Typically German

Excerpt from: Norbert Hedderich, "When Cultures Clash: Views from the Professions," Die Unterrichtspraxis (1999): 161-65.

Style of Interaction
The interviewees generally agreed that a more business-like atmosphere characterizes the German work environment. The most frequently cited example was small talk. Most of the Americans were initially taken aback by the lack of casual conversations about family and hobbies. Eager to quickly establish a certain level of rapport with their German colleagues, many were puzzled by the lack of interest in casual conversation on part of the Germans and took it as a personal affront. One American interviewee, in a managerial position in Germany, felt especially handicapped by this phenomenon. 'At home, I like the interaction with my team. Here, it doesn't seem possible. If I had this kind of relationship with team members in the US, it would be considered dysfunctional." As time passed, this issue became less of a problem for the Americans, and they developed a greater comfort level in interacting with their German peers. For the Germans describing their experience in the US, this phenomenon was a source of confusion in a different sense. The more casual style of interaction (die lockerere Umgangsart) among Americans was a pleasant surprise. In addition, Germans found a degree of helpfulness toward the newcomer in the US that they were not accustomed to. This welcoming into the culture and the feeling of having been made part of the group - one German engineer used the metaphor mit ins Boot nehmen - clearly made a lasting impression. About half the Germans went on to explain that their German cultural frame of mind misinterpreted the openness of their American counterparts. A classic example is the invitation into the home of a co-worker, which, according to the interviewees, is by far more likely to happen in the US than in Germany. To the culturally uninitiated Germans working in the US, such an invitation signaled at least the interest in establishing a longer-lasting friendship, but the expected follow-up often did not occur. Some of the Germans considered this a "superficial attitude." One respondent called it "a form of self-protection resulting from the high degree of mobility in the US."

Attitudes toward Work
German interviewees commented on a different system of attitudes relating to work in Germany, which explain some of the items mentioned earlier. In their opinion, there is a clear separation between work and home in Germany; in the words of one American, "work is work and play is play, there is more emphasis on family, free time, Urlaub, and other values among Germans." Overall, Germans spend far more time away from work than Americans do. The American engineers were surprised at the shorter working hour of their German counterparts. "Everybody leaves work when it is Feierabend. At the managerial level, though, considerable overtime is expected in Germany as it is in the US."

Positive Thinking
Both Americans and Germans noticed more positive thinking and an upbeat attitude in the US culture. Maintaining an overall positive atmosphere is considered a high priority in the American work environment. One American observed, "In Germany praise is the absence of criticism." While in the US, Germans were confused when they were repeatedly praised for what they considered accurate completion of routine tasks. Other examples include presentations and letters of recommendation. In presentations given by Americans, some of the German interviewees found that negative aspects of a particular issue were not labeled as such but were listed under a heading such as "items for improvement" or were dropped altogether. One of the German interviewees commented as follows: "Ich fand das positive Denken der Amerikaner sehr verwirrend. In Deutschland wird viel weniger gelobt. Das Loben in Deutschland tun wir nur verhalten. Amerikaner sagen immer 'good job'; wenn etwas schlecht war, sagen wir dagegen 'das war Mist.'" To one of the German interviewees American positivism was "distraction from genuine problems." Letters of recommendation were another example. "Deutsche Referenzen sind im Ton zurückhaltend, amerikanische dagegegen sind eher überschwenglich." This example supports the notion that Americans display more high-context behavior than Germans.

Core Values: Rapport vs. Truth
In American meetings, it was observed, the manner in which a group arrives at a consensus is important. Keeping an overall positive, friendly rapport and avoiding personal attacks ranks high among Americans. "In the US, it doesn't rock the boat if the rules have to be bent a little to achieve the goal," said one American. Interviewees observed on the other hand a stricter adherence to truth and exactness in Germany as a core value. An interesting example is the American practice of signing a document for someone else. In many US offices, there is a mutual understanding that a subordinate or colleague can sign routine paperwork using the superior's name in case of absence of the superior. "In the US signing when the boss is out makes the wheels run," said an American interviewee. When trying to do so in Germany, the same person was met with shock, disbelief, and a clear message that he could be put in jail for such an action.

