Category Archives: [:en]Communication[:]

The Awful German Language

“Surely there is not another language that is so slip-shod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at least he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, ‘Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.’

He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances to it . . . Every time I think I have got one of these four confusing ‘cases’ where I am master of it, a seemingly insignificant preposition intrudes itself into my sentence, clothed with an awful and unsuspected power, and crumbles the ground from under me.”

(from The Awful German Language, Mark Twain, 1880)

For all of us who have worked at learning the German language, we have to smile when reading this passage. Yes, four cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. And, yes, prepositions determine which case, and therefore, which declinations.

Although I am no linguist, I found and find the German language to be very logical, almost mathematical. Whenever folks ask me for my thoughts about how best to learn German, my response is always the same: “Focus fully on learning the grammar. It will intimidate you at the start. But it is graspable. And once you do, your German will improve quickly. Get the grammar down cold. That is the key!”

Frank und frei

Frank und frei


Honesty. Honorableness. Straightforwardness. Truthfulness. Candor. Directness. Fairness. Honesty is often confused with impoliteness. In Faust II (1832) written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany‘s greatest writer, Baccalaureus is criticized for being rude, rough, abrasive. He responds with: “Those who are polite in German are lying“.

In the truest sense of the word; without interpretation. “He literally took apart the automobile, piece by piece.“

frank und frei
Literally frank and free, as in “Let me speak frankly and freely with you”. The term ‘frank’ is an age-old German word for free. The Franks were a Germanic tribe which successfully withstood the influence of tribes migrating from the Nordic countries into what is today’s northern Germany. ‘Frank’ as a male first name was derived from Franko: a member of the Franks, meaning courageous, free.


Because Americans find it difficult separate what they say from the person they are saying it to – especially in the case of criticism – they strive to use softer, more indirect language, including euphemisms: mild or indirect words or expressions substituted for ones considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing. (MerriamWebster)

Examples of euphemisms: ‘pre-owned car’ instead of a used car, ‘sex worker’ instead of a prostitute, ‘to be between jobs’ instead of to be unemployed, ‘senior citizen’ instead of old person, ‘underserved neighborhood’ or ‘underserved population’ instead of the poor, or an impoverished, needy neighborhood.

Further examples: ‘economically disadvantaged’ instead of poor; ‘temporary negative cash flow’ instead of broke; ‘enhanced interrogation methods’ instead of torture; ‘collateral damage’ instead of civilian deaths.

Germans direct. Americans indirect.

German Approach
Germans are direct. They say what they mean and mean what they say. Germans do not use euphemisms to soften a message. Nor do they „beat around the bush.“ For Germans direct communication is honest, transparent, efficient. It reduces the risk that people will not understand each other.

American Approach
Americans approach important topics carefully. Euphemisms help communicate uncomfortable messages. Depending on the topic‘s sensitivity, they will address it indirectly. In the American context indirect communication is considered both polite and effective. It maintains the dialogue in order to deepen it.

German Perception
For German ears Americans seem to wrap their messages in “wads of cotton”. As non-native speakers it is difficult and time-consuming to interpret carefully worded statements. And since euphemisms are context-related, they must be decoded.

CI is free !

American Perception
Germans can come across as impatient, impolite, hard. Americans can quickly feel uncomfortable, thus hindering more than helping communication. In some cases, Americans will avoid contact with those Germans (mis)perceived for their particularly direct communication.

Advice to Germans
Pay close attention to the differences between how you as a German and how the Americans communicate. Use a softer vocabulary. Approach important topics a bit more indirectly. The most important points do not have to be addressed immediately. Establish a little rapport with the other person, even if it is just a few sentences.

Clarity can be communicated via nuance, also. Americans pay particular attention to nuances. And remember to remind the Americans every now and then that English is not your native tongue. That will be a reminder to them that if your style of communication bothers them that it is cultural, not personal.

