Personal and Participant

Six videos. Twelve mins.


Whenever we interact with another person they are interacting with us. This sounds rather obvious. So, let’s go little deeper.

When we interact with another person, we do our best to read them, to understand them, so that we know how best to react. Much of our behavior is in reaction to others, to what they say and do.

That is the meaning of reaction. But often we are so focused on understanding the other person, on reading what they say and do, on reading the signals they send, that we forget that they are doing the same with us. When I, John, am interacting with Annegret, she, Annegret, is interacting with me, John.

I know that his sounds obvious, trivial, so self-stated. But wait, what does it really mean? We have to be aware of how what we say and do is interpreted, perceived, understood, misunderstood, by the other person. Yes, I am reading Annegret’s signals. But Annegret is reading the signals I am sending. Signals I am sending consciously or unconciously.


Let’s take a simple, common, but very important example. A typical situation involving Americans and Germans. It involves a major misunderstanding that Germans have about Americans, that Americans are superficial.

I have heard it hundreds of times, in one form or another: Amerikaner sind oberflächlich, in English Americans are superficial. I don’t want go into detail about this particular misunderstanding.

We all operate on misunderstandings about other cultures, whether we care to admit it or not. I, John Magee, know very little about any other culture other than the U.S., my home culture, and Germany, where I have lived for more than twenty-five years.

Any thoughts I have about France, Italy, Mexico, China, India are based on little to no knowledge, even less experience. Per definition any and all thoughts I have about those countries and cultures are over-simplified, inaccurate, very likely wrong.

Americans are superficial is a German misunderstanding about Americans. We Americans have our misunderstanding about Germans, such as Germans have no sense of humor. We all know that both misunderstandings are silly, dumb, untrue, frankly, embarrassing.

Klaus the German

The point I want to make about interactions is that they are always participatory. Let’s take Klaus, a German, who meets Judy, an American, and they engage in smalltalk.

Klaus being German, wants to discuss subjects of substance. That is what Germans do. Germans often bring up subjects of substance. They want different viewpoints, different opinions. They want a lively discussion, even a debate.

But wait, Americans are different. In small talk situations Americans avoid subjects of substance. They avoid subjects which could lead to lively discussion or debate. Americans bring up subjects which are light, non-political, non-controversial, such as the weather or sports or vacation or food, anything to keep things calm and civil.

Americans do not go into depth in such situations. That’s why it’s called small talk. We could also call it shallow talk. Shallow vs. deep. Or call it superficial talk, meaning on the surface, keep on surface.

Americans can do deep talk. In fact, they’ve been doing it for more than two hundred and fifty years. You need only take a closer look at American history.

Judy the American

Ok, so let’s get back to Klaus and Judy. They are in Atlanta at a conference. They are colleagues, but only recently working together. They are excited to finally meet. Even though, frankly, their collaboration has not gone all that well thusfar.

At a dinner many folks get together. Klaus and Judy are there. It is their chance to meet and do some small talk. Klaus then brings up topics of substance. And since it is the year 2020, and they are in U.S., and America is always topic in Germany, Klaus wants talk about controversial current developments in U.S.: politics, race relations, response to the Cororna-virus, the economy, etc.

As stated, these are not topics Americans feel comfortable with in a small talk setting, most certainly not in a business setting. So what does Judy do? She pulls back, does not engage, tries to lighten up conversation, to change the subject.

Judy asks Klaus what he thinks of Atlanta. She asks him how the conference is going. She might even ask Klaus how his flight to the U.S. went. How does Klaus react? Most likely surprised. “What, my flight? I want to talk about Corona-virus.” This goes back and forth and Klaus gets impression that Judy is, well, superficial.

Miss the Point

I could spell out in great detail the German reaction to American small talk. I will not, because I want to make a bigger point, actually two bigger points.

The first point is, Klaus sees the interaction with Judy, and with other Americans during conference, as verification of what everyone in Germany knows, namely that Americans are superficial.

