Category Archives: Agreements

“Strange Black Man”

It was many years ago. I was visiting my uncle who is a Jesuit priest and professor of Theology at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., where I attended. It was a brilliant day, sunny, warm, with a light breeze. Walking across Healy Circle, located at the front of campus, a smallish, skinny black man aged about twenty-five with a heavy backpack weighing him down approached me with a smile. I returned the smile, we greeted each other, he put down his load.

He was from a West African country, from which one I cannot remember. He spoke of the civil war there, the persecution of his tribe, family and of him, and of the good fortune he had in escaping it. How he made it to the U.S. I cannot recall either. He made a sincere and serious impression on me. I listened carefully to his story and felt empathy. The signals then became clear that he would ask me for some kind of help.

Roughly the same age, having recently gone into business for myself in Philadelphia, I was hardly in a position to do anything for him. We continued to talk. He then asked for help. Apologizing for not being able to, I gave him my business card and said: “Well, if you‘re ever in Philadelphia, let’s get together”, hoping it would be a friendly but clear way to remove myself from the conversation, and that he would understand that I cannot help him out of his difficult situation.

“… waiting at your door”

He studied the card carefully, then with a smile, he said “Thank you, John. Thank you very much”, in an English formal, polite, right out of the textbook he must have learned from many years before, and like so many well-educated Africans. We shook hands. I departed quickly so that he could not continue the conversation. I went on with my activities in the nation’s capital over the next day without ever thinking again about that West African.

Until I returned to Philadelphia, that is. At Ninth and Spruce Streets in Center City, as the Philadelphians call their downtown, is where I lived, in the third floor apartment under the roof of an old townhouse. One of my cousins, Helen, lived with her former college roommate in the apartment just below me. As I walked up the stairs, she opened the door ever so slightly, I suspect after having heard me open the front door. With wide and alarmed eyes Helen whispered: “John, there is a strange black man upstairs waiting for you in front of your apartment.”

A strange black man? I don’t know any strange black men. In fact, I don’t know too many black men at all. Well, I did after about ten more steps. “Oh, no”, I thought, my business card, damn. What do I do now? I put on a happy face, smiled, greeted him heartily and said something like “Great to see you, again. Come on in!” The stairs up to my loft apartment were very steep and narrow. He trudged up schlepping his heavy bag. What was I supposed to do with this guy?

Say “yes, mean no”

Many of the details I no longer remember. But I do recall that I took him out for dinner, gave him a brief walking tour of Center City including the historical sights, allowed him to sleep in my bed while I made do with the couch. The next day, after some breakfast, I drove him over to 30th Street Station and put him on an Amtrak train up to Boston, where he said he had some contacts from West Africa. I was happy to be rid of him.

His story was certainly bigger than mine. A refugee from civil war in a faraway land, seeking a safe and secure life in America. Hoping for help. From anyone. And my story? A safe and secure white American male with a solid education and the kinds of advantages and opportunities a “strange black man” from Africa could only dream of. Looking back, shameful of me.

But for us, as Americans and Germans collaborating across the Atlantic, this little story is about agreements, about how Americans will communicate a “yes” which is not meant as such. Since we seldom feel comfortable saying “no” to someone – a family member, friend, neighbor, colleague, certainly not to our boss or to a customer, or to a stranger – we find ways to say “yes” in a way which communicates “no.”

Rather clear signals

Why would this guy from West Africa suddenly show up at my door in Philadelphia, a three-hour train ride from Washington, DC? We don’t even know each other. We have nothing in common. We‘re strangers. In our conversation of a few days before I had given no indication that I was in a position to help him. On the contrary, my response to his request was crystal clear. It was short, polite, I gave him my card and got on my way, and rather hastily.

But wait! That’s American thinking. I did give him my card, and did show sincere interest in his situation, then did say to him: “Well, if you‘re ever in Philadelphia, let’s get together.” These were rather clear signals. But from whom and to whom? For any American witnessing the interaction the message was very straightforward: “I am sorry to hear about your plight, but I cannot help you. Good luck.”

But for a person from another culture? From his? Or from Germany? Why should my behavior and statements not be taken literally, sincerely, at face value? Or how about this question: Why would I not simply state what I was thinking – honestly, transparently, from the heart – by saying: “I am sorry to hear about your plight, but I cannot help you. Good luck.”

Well, I did, in fact, say that. In my way. In an American way.

What does this story tell us Americans and Germans about how we should handle agreements?

Tesla. TR. Coach.

Tesla’s Bane

In 1885 Nikola Tesla, who had recently immigrated to the U.S. from Serbia, told his employer Thomas Edison that he could redesign Edison’s direct current generators, greatly improving both their service and cost. Hearing this, Edison remarked: “There’s fifty thousand dollars in it for you – if you can do it.”