Advice to Americans
Germans are communicating with you in what for them is a foreign language. Be thankful that noone has asked you to communicate in a foreign language. For addressing complex and sensitive topics in a nuanced way is very difficult for any non-native speaker.

So, expect German directness. It has great strengths. Germans will say what they mean, and mean what they say. You know where they stand. For your part, be frank. Get to the point more quickly. Germans will not take it personally. And remember, if you don‘t understand something, or if you sense that Germans don‘t understand you, address it openly. Rephrase in other words what each party has said.

Not arrogant Germans

The husband of one of my cousins was in Germany for business. His name is Bart. We hadn’t seen each other in several years. He is a good guy, intelligent, open, hard working, and a good husband and father. Bart had meetings in Düsseldorf and he asked me to come up on the train and meet him for dinner. I take the train up from Bonn. It is a quick, comfortable, efficient ride. From the central train station in Düsseldorf it was only twenty minutes with the Strassenbahn, the tram. It was enjoyable winding through the tree-lined streets.

I enter the restaurant, turn left, go up a few steps and see Bart at a table with two men. They are his German business partners, or at least partners in this particular investment project Bart is working on. I sit down, we order food and talk. Bart does most of the talking. The two German guys aren’t terribly talkative. After about ten minutes I realize that they’d prefer to be somewhere else. At home with their families. At the gym getting a workout. Or even at their desk working. They made a very professional and focused impression.

Bart doesn’t really notice that they might rather be somewhere else. They’re polite, nodding to what Bart says, asking a question or two. They discreetly glance at their watches. I feel bad for Bart. He isn’t aware. I also become angry at the Germans for not putting a little more effort into the conversation.

Americans like to do business with people they like and who like them. They do not distinguish as clearly as Germans do between business and personal. Getting to know each other on a personal level is important. What could be better than enjoying a dinner together?

Arrogant Germans, I thought. They were being mean to my cousin, who was unknowing and perhaps a bit naive. My anger didn’t last long, though. From their perspective, perhaps it was selfish of Bart to invite them to dinner. They were supporting him with their legal expertise, thus not in a position to say no to dinner. Maybe they had a sick child at home or an important report to prepare for the next day. They most likely were good guys, also. Intelligent, open, hard working, good husbands and fathers.

Friends. Not Friends.

The Office

The hit TV series The Office, which originated in the UK, now exists in nine different versions adapted to the individual languages and tastes of the American, French, German, French Canadian, Chilean, Swedish, and Israeli people as well. The U.S. and German versions are by far the most successful and longest running of the lot.

That a mockumentary show about everyday office life should have to be adapted so many times to fit tastes across cultures, in spite of keeping a similar structure, set of characters, and setting speaks volumes about the importance of minor cultural differences in such a mundane setting.

Here, in broad strokes, are some of the chief differences. In the British version, nobody is working, nobody has a happy relationship, everyone looks terrible, and everybody is depressed.

In the French version, nobody is working but even the idiots look good, and everybody seems possessed of an intriguing private life. In the German version, actual work is visibly being done, and most of the staff is coupled up.

The American version most clearly shows the staff typically working, and places emphasis on their relationships outside of the office, highlighting the reality that many of them have relatively strong relationships outside of the workplace as well. Especially clear are the tactics of Michael Scott to be the best friend of everyone in the office, in spite of being their boss and having to make the tough decisions which don’t make everyone happy.

His German counterpart, Berndt Stromberg, also seems to value the attention of his employees over his actual tasks, but clearly does not want to be everybody’s friend.

Context irrelevant

Germans strive to separate substance from person. They can argue vehemently and still respect each other, even remain close friends. This allows them to pay less attention to the specific context of the interaction.

It is relatively unimportant whether they are communicating with their neighbor in front of their house, an acquaintance in the streetcar, a relative on the phone or a colleague at their workplace. A discussion about a topic of substance has little to do with the person individually.