The second point, and the message of this video is that it does not occur to Klaus that Judy is reacting to him. In other words that his actions are leading Judy to pull back, to not engage, to try to lighten up the conversation.

Klaus is not aware of how his actions affect Judy, thus affecting Judy’s reactions to him. Klaus most likely is not aware that Judy perceives him as overbearing, provocative, rude, maybe purposely picking a fight with her.

All Interactions

My message here is that every interaction is participatory. We cannot separate what we experience from what the other party is experiencing in the interaction. Our behavior influences their behavior. Their behavior influences ours. We are participating in this together. It is participatory, and not separated.

We all know this, right? But, do we take it enough into consideration when we interact? I think not. Or not enough. There is considerable risk, considerable danger, in not taking enough into account how our actions affect the other party.

And why? Because they may misinterpret our intentions. Because they may misinterpret who we are. And vice versa. We misinterpret their intentions. We misinterpret who they are.

Benefit of the Doubt

Two videos. Five mins.


Benefit of the doubt, what does phrase mean? Doubt is something like this: “I don’t understand why my German colleague, Manfred, is doing X. I’m not sure if it is good or bad. My sense, that it is not good. Even more, I don’t know if Manfred’s intentions are good or bad.”

A benefit is something good, positive, in someone’s favor. To give someone the benefit of doubt is to choose to see the good, the positive, in what they say or do.

“I don’t understand why my German colleague, Manfred, is doing X. I don’t know if his intentions are good or bad. However, I choose to give Manfred the benefit of the doubt. I choose to assume, to believe, that what he is doing is good and that Manfred’s intentions are good.”

That’s what it means to give someone the benefit of the doubt.


Why should you give Manfred the benefit of doubt? I can think of six good reasons: First, his actions and intentions might be good. If so, you are on the right side, on the side of Manfred and on side of what is good.

Second, if you are wrong about Manfred, if his actions and intentions were not good, you can always adjust your response.

Third, by giving Manfred the benefit of doubt, you are in a position to help Manfred, to change his actions, to help him have a change of heart. And that is helpful to Manfred and to the team.

Fourth, in the future Manfred will most likely give you the benefit of doubt. You will do things which other colleagues question. Gaining Manfred as a friend and an ally will be helpful to you.

Fifth, colleagues will have observed how you gave Manfred the benefit of doubt. By doing so you are setting an example, you are upholding the right behavior. This encourages others to do the same. Colleagues will be more willing to give each other the benefit of doubt.

Sixth, you will be doing the right thing. That alone is enough reason. You do not need any of the other five reasons.

Oh, and there is a seventh reason, why we should give colleagues the benefit of doubt: cultural differences between Americans and Germans, in how we think and how we work. They will lead to many situations in which the two cultures misread each other.

Depending on the situation both sides will be quick to assume the negative, bad motives, to not give the benefit of doubt. The danger of misreading actions and intentions will be especially high. Instead, let’s look at each other with friendly eyes. Let’s go further, let’s look at each other with loving eyes.

St. Louis – 12/2019

On December 11, 2019 John Magee gave a keynote talk in St. Louis. It was the same talk he had given in Cologne on November 13: to a group of senior-level people – Germans and Americans – in the Strategy and Portfolio Management organization of a major German company with a very significant presence in the U.S.

The focus of his talk was on leadership. Not in the sense of the over-used buzzword, but instead about the very concrete, specific, day-to-day interaction between hierarchical levels, between team-leads and team-members. Here are the key points:

Who is John

About John Magee, an American who has lived and worked in Germany for thirty years.

What John does 

John helps Americans and Germans to: understand cultural differences, discuss their impact on collaboration, define how best to work together.

Why we should care

We need to understand cultural differences for three reasons: to get the job done, to sleep better at night (literally and figuratively), and to improve relations between countries.

Where we differ

Americans and Germans lead – and want to be led – differently. Comparing soccer to American football gives us insight into the differences.

Influence of differences 

The differences between the American and German leadership logics exert direct and constant influence on cross-Atlantic collaboration.