Even though Edison’s company had a reputation for being tightfisted, Tesla took him at his word, and after he completed the task, Edison refused to pay him the money. Instead, Edison told Tesla that he was only joking, and offered him a $10 per week raise for his current $18 per week salary. Insulted, Tesla immediately resigned.

bane: death, destruction; woe; a source of harm or ruin, a curse. Middle English, from Old English bana; akin to Old High German bano death. First Known Use: before 12th century.

Tightfisted – parsimonious; stingy; tight; mean; miserly. Origin from 1835-45.

“Certainly I can!”

“Whenever you are asked if you can do a job, tell ’em, ‘Certainly I can!’ Then get busy and find out how to do it.”

This quote is attributed to Theodore Roosevelt. Would a German say something like this? Should anyone say something like this?

A Coach’s Yes

In 2015, following the Penn State University wrestling team’s duel with the University of Minnesota, coach Cael Sanderson answered ‘yes’ when asked if Jimmy Lawson instead of Jon Gingrich would be the Penn State heavyweight in the critical time nearing the end of the season.

When asked to comment on this, Lawson clearly took his coach’s ‘yes’ as conditional, and responded: “In my mind it’s not really over. We’re both seniors, we both want to be the guy out there, we both want to do well at nationals, so I’ve just got to keep competing.”

As it turned out, Sanderson’s ‘yes’ was conditional, and he later qualified his yes, saying “It can never be done … (the wrestlers) are always pushing and trying to get to the top. You want to help the team by being the best you can be and if that’s pushing the guy ahead of you or even taking the spot, that’s what you need.”

Slow Yes vs. Fast Yes

„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.

German Perception
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.

American Perception
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“.

Germans, Americans interviewed

German Colleague about American Agreements

“We Germans admire optimism and teamwork. It’s important to help each other. But, our American colleagues seem to want to say yes to everything, without thinking about if they can deliver what they promise.

I heard the word overpromising. That is like a virtue in the U.S. Many of us Germans here have learned that yes does not always mean yes. So, how are we to understand when a yes is really a yes or just some polite statement? What really confuses us, and bothers us too, is when we agree to something and we keep getting called on the phone or e-mailed about the agreement!

I mean, if we say we do something, why does the American colleague need to always check on us? They call it follow up, we call it lack of trust. We keep our word. We call it Zuverlaessigkeit and it means, if you say yes you mean yes. It is that simple. This follow up stuff wastes time and is insulting. Why can’t our American colleagues do the same: say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you promise! Are not these the basics of communication and teamwork?”

American Colleague about German Agreements

“Yeah sure, our German colleagues are very reliable. If they agree to do something you can be just about 100% sure that they will deliver. The problem is that they don’t always want to agree to something! It’s as if they almost instinctively want to say no to everything. I mean, they don’t make the most cooperative impression, especially when you start working with them.

Some of us have picked up on the fact that when they say no, it doesn’t necessarily mean a hard no. But at first, you’re totally surprised at how quickly a no comes across, even to some unproblematic requests or suggestions. When you get that sort of rude no, you quickly lose any interest in working with that particular colleague. Many of us Americans have identified the nay-sayers and we avoid them whenever possible.

What none of us have figured out is how aggressive our German colleagues get when we try to follow up on our projects. It’s like we agree to something and then suddenly they don’t want to stay in contact about it, or inform us about the status. How are we supposed to work together if we aren’t in some kind of contact? Very strange.

Even among themselves they’re not terribly communicative. At some point you simply can’t judge if they are working on the thing you agreed to. Maybe the agreement has lost priority for them, or they have even forgotten it. Maybe it’s a language problem. Most speak very good English, others rather poorly. I suspect that some German colleagues might be faking it, pretending to understand and then hoping to figure it out later.“


Can you relate to some of these statements? Which ones and why?

Yeah. Nay. Gob.

Yea-sayer. Nay-sayer.

The Yea-sayer/Nay-sayer is a so-called school-opera written by Bertold Brecht, Elisabeth Hauptmann and Kurt Weill in 1930. Initially it was titled The Yea-sayer, and the plot revolved around the question of whether an individual must be agreeable to sacrificing themselves for the good of society.

In the first version of the piece a boy gives ‘permission’ for his own execution. After a sting of discussions with students and workers Brecht’s The Yea-sayer was modified into a second version, where the yea-sayer is presented in contrast to a nay-sayer.

This nay-sayer calls the blind obedience of the yea-sayer into question. The function of the yea-sayer has seen a variety of literary interpretations; perhaps the most common interpretation being that the character represents the expression of a false obedience with regard to authority and social norms.

Indeed, the term ‘yea-sayer’ has a negative connotation in the German culture. To be a yea-sayer means to say ‘amen’ to everything. Not to resist. To accept anything. Better to be a nay-sayer in this case.