The ability to separate substance from person is in the German business context among the fundamental abilities expected not only of employees, but especially of those who lead them – management. The self-understanding of the German citizen includes – consciously or unconsciously – the obligation to argue a point, to address a problem, to state an opinion objectively, critically, fairly.

Professional vs. Personal

German Approach
Germans detach the professional from the personal. Business colleagues can disagree, even argue, about the substance of an issue without it having a negative affect on their working relationship.

Critical thinking, stating one‘s opinions in a straightforward manner, debating the strengths and weaknesses of a given point, are in Germany signs of professionalism and of respect for the other person. The Germans are known for debating and arguing vigorously, then breaking for lunch or meeting for dinner and interacting with each other in a perfectly friendly manner.

American Approach
Americans link the professional with the personal. Statements made about a proposal, a concept, or work results are by definition judgements about that person‘s competence, ability, experience, skills. To say that engineering work performed was poor, is to say that it was a poor engineer who performed it. And usually there are consequences in the American business context for those do not perform.

Unless they are declared opponents or enemies, American colleagues seldom debate, argue or challenge each other in a direct, vigorous or threatening way. And if they do, you certainly will not find them voluntarily meeting for lunch or dinner.

Germans Perception
In some cases, Germans do indeed pick up on signals that their American colleagues can feel insulted. From their point of view, however, Americans are too sensitive to criticism, taking things too personally.

It is a surprise to the Germans, for the Americans have the reputation of being „cowboys“: rough, tough, ready for a fight, for a healthy debate. And because Germans define being professional as focusing on substance and „checking the personal at the door“, overly careful and sensitive Americans can come across as tedious, requiring special attention, in the end as unprofessional.

American Perception
Americans can, indeed, feel personally insulted by the statements German colleagues make. From their perspective the Germans go on the attack, saying things such as: „No, that is wrong“ or „That makes no sense“ or „You obviously did not do your homework“ or „We used that method a decade ago. Get up to date.“

In the U.S. business context part of being professional is knowing how to voice your opinion in ways respectful of other people. Germans can actually scare Americans. Some of Germans become known as unpredictable and explosive. Americans will avoid contact with them.

Advice to Germans
Continue to be analytical, straightforward and honest. And continue to address critical topics directly. But do all of this in a spirit and language which is softer and more dialogue-oriented. Americans also focus on substance. They also have vigorous debates. Their language, however, is more subtle, their attacks more naunced.

The challenge for you is not only the logic in how Americans debate. It is also a question of language. For it is truly difficult to communicate nuance in a foreign language. Mimic American statements. Use their terms and phrases.

And, from time to time, remind the Americans that you are speaking in a foreign language. They will respect you and feel a bit of shame that they – in most cases – do not speak a foreign language.

Advice to Americans
Develop a thicker skin. Not every criticism of your work is criticism of you or of your ability. You find can argue intensely with Germans and it will actually strengthen your working relationship.

Vigorous debate, intensity, „going toe-to-toe“ with each other, as long as you use solid arguments, are signs of ability, backbone and professionalism in Germany. Step up to the challenge, not back.

At the same time, when you notice that a German colleague, unintentionally, has come across too direct, come to his or her rescue. Rephrase their statements in softer, more diplomatic American speech. At the same time, ask your American colleagues to focus on substance, not form, and to not take it all so personally.

Bookstore Encounters

It was a Monday. Six in the evening. Early June. I had a few minutes before going across the street to the university to teach. Sitting in one of the comfortable armchairs in a multi-level bookstore here in Bonn, I check emails.

Germans have an intimate relationship with books, the written, the learned word. Gutenberg. Dozens and dozens of great thinkers. In the natural sciences. In mathematics. In philosophy, theology. The great historians of the 19th and 20th centuries. Germans. They write. They read.

A woman, late twenties, possibly a graduate student, sitting across from me is reading a rather thick book. Enjoying it. She smiles time and again. Not far off an elderly woman with headsets on is listening to Beethoven. She hums. She’s left alone. I can’t see her, but the hum is not youthful, but joyful.

