Attributing Motives

Five videos. Thirteen minutes

Introduction

Attributing motives is a dangerous thing. Dangerous for those who do it. You will hurt yourself. Badly. To attribute motives means to assign motives to another person. Motives explain why a person said or did something.

You all know that I take words seriously. I want to know their meanings. To attribute is a verb. It means to explain something by indicating a cause, to regard as a characteristic of person or thing.

An example: “John said and did this, because John thinks this or John thinks that.” More concretely: “John is recommending X, not because he thinks it is the best solution for the team. But instead because it is John’s idea and he wants to advance his career.” We explain John’s behavior as being motivated by self-interest and not motivated by what is best for the team.

But it is also possible to attribute positive motives. “John is recommending X not because he thinks it will advance his career. But instead because John believes it is the best solution and the best for the team.”

We all attribute motives to other people and to each other. Attributing motives is a way of explaining behavior of others. “Why did Susan do that? Hmm, well most likely because she X, Y or Z.”

Now, you folks are all aware of this, about attributing motives. We do it all the time. Consciously or unconsciously. Fairly or unfairly. And you can be sure that other people are attributing motives to us.

Dangerous

Here is where it gets tricky, where it can be dangerous: If we attribute motives to another person’s actions and the attributions we make, the motives we assign to that person, are not accurate or only partly accurate, they lead us to adjusting our behaviour accordingly.

“Why did Susan do that? Hmm, well most likely because she X, Y or Z. And because Susan is motivated by X, Y or Z, then I need to respond in this way.” We adjust, react, respond to what we think is Susan’s motive.

Ok, fine. There is nothing wrong with that, with being alert, with being careful. In the case of Susan perhaps it is prudent, because Susan is tricky, unreliable, political, untrustworthy. In fact, many people are tricky, unreliable, political, untrustworthy.

But wait, what if we attribute motives that are not accurate? What if we are way off target? And what if we adjust our behavior accordingly? Then it can become very dangerous.

First, negative motives, treating another person unfairly, is never  agood thing. Not good for them. Not good for us.

Second, the adjustments we make may not be in line with reality. We are reacting to something which does not exist. “Susan is out to make me look bad. I will preempt her by making her look bad first.”

Third, our adjusted behavior, based on a misreading of the situation, could lead to the other person reacting in ways which they did not intend, reacting to our behavior, to our actions, which are concrete and real. “Why did John criticize me in our team meeting this morning? I don’t understand. What should I do about this?”

Spin out of Control

Folks, all of us are very familiar with dynamic. There is no need to have a Ph.D. in psychology. The dynamic is at the core of our thinking as human beings.

We observe and experience the behavior of others. Family, neighbors, work colleagues, customers, suppliers. Often their behavior surprises us. We can perceive as a threat. We want to understand their behavior. We think about their motives, about causes. “Why did he or she do this or that?”

During the Cold War we had our best thinkers, on both sides, Nato and Warsaw Pact, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, trying their hardest to understand the thinking on other side.

A lot of soldiers and armies and weapons and nuclear weapons. If they had gone boom, it would not have been very pretty. Miscalculation would have had very dire consequences.

Miscalculation is linked to misattribution of motives. “If we do this, the Soviet Union will most likely react in this way. That will lead us to respond in that way. Which, in turn, could lead the Soviets to, etc. “

We all know this. We are all familiar with the dynamic. The key is to know the other side so well so that when we attribute motives, we do so as accurately as possible. We want to be so aligned with their thinking that our response is appropriate, fair, prudent, measured.

If our response is not all of those – appropriate, fair, prudent, measured – the situation can spin out of control. Frankly, it is a wonder, a miracle of history, that no nuclear weapons we fired during the Cold War. Although, in October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, both sides came very close.

Misattributing

I think we all know where I am going with this. My work is helping Americans and Germans to understand cultural differences, so that collaboration succeeds.

We know that there are times when the two groups do not get along, when they are not in agreement, at odds with each other, against each other, even see each other as enemy.

Which means following: if there are differences between Americans and Germans, and in foundational areas, differences in how they think and in how they work, then those differences necessarily, per definition, influence collaboration, directly and constantly.

If that is the case, then the chances of miscalculation, of misattribution, of motives, are high. Miscalculation, misattribution, misperception, these are synonyms, different words with same meaning. A better word is misunderstanding.

If German colleagues misunderstand American colleagues, and American colleagues then say or do something which the German colleagues do not agree with or are against or see as counterproductive or even as dangerous, then it is very likely that the German colleagues will attribute a motive to what the U.S. colleagues have said or done.

The German colleagues will then very likely take countermeasures. They will do something against it. This is normal, human, rational, perhaps even legitimate, responsible, the right thing to do perhaps. But perhaps not.

Risk of Misunderstanding

The key term is understanding. How can the two sides reduce the risk of misunderstanding? I have a few recommendations:

First, talk to each other. I mean this seriously. Talk to each other. If Joe says or does something which you Germans find disturbing, instead of attributing a negative motive to Joe and then preparing and executing countermeasures, pick up the phone and speak to Joe about it. I know, this is scary, risky, dangerous, uncomfortable, especially after you have convinced yourself of Joe’s bad motives.

Second, when speaking with each other, when getting clarity on reality, go deeper. Ask each other about your respective deeper logics. This may feel strange. It will not be easy, because we normally don’t reflect on our national cultural approaches. We need to do it anyway. It deepens understanding.

Third, remain in dialogue with each other. If you have taken the first two steps, if you have taken this leap forward together, if you have embarked down this path, stay on that path.

Fourth, once you are on that path together and you see to the left or to the right others who misunderstand each other, reach out and pull them over onto the path. Get them talking with each other. Help them to do what you have learned to do.


Personal and Participant

Six videos. Twelve mins.

Introduction

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.

Clichés

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.

Definition

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

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.


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.


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.


Big Talk vs. Small Talk

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

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

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.