Excerpt from: Norbert Hedderich, "When Cultures Clash: Views from the Professions," Die Unterrichtspraxis
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."
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
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
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."
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."
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
- Become as proficient in the language as possible before you leave. Take advantage of intensive courses in
the US or in Germany.
- Read as much as possible about the country as you can (survey knowledge of history, geography, politics,
economy, current issues, etc.). You will get more out of your stay, and the people you are interacting with will
appreciate it if you come informed.
At Your Place of Work
- Lower your expectations, especially in the first three months of your stay. It takes time to get used to living
and working in a different culture.
- Don't be brash and try to impose American ways. Try to take in what you experience without immediately
- Expect to work independently. You may see your supervisor less frequently than expected.
- Don't be afraid to take initiatives, to ask questions, and to ask for a different type of work or projects. You
won't get it if you don't ask. This holds true especially in Germany.
- Expect diversity. Germany is not a homogeneous culture. Life is very localized. Language, food, customs
will vary from region to region.
Don't take it personally if people seem distant and reserved to you at the beginning. It may be as difficult for
you to get used to this as it is for a German visitor to the US when asked by a stranger "How are you?"
- Be patient when it comes to getting to know people. Closer contact comes with time.
- You will achieve the best results in your language proficiency and your stay will be more enjoyable if you
have German friends. As most Germans separate work and private lives more than Americans, don't count on
being able to get together with colleagues after work. Instead, find people with whom you share a common
interest, join a Sportverein, Schachklub, etc. You will find a number of Vereine in even the smallest