers?  Laure started a great one for France.

      How about others?  Italy?  Belgium? Japan?

      Love seeing this kind of content as it really makes collaboration easier.

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      1. Bala Prabahar
        Natascha has done a great job in teaching different cultures. I have one comment to make. I came to US in 1992 from India. I smiled to myself when I read her comment 1 for Germans:”Don’t expect American colleagues to be on time”. When I came to this country, I heard one comment/advice again and again:”Be on time, for Americans time means $$$. Don’t be late to the meetings”. To date I haven’t met anyone who is more serious about time than Americans (I must admit I haven’t travelled widely so my experience is very limited).At the same time, I concur with Natascha about Americans tolerating a few minutes tardiness. However when an individual starts (always) coming to meetings or events late, people normally start noticing; he/she would be told about his/her tardiness sooner than later in some form (directly or indirectly if that person is an employee or if he/she is a vendor/interviewee, he may not receive the contract/job).  Other attendees wouldn’t know anything about tardiness being addressed because the way Americans deal with problem-makers is normally not transparent.

        Thanks.

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        1. Natascha Thomson Post author
          Bala:

          I had to laugh reading your comment as it just proves how culture is a “relative” thing. I would argue that the Germans are a lot more punctual than the Americans, but it sounds like compared to India, America is a very time-driven country (I’d say Swiss people are even more puctual than Germans, to add another sterotype).

          I agree with your last comment too, and while mostly that is a good thing, I sometimes miss American managers making a point for accountability. It does not mean that a person gets singled out, but sometimes everybody knows the culprit and it helps moral to see that management does not let people get away with sloppy or inappropriate behavior. But, that is probably the German in me :-).

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          1. Bala Prabahar
            Natascha,

            You nailed it. Yes, “relative” thing was what I was trying to say; somehow I didn’t know how to connect. Immediately after reading your blog(no one had commented yet), I started writing a comment, not satisfying with it, deleted it; then made one more attempt, published it without saying what was in my mind. Thanks for bringing it out. I am extremely happy:)

            Bala

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  2. Matthias Steiner
    Hey Natascha,

    wow, I’m just flattered you are back-tracking to my post.

    I really do like your culture cue card targeting the US and Germany! And I certainly think that you are more than qualified to give a general safety net. As always, all these things need to be taken with a grain of salt anyway, yet I truly believe they give you a great starting point to broaden your own understanding by practicing it personally.

    So, while all 5 points you mentioned in regards to Germans may sounds very stereo-typed – they may be rightly so. 🙂 I think you cannot go wrong in applying these.

    I once was told about that peach – coconut metapher in regards to this: From a German perspective, people from the States seem very easy to socialize with and they start sharing quiet easily, yet there’s a core in the insight that takes lot of time and bonding to get through.

    Germans are more perceived as a coconut. They have a hard core at the ouside and it may take time to get through that, but once that barrier dropped they are usually very open.

    It may be an exaggerated figure, but it can serve as an easy mnemonic. #eselsbruecke

    Would love to see more such posts! So, who’s next? 😉

    Cheers, Matthias

    PS: Don’t forget to add them to the wiki:
    https://wiki.sdn.sap.com/wiki/display/Community/Community+Culture+Cue+Card

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  3. Tammy Powlas
    Because as an American, I like being on time, being direct, and don’t want to hear about the private life.  I don’t have any German in my background (I am part Native American) but those 3 things you mention describe the way I was raised and how my dad is – on time, direct, etc.

    Great blog and thank you for posting.

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  4. Michelle Crapo
    I loved reading the blog.  I love reading the comments.

    I know a lot of people who are late to meetings.  I am normally on time or early to a meeting.   MMMmmmm… It does matter who is in the meeting.  That is probably a difference (after reading the blog) – I bet in Germany it doesn’t matter who is in the meeting.  It always starts on time.

    It makes me aware that I haven’t paid any – NONE – attention to culture difference.   I just assume everyone works like me.  I guess the world doesn’t revolve around me.  I wonder how many people haven’t said anything when I have made mistakes when talking with them.  They just don’t say anything because they are being nice.  

    I’m going to have to read all of these tips from now on.   It will be a big help.

    My company spans other countries not just the US.   But it really doesn’t matter.  SAP is such a small world we get consultants, contractors, add-on applications from all over the world.

    Michelle

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  5. Michelle Crapo
    At teched one year, I had someone come up and kiss me on both checks.   (We had just been communicating via SCN.  I had never met him in person ) I had no idea what to do.  He probably thought I was a nut.   I kind of just stood there.  I think I may even have grabed him in a light hug.  I don’t think that was right either.

    I knew / know it is a European custom.   I just didn’t think about it at the time.  I was really awkward about it.  :()

    I had a laugh with my co-workers later at Teched when I told the story.   The laugh was self directed. For me being so stupid.    I still really don’t know what to do.  But at least I expect it now.

