Author Archives: John Magee

Contentiousness vs. Small Talk

This article appeared in Handelsblatt Global Edition on May 31, 2018.

When Germans and Americans make conversation, things often go wrong. And, as in the other types of miscommunication I’ve described in my previous columns, the reason is culture. Let’s look at one particularly treacherous context for Germans and Americans: small talk.

Germans, for starters, don’t really do small talk. They instead have conversations. And by that, they mean substantive, sometimes even deep, exchanges. In these conversations, they look for weak and strong points in arguments. And as an inevitable by-product, the Germans soon state their critical opinions about some person, event or idea. Germans also like clarity. They like people, including their interlocutors, to take strong positions.

And unlike Americans, Germans will not shy away from controversial topics. In fact, Germans usually don’t even think of these topics as controversial, only as interesting: The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; US drone strikes in the Middle East and Pakistan; the base at Guantanamo Bay; the murder rate in the US, gun ownership and NRA influence; the increasing gap between rich and poor; the NSA spying scandal; the ominous power of Google, Apple, Facebook and American-dominated social media, and so forth.

Germans enjoy getting into such hot-button issues. They like the intellectual give-and-take. Controversial discussions are to them a form of mental chess. At a deeper level, Germans also want to demonstrate that they are well informed and that they are interested in the world. And they want everybody to know that they think independently, which often means critically.

Americans seek commonalities. They look for reasons to relate, not to disagree.
That’s why the German term streitbar, which means “prepared to argue” or even “willing to fight,” has a positive connotation in German. As an adjective, it tends to make a person sound brave and principled.

Americans, by contrast, have been raised to avoid certain topics at the proverbial cocktail party. The top three are sex, religion and politics. The American logic of conversation is to avoid any confrontation that can damage a personal or working relationship. So Americans seek commonalities. They look for reasons to relate, not to disagree. Sports, weather and family are considered suitable topics to begin a conversation.

The reason for this conflict avoidance is not that Americans are pansies. Instead, it is that American society has long been, and is today, more violent. Sidestepping controversial topics allows Americans to find a safer way to communicate with people they don’t know. It allows strangers to get to know each other in a non-threatening environment. If you’re too straightforward and offend the wrong people in the US, it’s more likely to end badly for you.

Germans often misinterpret this American inclination to discuss “safe” topics as superficiality. And to Germans, for whom intelligence, deep thinking, even brooding, is important, superficiality is a grave character flaw. Germans are disappointed when the discussion involves what they call non-topics. They feel that an opportunity has been lost: to debate, compare, to learn from each other.

Germans often misinterpret the American inclination to discuss “safe” topics as superficiality.
Americans in turn often get the impression that Germans seek out controversial topics in order to provoke. As a result, Americans often feel insulted, for the German approach often involves criticism of America. Americans, whether or not they agree, tend to take this personally.

And when that happens, the relationship has been damaged. Worse, some Americans will then warn friends and colleagues about contact with “those opinionated Germans.” This can spoil the atmosphere in companies operating across the Atlantic.

My advice to Germans is to develop a better sense for which topics Americans consider controversial and then to be tactful about broaching those. In general, Germans should seek dialogue, not debate. You can air your opinions once you get to know the other person better.

My advice to Americans is to remember that Germans separate substance from person. So they neither mean nor take vigorous intellectual debate personally. In fact, the Germans probably think they’re showing you respect by taking an interest in your points of view. So indulge the Germans. Help them to understand the American viewpoint, and put some effort into understanding theirs. It’s worth it.

System vs. Particulars

This article appeared in Handelsblatt Global Edition on April 20, 2018.

Germans think systematically. They formulate their understanding of a decision to be made in a very broad and interconnected context. Therefore Germans do not always consider it helpful to take complexity and, as Americans say, “break it down” into its component parts. They aim to do the opposite, to see particulars in their interrelationships. They look for patterns, strive to understand complexity as a whole, as a system.

That’s one reason why Germans spend a lot of time debating Fragestellung – literally, the way the question is formulated. This is the definition of the matter to be addressed. Before Germans make a decision, they expend great effort into first being sure that they agree on the decision to be made. So they engage in a discussion upfront: What is the nature of this decision? What are its implications for other areas of our work? Are we addressing the right question? Are we in agreement about what decision we are making?