A guy walks over, early thirties, knows exactly which book to pull from the shelf. He begins leafing through it, then glances at the cover of the book read by the woman across from me. He starts a conversation about J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series. His selection, her book too, must be of that genre. They begin debating about authors. Who’s better. Who steals material from whom.

Neutral. Argument vs. Counterargument

I listen and think. German. So many years I’ve been here. Twenty-two. So many times I’ve observed, been in such interactions. Commonplace. So easy to forget that it is foreign to me. Foreign to Americans. Different.

Direct. Argumentative. Bordering on rude. Know-it-alls. The interaction lasted no longer than five minutes. It was impersonal. No introductions. No smiles. Statements. Differences of opinion. Each holds their ground. Argument. Counterargument. Not unfriendly. Not attacking. Neutral. He walked away. She looked at me for a split second. Neither irritated, nor insulted. As if: “Oh, well. He sees it his way. I see it my way. No big deal.“

What would that kind of interaction look like between two Americans, in a university town, in America?

The guy: “Oh, hi, excuse me. You’re reading Jack Jones. I haven‘t read his stuff. Is he good?” The woman looks up, smiles a bit. “Yeah, I really like him. A lot like Rowling but a little more history to it.” The guy returns the smile. Nods. “J.K. is great. But, sometimes I get the feeling that maybe she gathers material from other authors.”

Like a cup of coffee together in the café

Woman: “Do you think? What authors?” Man: “Well, perhaps Smith. Maybe Richards.” The Woman: “Could be. Not sure. Smith is good. I haven’t read Richards yet. Don’t they all read each other and get inspired?” Man: “Hmm, I suppose you‘re right about that. But, my sense is that Richards might be a bit more original. By the way, I‘m Tom.” He offers his hand to shake hers. She reaches out with a warm smile. “I‘m Rita. You sound like you’ve read quite a bit in this genre.” Tom: “Love this stuff. Ever since I was a kid. And you?” Rita: “Me, too.”

The conversation could have stopped at that point, could have continued, perhaps led to a cup of coffee together in the café across the street. Many possibilities.

Let’s change the scenario once more. Rita is sitting across from me. A Fulbright Scholar in Bonn, for a year, studying German literature. Working on her Ph.D. Her German is excellent. She‘s been to Germany many times, but never for longer than three months.

The German guy sees that Rita is reading Jack Jones in English. Based on that and on her clothing, he thinks that she might be American. His English is good, has traveled extensively throughout the U.S., feels in many ways close to America and to Americans.


“You are reading Jack Jones. I read his first two books. He steals from Smith and Richards. But, they’re all better than Rowling. She’s over-rated.” Rita winced slightly: “Who is this guy? Doesn’t even know me. Strikes up a conversation and gives an unsolicited opinion?” She smiles halfheartedly: “Uh, excuse me? Oh, the book I am reading? Uh, well I happen to like Jones.” The man: “He’s not bad. But not very demanding of the reader. Kind of simple history lines.”

Rita cringes again, thinking: “Oh, ok. I‘m stupid for reading Jones. Is that the message? I wish this person would disappear.” Her smile disappears, she closes the book, peers over at him and says softly, icily, sarcastically: “Well, you seem to really know your stuff. Are you a professor of English literature here at the university?”

The man interprets the question literally, as a compliment. “No, no. I work in city hall here, public finance, just an avid reader of anything which combines history and science fiction.”

He’s happy to meet someone with whom he can discuss the authors and their works. And what’s more an American! He quickly and energetically sits down next to her determined to deepen the conversation.

Rita’s mind races. She goes through the permutations. Glance at her watch as if she had an appointment, then head for the door. Humor him for a few minutes, then head for the door. Give him a piece of her mind first, then head for the door. Or, head for the door. But, then again. He’s not bad looking. Well dressed. Sincere eyes. Intelligent. Maybe just a bit clumsy socially.