Work for and not against 

There are practical, pragmatic and effective ways to get the differences in the leadership logics to work for, instead of against cross-Atlantic  collaboration.

Cologne – 11/2019

On November 13, 2019 John Magee gave an hour-long keynote to a group of senior-level people – Germans and Americans – in the Strategy and Portfolio Management organization of a major German company with a very significant presence in the U.S.

The focus of his talk was on leadership. Not in the sense of the over-used buzzword, but instead about the very concrete, specific, day-to-day interaction between hierarchical levels, between team-leads and team-members. Here are the key points:

About John

Magee – an American who has lived and worked in Germany for thirty years – introduces himself to a group of high-level management.

Three Data Points 

There are differences between cultures. The differences are in foundational areas. The differences necessarily exert direct and constant influence on collaboration. (Please note: at 41 seconds the audience laughs. Not because of my statement about Germans closing doors to bathrooms. Instead because a door which was behind me was closed by a member of the restaurant staff precisely at that point when I had made the statement about Germans and doors)

Three Steps 

First, understand cultural differences. Second, engage in three conversations. Third, discuss and decide on how to collaborte.

Three Good Things

Three good things happen when Germans and Americans, who are collaborting, understand cultural differences.

On Leadership 

One key difference between the American and the German leaderships logics: Where the two cultures respectively draw the line between strategy and tactics.

Stop. Engage. 

Americans and Germans, who are collaborating, need to stop each other whenever they find themselves – individually or as a group – thinking and saying that the other side “has another crazy idea which will never work.”

Our Blind Spot 

Most companies operating across borders do not address the deeper-lying cultural differences. It is the single greatest blind spot among global companies.

Düsseldorf – 03/2019

Acuris hosted a two-day M&A MergerMarket Forum in Düsseldorf in March of 2019. Catherine Ford, Editor-at-Large, led the interview.

Underpraise vs. Overpraise

This article appeared in Handelsblatt Today on January 31, 2019. See all articles here.

Whereas Americans tend to gush positivity, Germans often come across as stingy with praise. This can lead to bad misunderstandings in firms and teams where Germans and Americans must work together, says an American consultant in Germany, in the 8th part of a series.

Germans and Americans handle feedback differently. Whether given formally in a performance review or informally, feedback relies on assumptions, intentions and signals. If those are misunderstood – as they often are between American and German team members – feedback can backfire and damage the morale and motivation of an otherwise well performing individual or team.

The German approach to feedback is to differentiate strictly between a realistic assessment and overly enthusiastic gushing. Germans generally think that praise should be given only in direct response to empirically demonstrated performance. Praise in front of the team is rare, as are official awards.

The German fear is that public praise could lead to envy on the part of other team members and thereby undermine cohesion. 

Furthermore, Germans tend to feel uncomfortable working in an atmosphere of peer competition. Even German top performers would rather do without the praise and the bonus to preserve a cooperative working relationship with their colleagues.

Germans also believe that the success of a team is often difficult to attribute to the performance of specific members. That’s why praise in front of the team or any kind of reward can lead to embittered discussions about how performance is defined and measured. Germans believe that it is too easy to mistakenly praise one colleague for work results produced by another. They are quick to suspect injustice.

Germans also believe that too much praise can lead employees to „rest on their laurels“. That’s why Germans, when they praise at all, do so in moderation. They want to signal that there is always room for improvement. In their minds, this is itself a form of motivation.

The assumption is that being one‘s own most severe critic is the prerequisite for working independently, for self-management. This German logic is revealed in expressions such as Nicht geschimpft, ist genug gelobt, or “not criticized is praised enough”.

Germans learn at an early age to expect more critique than praise – from parents, teachers, coaches. Young Germans are trained to be self-critical, to be wary of undeserved praise. Experts in education and child-rearing warn of the dangers of excessive praise. It can, they believe, tempt people to overrate their abilities and to lose touch with reality.

Some studies, though, suggest that this approach is not always in the best interest of employees and their companies. More than half of all German managers and subject-area experts feel that they deserve more praise. Only a quarter are satisfied with the current level of positive feedback; 14 percent say they receive no praise at all for their work.

