Bumps and Jolts on the Cultural Road

Large areas of similarity between Germans and Americans make it easy to underestimate the dangers of misunderstanding.

by William Parks

One of the unpleasant things about traveling are bad places in the road that cause bumps and jolts, upsetting you and knocking over your coffee. These are particularly bad when you're not expecting them. It's the same way when you're in what I call "the Transatlantic Zone" - that's any place and any time Americans and Germans are doing business together. In the Transatlantic Zone there can also be bumps and jolts when you're not expecting them. Let me give you an example.

When I was starting up my freelance business in 1984, I had a German client, a businessman, who came to me and literally shocked me by the way he explained what he wanted from me.

He said to me at our first meeting, "Mr. Parks, you have to be merciless with me, you have to stamp out every single mistake I make." He was referring to his use of English, and to this day I vividly remember his words, the pinched, painful look on his face, and the pounding fist on my table as he said these words. At the time I wondered just what sort of relationship I was getting myself into.

What I didn't fully understand back then was that German professionals expect high-level, expert performance of themselves, and that fumbling around in English, the language of international business, amounts to personal embarrassment, personal shame even. Americans, on the other hand, usually don't worry about linguistic perfection. An American might put learning a foreign language on the important-things-to-do-list. He might even start taking lessons, but he certainly wouldn't see performance in the language as a source of soul-searching anguish.

These are differences in our personal way of conducting business, rather typical differences between Americans and Germans, differences that can lead to friction in our person to person communication. This sort of friction leads to a loss of effectiveness in transatlantic business, and today I would like to explore with you reasons for this loss in effectiveness, and what to do about it.

Transatlantic business involves person-to-person interactions between speakers of different languages and with differing cultural backgrounds. Under these circumstances we can only marvel at how much business is successfully transacted. Nevertheless, these transactions are often carried out in a rather bumpy manner, with frequent misunderstandings and loss of information, time, and effort. This ultimately means lost opportunities and lost business volume.

A sign of this frequent loss of effectiveness in the Transatlantic Zone is when Zone participants point out again and again how much better they can do business with their own kind of people: "Boy, these Germans are really weird. I don't see how anybody can get anything done with them." "Those Americans, mein Gott, I'm never completely sure when they really mean what they say."

If we look more closely at this frequent loss of effectiveness, we find it involves three factors:

  1. a linguistic factor - inadequacies in use of language and resulting misunderstandings;
  2. a cultural factor - faulty judgments based on cultural assumptions;
  3. a psychological factor - reduced competency as a result of performing under such circumstances.

The linguistic factor seems obvious. The communication partners can have problems with English, the agreed language of transatlantic business. At first we may think of the German partner as the one who makes mistakes, fails to understand quickly enough, and misses a few things. This point of view is simply conventional and unfair. Successful transatlantic communication is not so much the German side rising up to the level of the American side, but both sides finding common ground, a working modus of communication in the Zone.

The second factor, the cultural factor, refers to a cultural conditioning which most people are not aware of. Many people only become aware of a different cultural conditioning when they travel abroad and are confronted with different patterns of behavior and ways of seeing things.

What "culture" in this way means is a people's way of coping with the external world, their way of finding behavior patterns that make survival more likely for them. Like life itself, these behavior patterns and ways of understanding the outside world, other persons, and even one's own self, these patterns evolve slowly, and then live on over generations, often over centuries.

Eventually their original significance often becomes lost. Thus we shake hands - why? Well, it goes back to Western antiquity and was a gesture to show that one held no concealed weapon in the fighting hand, the right hand.

In other parts of the world, such as the Far East, it was hardly known as a custom and remained that way until the twentieth century. Over the course of the centuries, the original meaning of handshaking became forgotten, becoming simply "something you do."

But on a deeper level, below the level of consciousness, in shaking hands and saying hello to a stranger, we also make physical contact involving four senses: seeing, touching, hearing, and even smelling. Without being aware of it, we are gathering vital intuitive impressions concerning this stranger - and quite literally making first contact.

In this way, shaking hands lives on a useful life in an age without concealed daggers, regardless of whether or not we are aware of everything that is going on in the communication.

Thus the significance of cultural behaviors is "hidden." We often only become aware of this hidden significance when someone fails to do as expected, such as not saying goodbye, or not shaking hands. For this reason, experts on culture, such as the anthropologist Edward T. Hall, refer to culture as our "hidden" or "silent language."

The third factor in transatlantic loss of effectiveness is the psychological factor, and this is one that we can easily observe, although we may not comprehend its full significance. Let's take an example. Let's say you're a technical expert, and you want to explain something, but you have to explain it in a second language. Furthermore, you're having a bad day, and you fumble it all up. All the while you're thinking, "If only I could explain this in my language!" And the more you fumble around, the more frustrated you get.