Geschwätz vs. Commonalities


Schwätzen means to gab or chat about topics of low relevance and in a thoughtless manner which has no value. The Germans speak of dummes Geschwätzdumm is stupid, dumb, idiotic, asinine, foolish.

Geschwätz from the verb schwätzen – when people in public spaces blab out loud, when students gab during classes, or colleagues do the same during meetings. A Schwätzer is not shunned, but disliked, and not respected. A Schwätzer talks too much and does too little.

Klappe Halten

Germans believe that if a person does not have anything valuable to offer in a given discussion then it is better that they say nothing at all – die Klappe halten.

Klappe is a cover, lid, flap. Halten is to hold or keep shut. Germans do not consider it to be impolite if in a discussion one or more people say little or nothing. Seldom do they ask, prompt or summon those who are silent to participate.

To “talk about the weather” in the German context means to talk about nothing of importance, to have a meaningless conversation, to be superficial. It is a signal to both parties that they have nothing to say to each other. It‘s embarrassing for both.

Books in Germany about Small Talk

Amazon Germany lists 196 books with ‘small talk’ in their title. The best sellers are Small Talk für Dummies, Small Talk – Nie Wieder Sprachlos (Never Again Speechless) and Small Talk – Die Besten Themen (The Best Topics).

The typical table of contents reads: What is small talk? What purpose does small talk serve? In what situations do you use small talk? When can small talk be dangerous or uncalled for? When do you need small talk? What topics are appropriate in small talk? Which topics are dangerous in small talk? Small talk and body language. How to react to small talk? How to deal with small talk in difficult situations?

Nearly two hundred books. What does this tell us about small talk in Germany?

Reasons for Small Talk

If you type into Google „reasons for small talk“ or „why small talk“ or „purpose of small talk“, it will respond with numerous links to people – experts and amateurs – who typically state anywhere between five and ten reasons.

Small talk: Signals the mood of the other person; finds topics of common ground; fills in a communication vacuum; establishes trust; is a possible introduction to big talk topics; identifies issues which might be too sensitive to address; can communicate interest, care, even affection; allows one to overcome their own shyness.

But what about introverts, those who prefer to discuss topics of substance?

Books in USA about Small Talk

On, there are 125,927 search results for books involving “small talk”. On, thee are 328 books found under “small talk”. Titles include The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Keep it Going, Build Networking Skills—and Leave a Positive Impression by Debra Fine and Turn Small Talk into Big Deals: Using 4 Key Conversation Styles to Customize Your Networking Approach, Build Relationships, and Win More Clients by Don Gabor.

German smalltalk. American bigtalk.

German Approach
In the German business context small talk is small, meaning short in duration. The Germans prefer to transition rather quickly to issues of substance, from small to big talk. They see little value in talking about the weather, sports or what they did in their most recent vacation.

American Approach
In the American business context small talk is an essential part of communication. Small talk gets the communication going, it „greases the wheels.“ It also allows each person to get a sense for how the other people are doing, their mood, the overall atmosphere.

Americans seldom jump directly into the business subject matter. For Americans business is always to certain degree a personal matter. In fact, Americans prefer to work with people they like, and who like them.

German Perception
Germans are aware that small talk in the U.S. is important. There are even books and seminars teaching the art of small talk. Nonetheless, Germans get impatient with American small talk. It takes up valuable time. They begin to check their watches. For Germans it is not a must to be a personal friend with the people they do business with. In fact, they can do business with people they don‘t like. Friendly relations are nice, but not a requirement.

American Perception
Brief German small talk can seem obligatory, as if they were just „going through the motions.“ Their sudden transition from casual conversation to serious topics is for Americans a sign of impatience. The Germans, unfortunate and unintended, can come across as impersonal and unfriendly. And who wants to work with unfriendly people? Americans don‘t.