Great job!

American attitudes toward feedback are totally different. Americans see themselves as positive thinkers: as both motivators and self-motivators. Praising is seen as sign of leadership, and as especially important when a team is struggling or plagued by self-doubt. 

One concrete symbol of praise is official recognition in the form of awards. Americans want to be rewarded for good work. Awards ceremonies, small and large, are thus considered a normal instrument of positive feedback.

To German team members, this kind of American praise often feels exaggerated, inflationary, or simply unwarranted. The Germans fear a creeping self-delusion. Germans simply don’t use terms like “great”, “fabulous”, “fantastic”, “amazing”. 

At the same time, German team members receiving feedback from Americans often fail to recognize the criticism that may be carefully wrapped in praise. Even though the American managers feel they have been quite clear, the Germans are often not sure what their weaknesses are and how to improve.

So Germans working in American teams should be prepared to hear lots of praise. They should accept it graciously and be happy about it. After all – who knows? – they might even deserve it. And German managers leading Americans should be much more generous with praise than they would be in their home culture: Praise, motivate, cheer your team on to victory.

Americans working in German teams, by contrast, should prepare to rely on themselves for motivation more than on their managers. They shouldn’t pine for praise that never comes; they should just get on with it and develop inner strength.

American managers of German team members, meanwhile, should tone down their praise a bit, and practice the German art of sober understatement. Their German team members will take them more seriously.

And if the Americans do decide to single out individuals for extra praise, they should remember to celebrate the whole team and be careful not to create stars. Germans really don’t like stars.

Address vs. Escalate

Americans and Germans have very different expectations about how to manage interpersonal conflicts when they arise, which can lead to huge misunderstandings. As part of an ongoing series of articles, an American consultant living in Germany offers some advice.

This article appeared in Handelsblatt Today on December 1, 2018. See all articles here.

When Germans and American collaborate, there will be conflict. This is normal. However, their respective approaches to conflict resolution differ. These differences, if not understood and properly balanced, can hinder just and lasting conflict resolution. And unresolved conflict threatens collaboration and success.

Germans view conflicts as fundamentally negative and discomforting. Escalating conflict should be an option of last resort. And since effective leadership is expected to anticipate and prevent conflicts within their organization, those conflicts which have been escalated — which have “become public” — are signs of leadership failure.

Americans view conflicts of interest as a fact of life. Escalation is often considered necessary, because the individual has a fundamental right to seek resolution, to “have his day in court.” A third party — almost without exception the next management level — is called upon to adjudicate. In fact, effective leadership is defined, among other things, by its ability to resolve conflicts which have “become public.”

Germans are therefore surprised, irritated, at times shocked, at how often and quickly their Americans colleagues raise a conflict to the next management level. Escalation is a sign of their own failure. Competent, professional, rational people are expected to resolve their differences among themselves.

Clearing the air is of the essence

Americans, meanwhile, see conflicts among and with German colleagues go unresolved, or unresolved for too long. They feel that the air needs to be cleared. Colleagues should seek resolution openly, confidently, and most importantly with the assistance and under the guidance of management. “Isn’t that what management is paid for?”

If you are a German manager leading Americans, get ready to resolve conflicts on a regular basis. If you try to avoid them or to push them back down to the working level, you run the danger of being perceived as a weak leader who a) avoids conflict or b) is unsure about how to resolve conflict. Either way, your legitimacy as a leader will be undermined.

If you are a German member in a trans-Atlantic team, and come into conflict situations with your American colleagues, be prepared for those conflicts to be escalated rather quickly. Your American colleagues will be less inclined to go the extra mile with you in order to resolve the conflict at your working level.

If you are an American leading Germans, you may sense, hear about or even witness conflict among team members. Don’t be surprised if they don’t ask for your assistance in resolving that conflict. This is neither a challenge to your leadership nor an indication that Germans like long, drawn-out internal battles. Chances are, they are trying to resolve the conflict themselves. They don’t want to bother or embarrass you.