Nay-sayers may be more complicated and unpleasant for those around them, but at least they stand up for their own beliefs. An (initial) ‘no’ could simply be a way of just expressing oneself.

Arrested Development

The American television show Arrested Development which aired from 2003 to 2006 and was revived in 2013, follows the story of a wealthy family that recently lost their money in a scandal involving the family’s real estate business.

In the first episode Michael Bluth becomes CEO and President of the Bluth Company after his father is arrested for crimes involving the company. Immediately all of their assets are frozen, and they have to get by with very little money. Most of the family moves into one house together, and Michael sells their car and jet in order to have a little money.

Despite their sudden loss of funds everyone except Michael tries to keep living extravagant lifestyles, and whenever Michael finds out about his family’s excessive spending and low-income, he tells them ‘no.’

For example, Michael refuses to buy his brother Gob small items like desk lamps or frozen bananas, and he doesn’t support his career as a magician. He also refuses to let Gob live in the family house, and tells him that he can’t live in the family boat or at the company office either.

Whenever Gob has ideas about the company (most of which are illegal) Michael tells him ‘no.’ When Gob tries to escape from prison by jumping from a balcony (around 30 feet in the air) onto Michael to break his fall, Michael also tells him ‘no.’ And this is only a small sample of the times Michael tells Gob ‘no,’ not to mention the numerous times he uses this word with the rest of the family.

Despite his efforts to help save the family and their business (and turning down good job offers to do so) his constant ‚no’ keeps the family from appreciating him. The other members of the family often describe him negatively, calling him such things as “selfish,” “robot,” and “chicken,” and at one point, Michael and his sister Lindsay discuss Michael’s helpfulness:

Lindsay: “You’re, like, the least charitable person I know.”

Michael: “I don’t do anything for myself; everything that I do is for this family.”

Lindsay: “You don’t do it for us. You just do it because you love being the guy in charge, because you love saying ‘no.’”

Michael: “Don’t jump on me!”

“Just say yes or no!” … “Why can’t you simply say yes?”

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.

German Perception
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.

American Perception
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.“

No Surprises

No Surprises

Germans like to receive nicely wrapped presents. At the same time they are no fans of surprises. Not even at Christmas or on birthdays. On the contrary, they really do prefer to know in advance what is in the package.

They do their research before they make even everyday purchases. Which product is the right one? Have they had any negative experiences with it? What are the alternatives? How much more or less expensive is the alternative?

This is why the German consumer often asks the salesperson if the product can be returned. They seldom feel sure that what they buy is exactly what they need.

Germans, for example, never plan a vacation without doing intensive research, unless of course they are returning to a well-known destination, which many of them do in order to reduce the risk of disappointment.

85 billion Euros a year, that is the amount German spend on travel – the highest in the world. Nonetheless, they most likely do the most research before deciding. Numerous websites are looked at, comments good and bad are read critically, photos from the vacation destinations compared, maps surveyed, travel guides studied carefully, friends and acquaintances asked.

Then finally the decision is made, the trip is booked. The research has just begun, however. What‘s the use of booking a trip if you don’t plan well what you‘ll do during it? Climate. Transportation. Sightseeing. Shopping. Shop hours. Restaurants and prices. Day-trips. Health care should anyone get sick or injured.

Front loading.

Just the facts, Ma’am

The term iteration has become common within American companies: To communicate several or many times, back and forth, between two or more parties, in which information is exchanged, decisions made, activities (action items or more called simply actions) agreed to.

Merriam-Webster online defines iteration as a procedure in which repetition of a sequence of operations yields results successively closer to a desired result.

Americans iterate, some intensely so. It allows them to maintain flexibility, to ensure information flow, to discriminate between what is important and unimportant, to reduce risk. Like any strength, however, it can be inflationary: Too much communication, too little action.

Instead of front-loading an agreement with in-depth discussion about the details, Americans iterate.


Once Germans have made a commitment they begin immediately doing their part. And because they work independently, including little communication with the other parties to the agreement, it is essential that they have as much information upfront as possible.

Anecdote: Friendly interrogation. I take the train to Bavaria. A meeting with one of Germany’s largest multinational companies. Thusfar they are satisfied with my work. A new contact, high-level engineer, perhaps a new client.

We meet in his office, sit at a round table, drink tea. We talk. His questions are direct, precise, bordering on penetrating. The tone, however, is friendly, probing. Before I realize it an hour has gone by.

The questions keep coming, one after the other. About my background, methodology, how I execute seminars and specialized workshops. Then about my content, my research approach. What? How? Why?

Question after question, almost like an interrogation. He wants to understand. I become a bit fatigued, but remain fully focused, maintain eye contact, respond as precisely as my German language skills will allow. The meeting is tiring, he keeps me on my toes. At the same time the atmosphere is friendly, respectful, at a high level.

