„Yes“ in the German context is more exception than rule. Germans are reluctant to enter into an agreement without being sure that they can deliver. They respond almost instinctively with a „no“, a „maybe“ or with reasons why they cannot (yet) enter into the agreement.
Seldom will Germans respond with an immediate „yes“. For a “yes” in the German context has a very high degree of binding character. Far more than a statement of intention, the German „yes“ is the equivalent of giving their word, of entering into an oral contract, something not done without having given the agreement serious consideration.
A „yes“ in the American context is more rule than exception. Americans almost instinctively say “yes” to assisting a colleague, to a new task, to a project, often without reflecting on whether they have the time, resources and interest to meet them. Reacting quickly with a “no”, or even a conditioned „yes“, can be interpreted as negative, unhelpful, disinterested.
However, the American „yes“ can signal different degrees of binding character. The instinctive, unreflected “yes” almost always means: “We are colleagues. In principle I want to help you. I‘ll think about how I can enter into this agreement and deliver my side of the bargain.” The degree to which the “yes” is binding, or reliable, depends on many contextual factors. And these are clarified by questions about time, resources, interest, and other obligations.
The spontaneous American yes does not appear credible to Germans. Americans seem want to say yes to everything, without first thinking through if they can deliver on their promises. What Germans call American overpromising can become a serious problem in transatlantic cooperation.
It should be of no surprise that Americans expect, and therefore miss, getting a yes from their German colleagues, at least the intention to say yes. Americans sense immediately their reluctance. It can appear that Germans are not helpful, not team-players. When Germans respond that they need to first check out the details, Americans suspect it to be an excuse.
Advice to Germans
Beware of the American chronic overpromiser! It‘s not a sign of unreliability, but of spirit. Gain clarity about the binding character of that „Yes!“ by asking the famed w-questions: who? why? by when?, and of course, how? Flush out how serious and practicable a well-intended „yes“ is. Get concrete. At the same time, listen very carefully to the conditions. Chances are they‘re meant to signal a „polite no“. As a rule of thumb, the more conditional the „yes“, the harder the „no“ being communicated. When in doubt, simply explain to your American colleague that your command of nuances in the English language is limited, that you are not sure whether you are hearing a „yes“ or a „no“. Ask your colleague to spell it out a bit more literally.
Advice to Americans
A German „yes“ will not come quickly, but when it does, you can rely on it. In contrast, brace yourself for the German „no“. It will come often, and you will perceive it to be harsh and uncooperative. It is neither. It is sober and respectful. Don‘t be deterred. To determine its level of binding character, inquire as to the reasons why the agreement cannot be entered into. Identify the barriers and overcome them one by one, with questions, suggestions, reasons. That once monolithic German „no“ can be converted into a good, solid, reliable German „yes“.