Greetings and Forms of Address
In Understanding Cultural Differences, Edward T. Hall and Mildred R. Hall comment on the concept of space and increased territoriality in Germany. Almost all the American interviewees observed more formal greeting rituals in Germany, particularly when entering people's offices. One American described the following situation, which he observed at the beginning of his stay in a large southern German firm. Early in the morning, he and his three colleagues who shared an office were sitting at their desks, discussing an urgent production problem. Their supervisor came in and - before delving into details - he went around to each desk, greeted each member of the group and shook hands. Other American interviewees similarly reported that it took time to get used to the daily handshake as well as the ubiquitous lunchtime greeting "Mahlzeit." Most Americans also commented on the use of the formal Sie versus the familiar du. Overall, the familiar form is used much more frequently in the workplace than commonly assumed. Most of the Americans reported that du was used in their immediate, German-speaking peer group. Age and position in the company tended to be the key factors for the use of Sie versus du. Interviewees reported that managers and persons considerably older were not addressed in the familiar unless that person offered the du. At the managerial level, the du address is found less frequently. The use of du between supervisors and subordinates continues to be rare. It was most common in those companies that had a high degree of internationalization or were American-owned.

Fast Pace vs. Detail
Almost everyone mentioned clear differences between Germans and Americans on the following concepts, which tend to be linked with each other: pace, attention to detail, and short-term vs. long-term thinking. These points were major sources of friction between the two sides. In the German firms, the planning process of a project tends to be long and very detail oriented. Plans are not implemented until they have been reviewed thoroughly. In the words of one American chemist: " The Germans will say: 'Let's try it one more time'; the Americans think Germans are testing things to death." For the Americans, gut feeling that a plan will succeed is enough. A German personnel manager whose company had recently been bought by an American firm said: "In groups where German and American engineers work together, we experience over and over again that the Germans want to plan far more thoroughly (gründlich), whereas the Americans are content with having completed 80% of the planning and then say; 'Let's begin.' The Americans constantly tell us to 'move faster.' We are struggling with an immense pressure to make faster decisions."

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Thinking
This item is a frequently discussed topic in the German-American business context. It can be partially explained by the different reporting systems American and German stock corporations must adhere to. Publicly traded German companies must report results to their shareholders only once a year, whereas American companies are required to do so four times a year. In addition, many companies in Germany are privately owned and therefore have no reporting requirements at all. There is considerable pressure on American management and things change at a faster pace. Personnel changes are one example. An Amencan plant manager who had been on assignment in Germany was informed at the beginning of the month that he was to return to the US at the end of the same month. "Unthinkable in Germany," responded a German personnel manager. Many the interviewees in this study, both Germans and Americans, commented on this aspect. They labeled the American style "goal-oriented and action-oriented." "Achieving the goal in a given time period is critical in the US. There is an emphasis on meeting expectations," said one interviewee. Germans, on the other hand, are more concerned with exactness and providing all the necessary details. One German interviewee said: "Americans work two to three times faster than Germans, they are very goal oriented, but if the plan does not work, they will completely throw it overboard after three months. It is much more difficult to change a plan in Germany once it has been implemented." A strong orientation toward action among Americans was a major and recurring theme in the interviews, expressed mostly by German interviewees (Aktionismus). It was perceived as a pervasive concept in the American work culture. As it clearly dashes with the detail-oriented, long-term thinking of the German work culture, some of the Germans viewed it critically. One of the German interviewees said: "Die Deutschen denken, die Amerikaner tun etwas, damit etwas gemacht wird."

Creativity, Innovation, and Independence
Action-orientation versus attention to detail lead to the topics of creativity and innovation, which were on the mind of all American interviewees and were mentioned as a significant difference by some of the Germans as well. "My American colleagues and I keep a list of creativity killers," said a dearly frustrated American-trained engineer working in Stuttgart. "I often hear: 'No, this won't work'; 'we've tried this before,' and here is my favorite one: 'Things are different in the US.'" He reported "a resistance to alternatives," a "box-like thinking," an "unwillingness to just talk about a subject if unprepared" and a "general risk aversion in the culture." One of the German interviewees who had spent a year in Texas pointed out. "In den USA findet man mehr Kreativität. Man geht nicht immer den geraden Weg zum Ziel. Die Amerikaner schränken sich weniger mit Regeln ein. Sie sind innovativ. Auf der anderen Seite sind sie weniger gut beim sturen Abarbeiten - Dinge, die getan werden müssen." In Hidden Differences. How to Communicate with the Germans, Hall and Hall call this phenomenon compartmentalization. Many of the interviewees, particularly the Americans, mentioned it by talking about different approaches to teamwork in the two cultures. In general, they reported less interaction with colleagues in the German work environment and said more independence was expected in Germany. One engineer described his notion of compartmentalization very vividly as the "over the wall" phenomenon: "You develop the idea yourself. Then you throw it over the wall to the next person. You are done with it. It is now someone else's responsibility." He considered this procedure inefficient. The same person observed difficulty interacting with people from different departments in Germany with the following example: "I needed to have something done by a person in a different department in order to move on with my project. As I would have done in the US, I went to that person and asked him if he would provide me with the necessary information. He said no, claiming that was not part of his responsibilities. I then asked my boss, who asked the other person's boss to talk to his subordinate and request the information. This way it finally got done."