If you are an American in a transatlantic team and have a conflict of interest with a German colleague, don’t be surprised if he or she discourages you from escalating the issue to the next level. The German attempt to resolve the problem with you personally should be taken at face value. Give it a chance. If you have a German manager, be very careful about escalating the issue too early. In the German logic, you will be perceived by all — German boss, German colleague, German observers — as uncooperative, rash, possibly hot-headed.

For in the German context, to escalate a conflict within the team to the next management level is considered to be a sign of failure — failure of the conflict parties to resolve their problem. Escalation is the equivalent of going to court, of one party suing the other. For Germans, the severity of such a step just about rules out any chance that the two parties will be able to work together again. And regardless of how their German manager assists in the resolution, regardless of the outcome, she will view her two team members as having failed her, and the team.

Process vs. Relationship

This article appeared in the Handelsblatt Today on October 27, 2018. See all articles here.

Germans believe that processes — how the work is done — is the key to success. Americans, however, favor relationships, or how to gain and retain customers.

By tradition, Germany is more a culture of artisans (Handwerkerkultur) than of traders (Händlerkultur). The Germans have always made things. And they believe that process — how the work is done — is the key to success. Good processes lead to good products, bad processes to bad ones.

One well-known German manager, Klaus-Hardy Mühdeck, the CIO of ThyssenKrupp, is even nicknamed the “process pope” and has changed his title to Chief Process Officer. Because processes govern the internal workings of a company, whoever has the say over process has the say over the company. Process is power. Germans want the power.

The United States, by contrast, is a culture of traders more than of artisans. Americans do make things, but they also buy and sell things, including whole companies. Americans believe that business revolves around the needs of the customer. Good relationships lead to good customers, bad relationships lead to no customers. And because those relationships drive what the company does, whoever has the say over relationships has the say over the company. Relationships are power. Americans want the power.

The more product-oriented a company is, the less important are its customer relationships and the lower the prestige of its teams in business development, marketing, and sales. This is why in many German companies scientists and engineers are the kings. German-engineered products should sell themselves. Because Americans allegedly don’t understand this primacy of product, and therefore process, Germans are happy to leave marketing, sales etc. to the Americans.

The more customer-oriented a company is, the less important are science and engineering. Which is why in US companies the kings are often in business development, relationship management, marketing or sales. Products don’t sell themselves, they are sold by people. Because Germans don’t understand this market- and customer-orientation, Americans are often happy to leave internal debates about processes to the Germans.

My advice to Germans: If processes are crucial to success, convince your American colleagues to take processes seriously. Don’t create processes without involving them. Otherwise, you’ll produce German processes which won’t work in the US. If process is power, share that power.

My advice to Americans: If interacting with customers is key to success, get your German colleagues involved. Give them full access to your strategic thinking, about how you go to market. Involve them in your most important business relationships. Take them with you to the customers. If relationships are power, share that power.

Soccer vs. Football

This article appeared in the Handelsblatt Today on September 15, 2018. See all articles here.

Germans and Americans have very different expectations about leadership. That often leads to problems when they work together in business, explains an American consultant living in Germany, in the fifth part of a series.

Germans and Americans differ in many ways, as you know if you’ve read the previous installments in this series. Yet another difference has to do with how they lead and want to be led. There is a cliché that German leadership tends to be top-down, hierarchical and “command-and-control.” There is another cliché that American leadership favors flat structures, empowerment and subsidiarity. Neither of these is true. In fact, the opposite is true. The real cultural differences are both more subtle and more interesting, and offer plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings.

Let’s start with the German leadership logic. Germans – both those doing the leading and those being led – prefer generally formulated missions. The leader will specify the what, but not the how. Overall responsibility for fulfilling the mission (i.e., the tactics) rests primarily with the implementer but is shared to only a limited degree with the team leader.

