We love our German clients for many reasons. They value precision, they communicate clearly, and they understand the importance of professional translation services. Some cultures are so different from ours that we remain aware at all times of the risks of misunderstanding each other, but Americans and Germans share many cultural similarities. In fact, we are so much alike that sometimes forget about the differences in communication styles that do exist. When a misunderstanding occurs, we might not see that the problem has its roots in cultural differences rather than in a particular project or a particular relationship.
Recently we presented a training session on bridging US/German cultural differences focusing on a few areas where there are significant cultural differences in communication styles.
Just the facts
Anthropologists make a distinction between “ideational” communication, which conveys hard facts and indisputable information, and “phatic” communication, which constitutes the extra “social grooming” and small talk we use to build and maintain relationships. Every culture has its own way of balancing instrumental and phatic talk when doing business.
When Americans ask “How are you?,” most of the time they are simply saying hello, and expect the response to be nothing more than “I’m good. You?” This is especially true of exchanges in a formal business setting. However, to Europeans, it can be a perplexing question. They might wonder, “Why do you want to know how I am? I’m here to discuss translation.” Americans, on the other hand, may consider German communication too blunt, without the softening social preambles to which we are accustomed. This is just a small example of a larger problem in all cross-cultural communication: knowing how to decode the meaning of purely social or “phatic” talk.
Yes We Can!
We have a client whose business email signature line reads “YES is the answer! Now what’s the question?” This is a very American can-do business attitude. It is important to be open, willing, and eager to please. However, to the German, who expects careful data collection and thorough front-end planning before making any promises, agreeing to something before knowing the details seems rash. The “phatic” meaning (I will do anything for my clients!) is unlikely to register, and the German might read the instrumental meaning, which would seem negative (I’ll make promises that I might not be able to keep!) This is one example of where “phatic” communication, if taken literally, can miss the mark.
Tact vs. Truth
Because “Yes” is so highly valued, Americans are uncomfortable with a flat, unadorned “No.” Part of our strategy for saying NO is to buffer it by speaking indirectly. Oftentimes, we buffer the implications of what we can’t do by talking in detail about what we can do. Similarly, when delivering negative feedback, it’s a standard practice to first explain what was done well, second, to describe the mistake, and then end with ideas for improvement. Cultural consultants typically describe American negative feedback as a hamburger – the “meat” of the criticism is encased in a “bun” of positive speech. For Germans, all this verbal padding can make it difficult to ascertain exactly what went wrong. This can be frustrating and confusing.
Germans deliver their hamburger plain, without a bun. While Americans might find this arrogant and blunt, Germans believe that speaking directly and truthfully is a sign of respect, and indirect speech is dishonest or evasive. On the other hand, it is not unusual for an American to “ask permission” to speak directly. “May I be completely honest with you?” is a question that may not make sense to a German, but is familiar to an American. (For cultures in which “saving face” is extremely important, for example, some Asian cultures, criticism may be delivered quite indirectly with a phrase like “perhaps I did not communicate my instructions clearly enough.” This simply offers a face-saving exit strategy, even if all parties know exactly who made the mistake.)
These are just a few of the typical stumbling-blocks in cross-cultural business communication between Americans and Germans: two cultures that are in many ways very similar. Certainly the salience of these points will be different for different individuals—because of personality, family background, and facility with a second language. But everyone who does business internationally needs to think about the kinds of communication we take for granted, and question our own expectations of business partners from other parts of the world. Cultural competency training can help businesses gain a more global perspective, and can be invaluable for resolving misunderstandings, or even preventing them in the first place.