Now this may seem to be simply a linguistic matter. And to a lesser degree it is - but far more is happening here. There are Those Others around you in the Zone, observing you as you fumble around, and Those Others are making judgments about you perhaps.

What's worse, they may not be aware that they are making judgments. Nevertheless, they are communicating these judgments on a non-verbal level, you are taking in this communication, and it is strongly affecting your performance, probably in an adverse way. Communication experts [such as Dr. Alfred Pritz in Vienna] point out that something like 80% of communication is non verbal. We can add that the larger portion of this is on a level that we are not aware of.

Keeping these three factors in mind, let us continue to explore reasons for those bumpy rides in the Transatlantic Zone. For over 20 years now, I have been working together with German professionals. At first my area of interest was simply language. Over time my interest shifted to interactive personal communication skills -how well people are able to communicate and get along with each other, especially face-to-face.

What I began to notice was that there were problems people had that could not be explained simply as linguistic. Whereas they were calm and confident enough with their own kind of people, when together with persons from another language and culture, they tended to become unsure of themselves. They had learned their "roles" well enough in the home culture, but together with persons from another culture, they weren't presenting themselves and their interests convincingly enough. They were confronted with another audience and didn't exactly know how to reach it.

So, does that mean that we Americans only have to feel for those poor Germans trying to cope with us? Hardly. You recall that I said, successful communication requires both sides finding a common ground, including language. Both sides have to work at this.

For Americans this means viewing English also as a second language, a somewhat different language than what we speak with our kids and with our bowling friends. Among other things, this means finding ways to speak more understandably, such as imitating recordings made by actors or trained speakers.

To understand better how we relate to each other, we need to look some at our cultural backgrounds. German-American relations are very old. German immigrants first arrived in the New World in the seventeenth century and have kept coming ever since. Practically every American has some connection with Germany. German names abound in the US, with Millers and Myers everywhere. Thus it is no surprise that the two cultures are very similar. We shake hands, wear business suits, drive cars, watch movies, and drink beer. We're not talking about Tahiti meets Lapland here.

These large areas of similarity, however, make it all the easier to underestimate basic cultural differences and the dangers of misunderstandings and making faulty judgments unawares.

Let's take a look at some wide-spread perceptions we have of each other. How do Germans commonly perceive Americans? Answers to this include open, friendly, flexible, patriotic, but also superficial and unreliable. How do Americans perceive Germans? Here you find personal qualities such as honest, straightforward, reliable, serious, but also opinionated and aloof.

Now these are judgments, and as such, are never really fair to any particular real persons. Nevertheless, judgments like these are quite common, so how do they arise? A useful result of cultural studies to keep in mind is the following: whenever we are confronted with behavior we do not understand, we tend - all of us all over the world - to interpret this behavior in terms of our own experience and cultural conditioning. This leads to faulty judgments and misunderstandings about the character or nature of those Others in the Zone.

Let's look now at these two cultural backgrounds, American and German. Americans are products of what I call a frontier-egalitarian-individualistic culture. American thinking, American attitudes, and American behaviors have been greatly influenced by the long history of going west, to another, better place.

Americans are always willing and able to give up one set of circumstances in order to create another, better set of circumstances somewhere else. Risk-taking is engraved in the American psyche.

Those persons who left European shores for the New World left for reasons that were anything but pleasant. You didn't leave Diddl-Daddlheim because you were having a grand time there. You left because you were starving there. When you got to America, what you needed to survive were initiative, hard work, and cooperation with neighbors you had never seen before.

What you didn't need were titles, authority, certificates, and inherited privileges, because these were niceties that didn't help you clear the forest or fight wild animals. Later in life, if things weren't working out as you had expected, you packed up and moved on again, to where you hoped to find a better life.

What developed from this over a period of more than three centuries was a culture that values optimism, initiative, practicality, neighborliness, openness towards new persons, and egalitarianism, a sense that we are all equals.

German history and the shared German experience over the same period of time was, of course, quite different. Up until the time of Napoleon, the beginning of the nineteenth century, present-day Germany was a patchwork of over a hundred small states. Whatever your status was, peasant or noble person, you had it, you kept it, and you did better to like it, for there wasn't much you could do about it.

Germany only became unified in 1871, and after a more than forty year period of stability and prosperity, Germany entered the First World War. With it began a period of extreme turmoil and instability, ending only some 35 years later with the founding of the present Federal Republic. What this left was a people highly marked by a profound need for stability - for Ordnung.

The result of this history was a shared sense that only a clearly defined society with clearly-defined state powers and individual liberties could ensure survival and well-being. Left intact also was a need for clear occupational positions in society, gained by meeting clearly-set educational standards. Reliability, discipline at school and at work, and respect for recognized authorities earned you secure status, secure income, secure health care, and, at least up until recently, secure retirement.