From Prussia to soccer

This style of leadership has deep historical roots. Führen mit Auftrag, a multifaceted leadership concept roughly translated as “Leading by Mission,” dates back to the famous Prussian Reforms of the early 19th century, when the Germans analyzed why they were so swiftly and thoroughly defeated by Napoleon‘s armies. In this leadership culture, the officer issues to his troops a mission, a goal. It is then up to the next level to devise how they will complete the mission independently of their leadership.

What is unique about this style is the degree of freedom at the tactical level given to the junior officers and enlisted soldiers. They decide independently which approach is best and adjust to changing situations. This requires flexibility, creativity and independent thinking. Again, this does not fit the cliché that some outsiders have of German leadership.

It is, of course, crucial in this leadership culture that the tactical level clearly understands the strategic thinking of the commanding officer. The implementers must have good judgment and a strong sense of responsibility and duty. The commanding officer, meanwhile, must communicate the strategy clearly. He or she must also provide the tactical managers with all the necessary resources. Anything less is counterproductive. It also threatens team morale and the mission itself.

Another assumption behind this German leadership logic is that the entire group, and each member, must feel self-confident, like an expert in whatever he or she does. The leaders, in turn, should feel proud of their troops and accept team members who take different approaches, as long as the overall goal is reached.

A good analogy comes from soccer, the Germans’ favorite sport. Between matches, the coach works with the players on technique, practices strategies and tries out different formations. But once the match begins, the coach has few levers to influence its outcome. He or she can make only three player substitutions. Aside from yelling a bit, the coach has only a few minutes at halftime to provide instruction. In the end, it is the players who have to know how to react to the opposing team, while the coach turns into a bystander.

Hut, hut, hut

Americans, by contrast, prefer specifically formulated, command-oriented tasks. The leader’s order addresses not only the what, but also the how. This logic, too, has its roots in the military. Until the end of World War II, the United States did not maintain a standing army. American military history is thus a series of mobilizations and demobilizations. Each time, Americans had to retrain themselves for the war they were fighting, enlisting and managing young men at short notice and with little time.

These constraints gave rise to a culture of detailed orders that leave little room for interpretation or improvisation. Again, sport offers a good analogy. In American football, the coach and coaching staff are the dominant actors even during the game, without ever stepping onto the field. They determine not only the strategy but also the tactics.

The rules of the game acknowledge this, by not limiting in any way when, or how often, the coach can substitute players. The coaching staff calls the individual offensive and defensive plays via direct communication with designated players: the quarterback on offense, the middle linebacker or safety on defense. Playbooks describe in precise detail what each player does in a given play.

Lost in translation

When Germans work with Americans, the Germans often experience the American leadership approach as too involved on the implementation level. The American-style hands-on coaching comes across as micromanagement. The Germans perceive their American bosses as „telling me how to do my job,” and feel professionally degraded and personally insulted. The Americans, in turn, often see German bosses as distanced, uninvolved, and almost passive, “empty suits.” They miss clearer definitions of their tasks but don’t know how to bring this up with their German boss.

My advice to Germans who lead Americans is thus to address this cultural difference openly, by talking about where they draw the line between strategy and tactics, and by also being more detailed than usual about the how, in addition to the what. My advice to Americans who lead Germans is to become more teacher than football coach. Let your German team members succeed on their own and in their own way. Give them space.

Consult vs. Serve

A big source of misunderstanding between Americans and Germans, rarely made explicit, is about whether business should inherently be customer-centric, supplier-centric, or somehow balanced, as our fourth column in this series explains.

This article appeared in the Handelsblatt Today on July 9, 2018. See all articles here.

A big source of misunderstanding between Americans and Germans, rarely made explicit, is about whether business should inherently be customer-centric, supplier-centric, or somehow balanced, as our fourth column in this series explains.

Germans and Americans alike will of course say they care about their customers. But they associated different meanings with that notion. And that often leads to misunderstandings and frustration. American providers of business services proudly offer exactly that: a service. By contrast, German providers view their proposition less as a service and more as a consultation. The difference is subtle, but consequential.