This German yearning to understand the system as a whole is baked into the language. When a German gets confused, he or she says: Ich habe den Überblick verloren, literally: “I have lost overview”, or “I can no longer take in the complexity from one elevated vantage”. Germans place supreme value on Überblick (overview), on understanding a system as a whole.

The next step after Überblick is Durchblick, or “through-view”. Somebody who has graduated from having an overview to also having “through-view” truly know knows what he or she is talking about, and understands both the details and the big picture. But while such an expert “looks through” a subject, he still maintains Umsicht, a “view around” at all tangential topics. This is a cautionary principle to mitigate risk.

This difference goes beyond style.

Americans rarely engage in such Germanic discussions about the systematics of a decision at hand. They talk instead about who or what is served by a good decision. They “break down” complexity into its component parts, on the premise that this leads them to what is essential.

This American habit of breaking things down is already instilled in grammar school. In English Composition, American children are taught to write short, simple and clear sentences ordered in a logical sequence. Good composition avoids sentences with complex grammatical twists and turns, of the sort that are standard in German. The goals are simplicity and clarity.

Ernest Hemingway, considered one of America’s greatest writers, shied away from convolution in grammar and style. He never used big words or complicated sentences, yet he succeeded in painting vivid images. German diction, by contrast, sounds to an American as Mark Twain put it: “Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.”

This difference goes beyond style. Americans do not engage in lengthy discussions about the essence of a decision to be made. Their approach to all decisions is primarily motivated by pragmatism. Decisions lead to actions, which in turn lead to further decisions to be made. Americans avoid getting weighted down in what they view as over-analysis.

So Germans see Americans as moving through the decision-making process impatiently, without having thought through the complexity of the issue. Americans think that Germans consider too many factors not directly relevant to the decision, thus wasting time and momentum.

Americans think that Germans waste time and momentum.

This situation can become unhealthy and self-defeating. Each side is determined to get its way, to have the say. Unfortunately, neither recognizes what lies at the heart of their battle. Both want their fundamental approach to making decisions to become universal for the company. All involved are aware of the negative effects on the organization. Decisions, even routine ones, begin to demand far too much time. Teams begin to work against, instead of with, each other. Each side suspects the other of political maneuvering.

But, wait! It doesn’t have to be this way. The inherent strengths in how Americans and Germans make decisions can be understood and combined. Germans should remain systematic in their approach. It’s one of their strengths. At the same time they should try to become more pragmatic, and sometimes narrow the scope.

The Americans, meanwhile, need to engage with their German colleagues in their seemingly philosophical discussion about the nature of the decision to be made. They may find a broader perspective to be of value. Once the Americans are full participants in such a discussion, they can influence the decisions from the beginning. And they should never forfeit one of their great strengths: the ability to break complexity down, or what the Germans awkwardly translate as herunterbrechen.

Directness vs. Euphemisms

This article appeared in the Handelsblatt Global Edition on February 24, 2018.

The United States and Germany are among the most successful countries and cultures in the world. They have the largest and fourth-largest economies, great companies, and great talents. Clearly, they must be doing a lot right. And yet, so much can go wrong when Germans and Americans meet and do business together, as I know from my years as an American consultant living in Germany. It helps for each side to understand where the other is coming from.

Start with basic communication. Germans say what they mean. Mean what they say. Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t use euphemisms. Clear, direct, unambiguous. Get to the point. Right away. To Americans, as to many other English-speaking people, the Germans thus appear impatient, obnoxious, at times even insulting,

Once you enter the inner cultural logic of this German style of communication, it appears less off-putting. The Germans are not exactly an unintelligent, unreflective, insensitive people. Instead they consider direct communication to be honest, transparent, and efficient. And also respectful, because it reduces the risk that people will misunderstand each other. Germans want to understand and be understood.

The inner logic of American communication culture is different. Americans approach important topics cautiously. They use euphemisms to transmit awkward messages. They consider indirect communication to be polite, sophisticated, and still effective. They aim to maintain dialogue in order to deepen it.

Germans aren’t familiar with baseball’s left field.

Germans find the American style of communication too soft, indirect and unclear. The Americans seem to be wrapping their messages in wads of cotton. To complicate matters, the Germans often miss the nuances in the carefully-worded statements of the Americans (or Brits, or other English speakers). American euphemisms, idioms, and witticisms fall flat. Germans aren’t familiar with baseball’s left field. Americans, in turn, perceive Germans as impatient, impolite, and rough. That’s why Americans are wont to feel uncomfortable in a conversation with Germans.

