The German „no“ is more rule than exception. However, its level of binding character is based on contextual circumstances, ranging from a hard to a very flexible „no“. Only through asking what the barriers are to the „yes“ is it possible to discern how hard the „no“ is.
A „no“ in the American context is more exception than rule. Americans pride themselves on being a can-do people, of being open, helpful, good-neigbors. Americans believe in cooperation, teamwork, volunteerism. To reject a request out of hand is to negate these values. An American „no“ comes, therefore, in the form of a conditional „yes“ signalling the reasons why assistance is regretfully not possible.
No less irritating for the Germans is the American no, which they almost never hear. Instead they get a conditional yes, which is communicated with terms and phrases which indicate clearly to the non-native speaker a positive, an affirmative response, a yes. Germans ask themselves what is so difficult about saying either yes or no.
Although Germans speak good to excellent English, few are capable of understanding the nuances of American English. And, the more complex the material discussed, the more politically sensitive situation it is embedded in, all the more subtle the language used by Americans. A highly conditional „yes“ in the American context is in most cases a polite form of a „no“, a „polite no“, understood by each American involved, but perhaps misunderstood by a German to be a „yes“. For it is a sign of professionalism and finesse in the United States to be able to communicate rejection in a positive and affirmative way.
The effect? Two parties have an opposite understanding of the interaction. One believes to have entered into an agreement. The other believes to have clearly communicated that agreement was not arrived at. Worse than the miscommunication, there lurks the greater danger of Germans drawing the conclusion that Americans don‘t hold up their side of the bargain. To be unreliable (unzuverlaessig), „not keeping your word“, on even the most minor of matters is considered highly negative in the German context. To be labeled unzuverlaessig is to be labeled with almost a character flaw. It‘s a label which can take time to have peeled off.
Germans are often and quickly (mis)perceived as born nay-sayers. They can come across as unfriendly, uncooperative, not team-players. The German „no“ can be communicated so quickly and unabashedly that an American does not consider the possibility that it is the German way of saying „Sorry, I cannot commit to that right now, or without having thought about it.“ The attempt is not made to determine through discussion to what degree the „no“ might be a different way of communicating a conditional „yes“.
The danger in this interaction is twofold. Firstly, an otherwise mutually beneficial agreement is not struck. Secondly, and more unfortunate, the German colleague might be unfairly labeled as a „nay-sayer“, an uncooperative colleague to be avoided. That person may never become aware of how they are misperceived by their American colleagues, thus affording no opportunity to correct the misperception, to correct the unfair label as „Herr Dr. No“.
Advice to Germans
Your German „no“ is harsh and unfriendly for the American ear. Either take it out of your repertoire altogether, or at least soften it. Explain your reluctance in a more diplomatic way. You won‘t be accused of being a therapist. Enter into a dialogue with your American colleague by stating the reasons why you cannot (yet) enter into an agreement. Then give that person a chance to overcome your reluctance. Strive to negotiate a mutually beneficial deal, with both having receivables and deliverables. Keep in mind, you may need and want assistance from this very same colleague at a later time.
Advice to Americans
Communicate more literally with your German colleagues. If you cannot enter into an agreement, simply state so. Provide your reasons, communicate regret, but try not to pack your „no“ into „wads of cotton“, as the Germans say. They won‘t break down into tears.
If you are willing to enter into an agreement, give clear indications to what degree your „yes“ is binding. Parameters can change. Use a percentage: „Sure, Hans, I can deliver that by next Thursday. But, I have a lot going on at the moment. I can guarantee it 80%. Let‘s talk again on Tuesday.“