Advice to Germans
All American relationships, including those in the business context, are personal. If it isn‘t personal, it isn‘t a relationship. Small talk is the most basic form of how Americans maintain communication. Learn how to do it. You can. Just go with the flow. Open yourself up. Get a bit more personal. If you have good rapport, you‘ll move through the business topics much more quickly, and in that way save time.

Advice to Americans
Keep small talk to a minimum. Listen carefully for signals when the Germans want to move from small to big talk. This is not a sign of disinterest, of being impersonal or unfriendly. The Germans get personal in non-business settings, at lunch, dinner, on the weekends. They have a great sense of humor, have all sorts of hobbies and interests outside of work.

And keep in mind, that Germans can and will do business with you even if you have little or no personal relationship. Most importantly, they want to know if you are good at what you do. Personal is nice. Professional is better.

“Not acceptable!”

It is the summer of 1997. I’m working in the Bundestag. There is the German-American parliamentarian group, made up of senators, congressmen and Bundestag members who meet twice a year, once in Germany, and once in the U.S., and they have many individual meetings throughout the year when any one of them is in the respective other capital.

This time the Bundestag is the host. The group meets in Bad Münstereifel, a lovely, quaint town about 45 miles southwest of Bonn. It has many remnants of the Middle Ages. An ancient wall encircles the town, with narrow cobblestone alleys and a stream winding through it. The morning air is cool and fresh. The mind wonders and wanders back into history.

The meetings are not intense. The purpose is relationship building. There are discussions, yes, and an agenda, too. But they are exploratory, about points of view and understanding. Austausch. Exchange. The second evening, after dinner, down in the Ratskeller, we are enjoying German wine. The mood is relaxed, friendly, gemütlich as Germans would say.

Suddenly one of the German parliamentarians stands up. Tall, strong build, focused, a determined look, she toasts the group briefly then announces that she would like to address a problem, a difference of opinion, between American foreign policy and the views of her political party, the Social Democrats (SPD), who at that time were in the opposition.

She wanted to talk about Cuba, about the Helms-Burton Act, otherwise known as the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, which tightened the U.S. embargo on Cuba. She and her party were diametrically opposed to it. “This was absolutely unacceptable!” she said.

The atmosphere in the group, in that Ratskeller, went from warm to cold within seconds. The Americans didn’t twitch a muscle. She continued, digging deeper and deeper. When her monologue was finished she remained standing. There was a pause. The U.S. Chargé d’Affaires (Acting Ambassador) stood up. He, a great admirer and friend of the Germans. He was first stationed as an Army officer, then made the switch into the Foreign Service.

Fluent in German, knowledgeable of their history and culture, he quietly and carefully stated that the United States, as a sovereign country, reserved the right to pass legislation which it deems to serve its foreign policy interests. He sat down as understatedly as he had stood up. Again there was silence. Not a movement. She, too, sat down. She was bewildered.

A side note. Earlier that day, during one of the meetings with all present, including support staff, a senior-level foreign policy advisor of the Free Democrats made a comment for all to hear about Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House. He commented about Gingrich‘s bad character, having served his wife divorce papers while she was in the hospital dying of cancer.

Clearly that was not a nice thing for Mr. Gingrich to do, but was it the right topic and tone for that kind of setting? One of the Americans, a Republican Congressman, raised his hand, cleared his voice, then politely begged to differ. He knew Gingrich as a colleague and a friend, found him to be a man of honesty and integrity. The room was silent. Not a movement.

The Germans are direct. They believe in saying what you mean and meaning what you say.

But, wait. What’s so wrong with that? Americans are often nuanced, tolerant of ambiguity, diplomatic. Americans believe that indirectness allows people to say what they mean and mean what they say, without saying it explicitly. Right?

But, tact can be tactics. Tactics in the sense of not direct, not transparent, not honest. Do Americans not have their own screamers, accusers and “bomb-throwers” in politics and in the media?

Unfortunately, after those two incidents, the atmosphere never really improved in Bad Münstereifel.