The interviewees also observed a different role of the manager in the two business cultures. Many observed that American managers play a more active role and appear to have more power in the decision-making process. Although the Americans are given plenty of room for brainstorming, the final decision often rests with the manager. One German interviewee observed that American managers, even though they encourage brainstorming, tend to give more detailed instructions. "Deutsche Manager dagegen erwarten in der Regel selbstständiges Handeln, sie würden genaue Instruktionen als Bevormündung auffassen." Many interviewees commented on the relationship to management on working independently and on having open discussions with supervisors. An interesting issue is challenging a manager's decision or opinion. Americans were surprised by the degree to which Germans challenged the opinion of a superior. In one American-owned company, the American managers found it unusual that their German subordinates wanted to talk about performance reviews. In the words of the German personnel manager of this company: "Die Welt denkt die Deutschen seien obrigkeitshörig. Ein weitverbreitetes Klischee. Die Tatsache ist, das ist ganz anders seit '68. Die Menschen hier haben Schutz vor Entlassungen durch das Arbeitsrecht."

Communication Style
The above mentioned different attitudes toward time and detail can also be seen in different styles of communication. One interviewee used presentations as an example for culture clash. In his company Germans and Americans worked closely together in the first years after an American takeover. The presentations given by Germans tended to be long (about an hour), included the historical development of the project, and contained numerous details about how the project was to be implemented. The important items were placed at the end. "The Americans got bored and grew very impatient," reports one interviewee. "The presentations given by Americans on the other hand tended to be shorter (30 minutes), were animated, and often began with a joke. The presenters focused on the action to be taken, provided the key information at the beginning, and supplied less detail than their German counterparts." In this company, the Germans reported that the culture clash described above was compounded by the language barrier. The Germans had to present in English, and despite extensive language training in English, they experienced difficulties expressing themselves and "selling" themselves. "If everything goes through the English-language filter, you just cannot get the message across very clearly. I felt reduced to one quarter of the person I am," remarked one of the Germans in this group. As problematic as this issue sounds, the most hopeful signs for resolutions to the culture-clash issue came from companies where the contact between Germans and Americans was most intense. In the company described above, mutual feelings of culture clash decreased as the American boss made progress with his German language training, began to speak German, and experienced the kind of helplessness (kam sich wie ein Kind vor) the Germans had gone through. The above-mentioned German manager, while disagreeing with many of the business practices of his American counterparts, saw positive changes in his firm because of the American influence.

Wir sind im echten Sinne internationaler geworden und haben unseren Horizont erweitert. Die Amerikaner haben eine offenere Informationspolitik, und wir haben davon gelernt. Unsere Vorstandssitzungen laufen jetzt entspannter ab. Zum Beispiel nehmen die einzelnen Abteilungsleiter jetzt auch 'mal junge Sachbearbeiter mit, die etwas präsentieren. Ihnen wird applaudiert. Das ist sonst in Deutschland nicht üblich.

Misunderstandings also arise from the issue of directness versus indirectness in the language. According to the interviews, verbal messages in Germany tend to be more direct than in the US, where they often are softened with expressions of politeness. The following example of a communication between Germany and the US illustrates this point. In a fax to a US firm, a German employee writes: "We need this information by..." For the US partner, this is an unambiguous message, and she provides the required information in due time. In a comparable situation, the US employee faxes to her German counterpart "We would like this information by...." To the German counterpart, this type of wording may signal that this matter is not urgent and consequently the request is not completed by the required date. One of the American interviewees adapted to the more direct style of communication. "I have noticed the more flowery language of Americans; now I find the directness of the Germans refreshing, there is no doubletalk."

Interviewees' Advice
In the last question of the interview, the participants were asked what advice, based on their own personal experience, they would give young Americans who are going on an internship to a German-speaking country. While focusing on adjustment at work, interviewees were also encouraged to comment on all aspects of the overseas experience. There were numerous comments, and they covered a wide spectrum of suggestions, from attitudes to very practical advice. As this information was given in the form of "dos and don'ts," it will be rendered here in that fashion.

Before Going Abroad