In business life, this has resulted in what I call a tradition-minded, expert-elitist culture. You earn a position in this business culture by achievement in school, certification, lengthy high quality training, and resulting expertise. Once a member of the expert-elite, you have gained a place at or near the top of the social hierarchy. Traditionally, you have a very secure position, work hard from eight to five, and then lock the door, go home, and forget the Arbeit until the next workday. There is a clear separation of professional and private life, with a clear idea of which persons belong to which area of life.

You say "Sie" to your business associates, tell them the things necessary for conducting business, and not much about private life. You say "Du" to your friends, and place great value on lengthy, deep-going discussions with them, telling them as much as humanly possible about yourself and the rest of the universe. Both your circle of business associates and your circle of intimate friends are, by American standards, relatively small and stable.

Now let's go back and review two of those typical, but negative perceptions Germans and Americans have of each other. Germans often view Americans as superficial; Americans often view Germans as opinionated. These views, as I hope to have pointed out, are usually based on misconceptions and faulty judgments, often unawares. How does this come about?

To prosper in American society, and in American business, Americans must be flexible and deal with as many people as possible. Americans quite often have large circles of business associates and personal friends, and do not make any real effort to separate these two circles. Business and private sectors spill over into each other.

An American will have a barbecue picnic at the company on Friday afternoon and spend Sunday morning answering emails. The sheer number of friendly contacts, and the readiness to pack up and move on at short notice has made Americans unaccustomed to discussing things "in depth" with each other, at least not the way many Germans do with intimate friends.

Germans thus find Americans easy to get to know, but almost impossible to get to know well. Germans are then disappointed with their American friends, missing those soul searching, all-night discussions. Americans, the Germans then decide, are nice, but superficial.

Are Germans, on the other hand, opinionated? Recall that the German business person is part of that expert elitist business culture. This German has worked hard to achieve that status, and the status is secure. The German is valued for his expert knowledge. He wants to share this knowledge with you as one expert to another. Expert elitists do this willingly and openly after they have recognized you as a fellow expert-elitist.

Being overly friendly could be construed as a way of covering up a lack of competency. Clear, expert knowledge is called for, not pats on the back and war stories. Clear communication means just that, and Germans make high use of what linguists refer to as "intensifiers" to emphasize clarity - absolutely, by all means, without a doubt, beyond question, for sure, fact is, and so on.

Americans, on the other hand, are more immersed in the relationship and concerned with not antagonizing the other person. We are thus inclined to use "softeners" - kind of, sort of, you never know, you don't suppose, more or less, could be, in a way, etc.

In the same work situation, an American might say, "You know, we might want to rethink our marketing strategy"; whereas a German would perhaps say, "The company absolutely must rethink its marketing strategy."

This often seems harsh and uncompromising to Americans, as if to cut off all further discussion, leading easily to the American seeing the German as opinionated and a bit arrogant.

Well, misunderstandings in the use of language, cultural interference leading to faulty judgments, and reduced competency as a frequent consequence - what can we do about this?

For you Germans, forget trying to be perfect in English! Germans like to be perfectionists. Great when machining parts for automobile motors, bad when it comes to communicating. Communication is more than just language. It is literally everything you are doing in the presence of the other person. This means verbal language, the non-verbals, and the context - all of those are important ingredients of culture.

For us Americans, we need to assume more responsibility for the success of transatlantic communication. Practice speaking more clearly, more distinctly, and more slowly. Record yourself on tape, listen to it, and then compare it to the speech of actors in some of those wonderful old Hitchcock movies. Notice how Hitchcock has his actors speaking, and imitate their style. This will help you win German friends in the Transatlantic Zone.

And for all of us, keep in mind something communication expert Paul Watzlawick wrote, "Communication is what the receiver understands." Look at it this way: communication is understanding what the other guy understands. It is an on-going process that never really stops. In maintaining the communication, and in believing in it, the chances of understanding steadily increase. But you have to believe in it. And the best way of maintaining that belief is to study the other guy's culture.

You see, we have a shared capacity that is very human, and that is called curiosity. Become deeply curious about the other guy's way of thinking and doing things. A good place for Americans to start on German culture is Germany, Unraveling an Enigma, by Gerald Nees, one of those perceptive writers who understands both sides of the Atlantic. Germans who want to read about US culture can start with Geschäftlich erfolgreich in den USA, by Eugene Rembor.

Start with the other culture, if you like, and then you'll be off on a long, fascinating journey, one that will become more and more absorbing the farther you go. And what you'll find, if you go far enough - is yourself, your way of thinking, your way of making decisions, and your way of doing things. Then you can roll up your sleeves and really get down to work.

From a talk given at the Heidelberg AGBC by William Parks, M.A.
Mr. Parks provides specialized cross-cultural training for Germans and Americans in business.
For further information see www.pbtraining.de.