    Michelle

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    1. Natascha Thomson Post author
      Too funny! I tend to “over hug” people and find myself generally confused at events like TechEd now where you have the “United Nations” and I try to just “go with the flow” :-). Thanks for commenting!
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      1. Michelle Crapo
        And now I know.   It’s an embarrassing mistake on my part.  🙂

        Sometimes I forget different cultures.   I am typically an American.  “Doesn’t the world revolve around us?”  I’m joking of course.   But in some ways our culture doesn’t look at others.  We are starting to.  It’s more common to learn about them in the workplace.  But when I think back – way back – to my school days.  I remember learning different languages, for me Spanish.  I don’t remember much of it.  Anyway I learned the different language but not about the culture.

        Here, at Perrigo, we are brushing up on different cultures.  We are quickly expanding with many different countries.   I haven’t had the chance to work with all of them.   I’m just starting to work with our Israeli company.  

        Interesting – after reading these blogs – I talked with the person I work with.  And yes, we work very differently.  

        Michelle

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  6. Scott Wallask
    Good blog post, well written and humorous, too. As an American, I don’t think it’s professional to be late to business meetings, particularly those that involve people working for other companies. In social situations, however, it’s more acceptable to be late in the U.S. (although I always like to call or e-mail someone if I’m going to be late for a social outing). For example, I know if someone is brining young children with them, they probably won’t be on time (the nature of trying to get kids out the door).
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  7. Armin Reichert
    There is no such thing as “The Germans”. And what once was called “Deutsche Tugenden” has been discredited in the last 40 years as so called “Sekundärtugenden, mit denen…”.

    Being on time is just part of professional behaviour which has nothing to with a specific culture.

    Why shouldn’t you talk with a German about the second world-war? Maybe not during a business meeting but there is absolutely no reason to behave “politically correct” when talking privately.

    But “Political Correctness” seems to be the new religion of the young, new, self-appointed elites.

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    1. Natascha Thomson Post author
      Armin, thanks for taking the time to comment. I think we agree on the point that there are business topics and topics once you have built a personal relationship with people…I actually answer questions about WWII and Germany quite a bit from people who know me well and I know they are curious not hostile.
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    2. Matthias Steiner
      Hm, culural awareness and political correctness are two separate things. Obviously, all stereotypes are generalized and may vary depending on regions, religions, etc.

      I think the aim is to provide you with at least some rough guidance and insights about the values and principles of a particular culture.

      I also believe that WWII is certainly a topic to discuss. I moreover believe that a lot of Germans see it as their responsebility to retain a clear history of it and to make sure history won’t repeat itself (here or anywhere else.)

      “Handle with care!”, sounds like a valid tip though, especially within a profesisonal environment. Like I would also recommend not to take about Afghanistan and the US troops there in the US. But that may just be common sense…

      Still, while the cultural differences between Germans and Americans may not be as obvious as the differences in cultures as Japan or India, there are definately some differences worth mentioning for the interested.

      Again, it’s a rough guideline, a starting point… the richness in culture is infinite 🙂

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    3. Mark Finnern
      Hi Armin and Natasha,

      I was a bit cringing too, when I read about “don’t mention the war”. It doesn’t phase me at all. I actually think we are not talking enough about what we have learned or what to do so that it doesn’t happening again.

      Otherwise I really like that this post makes us more sensitive to cultural cues, Mark.

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      1. Natascha Thomson Post author
        Mark, I agree, I don’t mind talking about the war either if there is sincere interest to learn. I was also trying to make a bit of a joke (it only makes sense if you know Faulty Towers :-))- but what I really meant was that I don’t think saying critical things about a culture/country is a good starting point when meeting new people, as it can offend. For me, it’s particularly difficult to laugh about some WWII jokes.
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        1. Mark Finnern
          Love Faulty Towers. Now available for instant replay on NetFlix as are the are the Nick Park Wallace and Gromit. If only they would add Augsburger Puppenkiste, my life would be perfect 😉 Love Kleiner Koenig Kalle Wirsch, Mark.
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  8. Ginger Gatling
    Hi Natasha,
    This blog was great – I was laughing about the Americas for Germans because it’s all so true. The only thing I can add “if you work with an American who is a Texan, don’t go pale if they say they have a gun” – what a jaw-dropper that was at the cafeteria in Walldorf one day 🙂

    Great job!   Oh yeah – and I was late because I was talking with the AC guy about all the heat in Texas this summer 🙂
    LOL!
    -ginger

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  9. Anthony Sutcliffe
    I’ve worked with both Germans and Americans and would suggest that there is good advice there for both nationalities.

    If anyone wanted more useful information of this type, I would recommend “Cultures and Organisations: software of the mind” by G & GJ Hofstede.

    I can also recommend “Watching the English” by Kate Fox. Most English / British people find it very funny (and very accurate!).

    However, I would say that a lot of issues could be avoided by people just being a little more tolerant of each other. None of us are perfect; we all have our own ways of working and all nationalities have their good and bad aspects.