Germans use the English word “service” constantly. But “service” is not native to the German language. The German equivalent is dienen. In the Middle Ages, dienen was associated with being a messenger, a runner, or a farm laborer. Dienen meant “to be helpful”. But in today’s German dienen has the very negative connotation of service in the sense of servitude, subjugation or subordination.

That’s why Germans today tend to avoid using the German word dienen and prefer the English word “service”. (It stems from the Latin word servitium, which also described the condition of a slave, but that etymology is not obvious to German speakers.) Sometimes Germans even combine a German and an English term: Thus Kundenservice means “customer service”. Some of their concoctions become involuntarily amusing, as with Servicedienstleistung, which translates back into English as “service-service”.

To Americans, by contrast, the English term “service” mainly connotes graciousness, helpfulness and selflessness. It is inherently personal. An American rendering a service will respond to the needs of the customer, and the customer will expect nothing less. But service in American thinking also presumes compensation. Service is thus both personal and commercial. Impersonal service seldom leads to commercial success, whereas personal service without fair compensation is servitude.

Germans holding council

Germans clearly prefer another German word in thinking about their business relationship: beraten. The root is Rat, which means “counsel”. Beraten thus means “to hold council”, or more simply “to consult” or “to advise”. It implies a business relationship that is more balanced in terms of power and respect.

Consulting involves joint planning with the customer. It is a two-way street, whereas serving sounds like a one-way street. Serving is seen by Germans as somewhat degrading and demeaning, as almost unworthy of the educated and skilled.

Germans therefore find some of their American colleagues to be too eager to serve the customer. They don’t like Americans leaping into action at the faintest hint of a request from the customer. From the German perspective, American customers are also unrealistically demanding.

Germans believe that one can command more respect, and thus be more successful, by demonstrating independence, and not instinctively giving the customer what he wants. The customer often does not know what is best for him, so to truly serve him means to maintain your autonomy in order to objectively advise the customer on how to solve his problems. The typical German customer, too, neither respects nor wants a servant; he demands an expert who is willing to infuse the relationship with his expertise.

Some Americans also prefer to see themselves as consulting rather than serving. But they find nothing inherently demeaning or degrading in serving another person. And serving a customer in a business context implicitly involves compensation. Service only becomes degrading (meaning “not worth it”) when the compensation is unfair.

Americans thus look at their German colleagues and see an approach that is not customer-oriented but supplier-oriented: The customer has to orient himself to the supplier. This looks all wrong in American eyes. It implies an imbalance in favor of the supplier. The customer can easily gain the impression that he should be thankful to be served at all. At worst, Americans find the German approach arrogant and unresponsive.

Germans, please listen

When dealing with Americans, Germans should therefore make clear right away that they are focused on serving the needs of their customer. They should signal that they will be willing to listen. Germans should avoid using terms such as “consult” or “advise” at first, and use “service” or “serve” instead. Many Americans would often misunderstand “consulting” as lacking engagement, as not wanting to be involved in the implementation of needed measures, as ducking their responsibility.

Germans should also refrain from asking questions in the initial meetings that are critical, probing or penetrating. A highly analytical conversation, with questions going to the core of the customer’s business, implies an already close business relationship. It could be that your collaboration has not yet reached that stage. The American customer sees herself as managing the relationship, as deciding if and when you reach full collaboration. Americans want to be sure that you have understood their situation, their needs and challenges, before they are willing to accept you as a consultant who serves their needs.

Americans, stay detached

Germans respond positively to American customer-orientation. But that friendliness and responsiveness must be backed up by a solution to a problem. So Americans dealing with Germans should avoid the terms “serve” and “service” at first, and talk about “consulting” instead. German customers might hear “serve” as a substitute for real and proven knowledge and expertise. Americans should also try stay detached and even distant from the customer as a person, to depersonalize the relationship and remain an outsider lending his expertise to a specific problem.

Americans should delve earlier than their instincts suggest into the complex and critical issues and start asking penetrating questions right away. Otherwise the Germans will think the Americans either do not grasp problems in their complexity or do not dare to address them.