Big Talk vs. Small Talk

This article appeared in Handelsblatt Today on May 31, 2018. See all articles here.

Germans and Americans have different conversational styles. And that often causes trouble, says John Otto Magee in his third article in a series.

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.