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.
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.
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.
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.