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    1. Natascha Thomson Post author
      Ha ha ha. That is hilarious. Is there such a list for other nations? Talk about stereo typing. I had to think of it when my new boss took out his moleskin notebook the other day :-).
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  10. Kenneth Moore
    Wow.  You are right on.  I spent several years in Deutschland myself.  You have learned a lot.  I did not realize some of the “superficial” impressions Americans make, however.  If I had known that while over there, that would have explained/helped a lot!  Good tips!
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  11. Patrick Weyers
    Hi Natascha,

    Thanks for bringing up this topic here and I really appreciate how it triggered all those ideas being exchanged in the comments below!

    However, I must say that I disagree to some of the points made.

    As you pointed out correctly, these bullet points will naturally be stereotypical and inaccurate to a certasin degree. I would go further than that and say that many of these points have lost relevance these days, as previously ever-so different cultures are closing ranks through globalization. This might be from a very subjective perspective, but I don’t see any of the 5 points for “Working with Germans” to be applicable to my real life and environment (although I am well aware of them as being what Germans are supposed to be like).

    For my part, after having studied in Holland for a while, found it extremely difficult in my semester in Switzerland (as a German) to adjust to the demanded punctuality over there. Then again, this might be stereotypical, too.

    Back in Germany, I would never be offended by anyone being a bit late – in fact, I appreciate my Spanish friends taking it easy on the time of our appointments because it sometimes buys me extra time. 😉

    Also, I experienced that the line between work and private life is softening up. With many of my colleagues – and even clients, if the “chemistry is right” – I share more private details than with some of my not-so-close “friends”. I’d agree though to say that some of us Germans to take a little longer to “warm up” to a person.

    As far as the WWII debate is concerned, I think Germans have come a long way appreciating humor related to it. This is supported by contemporary media with comedy formats relating to WWII that would previously have been perceived as outrageous. What I think annoys people hereabouts a little bit is that the boulevard press in certain other countries so _consistently_ draws the WWII joke joker whenever it comes to the Germans. That just seems a bit dull. 😉

    Generally, after having lived and worked in several countries, I found that wherever I was, people will forgive any cultural pitfalls with a smile, as long as you show some respect, interest, and tolerance (as has been pointed out by Tony already).

    Happy debating. 🙂

    Patrick

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    1. Natascha Thomson Post author
      Wow, great feedback. Very appreciated. I’ve been away from Germany for 15 years and it’s good to hear about all the changes! Thanks for sharing.
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  12. David Branan
    Thanks Natascha. This gave me a good chuckle. I am a person who shows up chronically early to meetings. It is so bad that when Brian Bernard starts a weekly call a number of us are on, he says ‘Hello David’. I’m too much of a ‘mutt’ to really fall in to a cultural category so I guess it is my little part of Howard Hughes’s OCD.

    Best,
    David

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    1. Ulrich Neumann
      I do all the time. It’s a fantastic way to keep contact with your friends all over the world. But generally is facebook popular for those germans who are not afraid spreading their private data all over the net.
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  13. Rudy Garcia
    haha, a nice laugh…I have a German mother and American father and have been doing SAP for 20 yrs. Alot of what you say is true, but with a grain of salt. I really enjoy my years working in Germany and Eastern Europe with my German and Austrian colleagues. Most of them don’t consider me as a “typical” American, so let’s hope we don’t see too many of those anyway. Cris Gott! rudi
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    1. Ulrich Neumann
      Sorry Rudi you are for sure American, but not the way described in the article. ;-))
      I have been working in the states with american and german colleagues and together with Rudi in eastern europe, the behavior described in the article is for sure not relevant for all companies, but it confirms a part of the experience I made.
      Regards
      Uli
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        1. Ulrich Neumann
          I love your denglish, Rudi (Thats Deutsch and English).
          Those americans are usually solution minded, I like that. And they work as hard as the germans do, though they get less vacation than a german employee.
          You know that yourself, Rudi. How about you’d write a blog “Tips for Europeans and Americans working in Asia?”
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  14. Natascha Thomson Post author
    Today I was reminded of one more tip that I’d like to give Americans dealing with Germans. This might be another controversial issue that some of you might disagree with. It’s my personal opinion (but has been shared by other ex pats):

    While I understand that Americans often feel strongly about their heritage, as an American, please don’t tell a German that you are also German, unless at least one of the following applies:

    1. You were born in Germany
    2. At least one of your parents was born in Germany (grand parents might be acceptable)
    3. You have a German passport
    4. You have been to Germany
    5. You speak German
    6. You know the place where your family originated in Germany
    7. You or somebody in your family ones owned a German shepherd (Just kidding)

    If none of the above applies, I’d represent myself as of German decent :-).  Personally, I was born and raised in Germany and now am a US citizen only, so I consider myself to be American…although, I don’t mind being called German (you can take the girl out of Germany but you can’t take Germany out of the girl) :-)).

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