Germans should therefore practice using a softer vocabulary and approaching important topics indirectly. They don’t have to clarify key points immediately but should first establish a rapport. Americans, meanwhile, should embrace German directness, which has advantages. They should keep it simple and unambiguous. It’s OK, the Germans won’t break down in tears.

Let’s consider the way Americans and Germans negotiate agreements. Many Americans I know call their German colleagues Dr. No. (Behind their backs, of course.) More accurate would be Herr or Frau Dr. Nein. The German Nein is indeed more rule than exception. It can come hard and fast. But this Nein, depending on the context, can range from hard to flexible. Germans only say Ja (yes) when they are sure that they can deliver.

In the American context, by contrast, a no is the exception rather than the rule. Americans take pride in being open, helpful, and flexible. They extol cooperation, teamwork, and volunteerism. To reject a request from a colleague out of hand feels like negating these values. Americans are especially reluctant to say no to a boss or a customer.

Germans may think they have an agreement, whereas the Americans communicated no such thing.

So the American no comes in the form of a conditional yes signaling the reasons why assistance is regretfully not possible. To Americans it is a sign of professionalism and finesse to communicate rejection in a positive, supportive, affirmative way. This is not easy for Germans to decipher. Germans want clarity. But a no in the form of a conditional yes sends mixed signals.

The resulting misunderstandings can get ugly. Germans may think they have an agreement, whereas the Americans communicated no such thing. Germans will then conclude that the Americans are unzuverlässig (unreliable). Even on minor matters, to be unzuverlässig is a character flaw in Germany. Unzuverlässig is a label which can take a painfully long time to have peeled off your forehead.

The Americans in turn perceive the Germans as born nay-sayers: Unfriendly, uncooperative, the opposite of team-players. The German Nein comes so fast and unequivocally that Americans seldom consider its real meaning: “Sorry, I cannot commit – at this time.” The Nein is usually conditional, like the American yes.

Germans should realize that their Nein sounds harsh and unfriendly to the American ear. They would do better to soften it. They could try instead to enter into a dialogue with American colleagues by stating the reasons why they cannot (yet) enter into an agreement, then giving the Americans a chance to think about solutions. The Germans should keep in mind that they may need assistance from this very same colleague at a later time – and check their foreheads in the mirror daily.

The Americans, meanwhile, should communicate more literally with their German colleagues than they are used to doing. If they can’t enter into an agreement, they should simply say so, then provide reasons. If they are willing to enter into an agreement, they should give clear indications to what degree their yes is conditional: “Sure, Hans, I can deliver that by next Thursday. But, I have a lot going on at the moment. I can guarantee it only 50%. Let‘s talk again on Tuesday.”

Germans tend to separate message from messenger. Americans do the opposite.

Finally, consider the American and German styles of presentation. Germans tend to separate message from messenger. A German presenter consciously moves into the background so that the content can take center stage. Arguments should speak for themselves. German speakers strive to be factual, analytical, scientific. This often makes them appear objective, impersonal, and colorless. They display little body language and stay behind the podium or to the side. Content takes center stage.

Americans do the opposite. They link message and messenger. Content, form and presenter should form a unity: “Sell yourself first, then your product or service.” So Americans get personal and anecdotal, with personal color and plenty of gesticulation. Go to YouTube and look at Steve Ballmer on stage in his Microsoft days. The messenger is the message.

Germans react ambivalently to this linking of message and messenger. While listening, they whisper to each other: “If his case is so strong, why is he putting on such a ridiculous show?” or “Typical American. All show, no substance. We’ll take him down when we get to Q&A.” Yet some of the Germans secretly think: “Wow. Uninhibited. Natural. Believes in himself. Getting me to believe. Wish we Germans were allowed to do the same.”

Americans watching a German presenter often feel that the speaker lacks passion or even courage. “Why is she hiding behind the podium? What’s she afraid of?” or “Sleeping pill. Quick, someone open the windows.” or “Oh please, don’t do the math. We believe you.” Yet some Americans secretly think: “Wow. Clear-eyed, clear-headed. Nothing but the facts. Rock-solid analysis. Wish we Americans didn’t have to entertain the children.”

So the Germans should identify more with their message. Use “I”. Tell anecdotes. Don’t run away from who you are. Tell the story, including your story. Put your heart into it. Drop the robot-stuff. The Americans, by contrast, should temper their inner showman. Inject skepticism into your message. It adds to credibility.