If we were to talk stereotypes, Americans may see Germans as too rigid and formal, while Germans may regard American as loud, over-familiar and sloppy in business. But are the two cultures really that far apart? Realistically speaking, no. Both cultures value teamwork, openness, honesty, cooperation, family values and hospitality. Both foster creativity and entrepreneurship, with Silicon Valley and Berlin among world leaders in startup creation. Certainly, communication styles may be different but with cultural sensitivity on both parts, and cross-cultural training, differences between the two can be overcome. Here are a few potential discussion points.
Germans are generally adept at languages, having studied them from an early age, and in business, many people will speak excellent and technical English. Americans who speak no German at all may be regarded with polite tolerance. Having said that, Germans can make it difficult for people trying to speak their language; while they appreciate the effort, they tend to jump in and correct the speaker. This is not supposed to cause offence, but is meant to be helpful, however off-putting it seems.
Germans are very direct communicators. A German colleague will tell you if you have made a mistake and will openly, albeit politely, contradict a superior. This is not intended to be malicious or insulting but Americans can take such direct criticism badly. In the USA, it would be considered rude to contradict a superior openly in a meeting. Germans are also very quick to say ‘no’ if they mean ‘no’. Americans may regard this as a negative attitude, while to a German, it is simply being practical and honest.
Germans will deliver feedback directly, whether it is negative or positive. What may come across as blunt to an American is simply honesty to a German. On the other hand, Americans can be too indirect for Germans in giving feedback, first, by saying what was good to soften the blow, then to describe what was less good and finally, to suggesting what could be improved. This approach is in danger of leaving Germans confused.
Germans and Americans have different approaches to project work. Germans will assemble data and facts and work out a solution before starting work. Americans are more likely to value speed and profit, adapting the project as it progresses. Germans are thorough and detail-orientated, while Americans may prefer to ‘wing it’, taking a ‘time is money’ attitude. Germans will come to meetings fully prepared, with a full vision of how a project is going to be delivered. Americans may talk up their ideas with ‘big picture’ imagery but not much actual detail. Cultural intelligence on both sides here can lead to a more effective working relationship.
In the USA, individuals are measured on performance, resulting in a continual sense of being under pressure. Germans working on teams tend to see themselves more as cogs in a machine, with everybody playing an equally important part. American business culture is such that it is relatively easy to fire somebody, while Germans are heavily protected by unions.
Germany is still more of a cash society than other west European countries. Of course, people have credit and debit cards, but maxing out credit cards is frowned upon. Germans are risk averse in business, preferring to be fully prepared for all eventualities, while Americans tend to be more adventurous.
Germans, generally speaking, are very liberal in their attitude to nudity in places like beaches and saunas, and on TV, which Americans can find shocking. Germans are not big church-goers and often struggle to come to terms with the socially conservative, Puritan far-right approach of some Americans.
Germans work hard but value their free time. Taking work home is a sign of inefficiency. Germans will use their vacation time to the full and will spend weekends with their friends and family. Americans, on the other hand, tend to have a more macho culture about work, making themselves available out of hours, working weekends and failing to use their full annual leave entitlement. This requires cultural sensitivity on both parts.
German students tend to specialise from an early age and apprenticeships, or vocational training, are popular. In the USA, students receive a more general, but more rounded education. They are taught that they can follow the American dream and become anything they want. Germans, on the other hand, are taught that productivity, efficiency and accuracy are the route to success.
Germans are driven by order and efficiency, at work and in society. Structures in the workplace are flat and transparency is valued. Everybody knows what everybody else is doing and decisions are made by consensus. Meetings are commonplace and are used instead of protracted email discussion, which Americans may favour more. In American companies, although structures are flat, there is often a powerful, authoritative decision maker at the top.
In Germany, personal life and professional life are kept separate. Although workplaces tend to be egalitarian, there are still social structures in place and relationships can be quite formal; colleagues may even address one another formally, using ‘Sie’ rather than ‘Du’, until invited to switch to the familiar. Discussing family life at work, or asking someone how they spent their weekend, or over-sharing about your own situation, will make a German uncomfortable. Casual chitchat is considered a waste of time. This is much less common among millennials, though, who tend to be more informal and ‘American’ in style, socially speaking.
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