The German manager is above average in height, slender, his eyes sensitive, curious, listening. Not distrustful, skeptical but careful. In the weeks thereafter we would meet several times more. Each talk of lesser intensity. Then the decision. Positive. I went on to serve him and his organization for several years without interruption. Front loading.

Have you had a similar experience in the German-American business space? How did it play out?

Context Information

Because a „yes“ in the German context involves a very high degree of binding character, when entering into an agreement Germans will request a corresponding amount of background information. This serves two purposes. First, it allows them to determine whether the agreement could have negative effects for them, their work or their team.

Second, and more importantly, they want to fulfill their part of the agreement to the best of their ability. And because little to no followup is expected to take place during the time-span of the agreement, the better they understand the overall context, all the more competently they can fulfill their part.


Because followup is frequent, and because agreements can increase and decrease in priority, they can be entered into quickly without their overall context having been discussed in detail. The parties of an agreement are in constant communication with each other. Full context information need not be communicated all at once, during the very first conversation.

German perception
Germans are surprised that Americans would ask them to enter into an agreement without having first provided the contextual information necessary to make a decision. They then experience Americans who become impatient with their questions. Depending on the sensitivity of the agreement, a German might suspect that an attempt is being made to gain their „yes“ without them fully knowing or understanding the potential effects. A German might become careful, sceptical, even wary.

American perception
A German colleague requesting what can appear to be too much background information can give the impression of being overly conscientious, risk-averse, even mistrustful. An American would wonder: „If we have an agreement, why does my German colleague need so much information up front. Let‘s get started. We‘ll be in touch as we proceed.“

Advice to Germans
Your American colleagues expect a higher level of communication during the time span of an agreement. Therefore, they need not know the whole story up front. Provide what they need in order to get started. If and when they require additional information, you‘ll hear from them. Be prepared to communicate on a more frequent basis. Now, if an American provides you with too little context information in order for you to make a decision, kindly indicate this. Tell them that you simply are conscientious, that you want to get it right the first time.

Advice to Americans
Go into detail with your German colleague about the broader context of the agreement. Don‘t wait for the questions to come. Volunteer the information. And don‘t be surprised when German colleagues go into great detail with you. They‘re neither long-winded nor pedantic. They simply want you to be fully informed so that you can make the proper decision, and if you agree, to execute to the best of your ability.


Management training. In Germany’s. Thirty or so Germans in the room. We discuss the topic of agreements. They ask: “But Herr Magee, how do we know when an American ‘yes’ is a commitment?” My response: “Ask the famous w-questions: what, when, why, who, and of course, the how. The more specific the responses are, the higher the level of commitment.”

“Stop by next time you’re in town” is not an invitation, but a polite way of saying “It was nice meeting you. It would be nice if we ran into each other again.” Closer to a commitment would be: “Stop by next time you’re in town. Here is my email address and work phone number.”

Even more committed would be: “Stop by next time you’re in town. Here is my email address, work and cell phone number.” And the next level of commitment sounds like this: “Stop by next time you’re in town. Here is my email address, work and cell phone number. When will you be coming through? Any chance you’ll be in the area in June?” And so on.

The more explicit (detailed) the information, the greater the commitment: “Stop by next time you’re in town. Here is my address and home phone number. When will you be coming through? Any chance you’ll be in the area in June? If so, how about the weekend of June 12-13? We’re having a summer party at our place. We’d love to have you come by.”

“No!” So direct, hard, determined.

Aha! The German training participants get it. Many of them have been disappointed before. They thought Americans had broken commitments. Now they understand. Not Americans breaking their words. Not Americans as superficial. But, Americans who signal different levels of commitment.

Now they’re not as difficult to read. Simply ask questions which gain definition: “Sure. Love to come by and talk again. When were you thinking? I’ll be back in town at the end of next month. Should we check our calendars now or do you want to get back to me?”

Valuable. I helped them understand. But, what about me. An American, often unsure about how to react to the German no. It can come so fast, so hard, so definitive. It throws us off balance. Leaves a bad taste in our mouth. Sometimes we wish we had never asked.

A hand goes up. A big smile. He stands up. Six foot eight inches tall. Lean, fit, friendly. “Oh, that’s easy, Herr Magee. Just as we need to ask Americans the w-questions, Americans need to ask us Germans similar questions.” My eyes get big. Of course!

He continues. “See the German ‘no’ as a first response, but not firm. Identify its component parts, the reasons, for the ‘no’, then counter them one at a time. Give your counterpart good, logical reasons why his reluctance is unfounded.” All in the group nod as if so obvious, so self-stated.

Very valuable. He, they, helped me. It had never occurred to me. How blind I was.


If you are American and have received a ‘no’ from a German colleague, supplier or customer, how did you react to it? Did you accept as such or did you try to convert it into a ‘yes’?

And if you are German, have you ever received what you thought was a commitment from an American, only to find out later that it was not really a commitment?