I recently had an encounter with some Americans who worked closely with German colleagues — not very well. They felt that their hard work and efforts were under-appreciated by the Germans and that they were regarded as a bunch of cowboys. They felt that compared to their Asian and European counterparts in the same company, they were the only ones following the rules. Meanwhile, the colleagues back at the German headquarters thought that these Americans were making up their own rules. I couldn’t have found a better example of the stereotypical cavalier American butting heads with straight-laced, humorless Germans. This seemed to be a clear case of intercultural communication problems.
Let’s dissect the relationship a bit.
I observed their styles. The group leader, let’s call him Ken liked to talk a lot, nearly compulsively, about how hard his team worked yet liked to have fun together at the same time. The relevance and appropriateness of this information was confusing and from a German perspective would perhaps arouse suspicion. Why is he repeating this information; is he overcompensating for something else? There seemed to be a lack of substance as well. A big buzzer went off in my head as I thought, Germans won’t care so much about team spirit so much as the bottom line. And the team spirit and enthusiasm, well, instead of being contagious, would instead undermine credibility.
Ken was a nice guy. Very friendly, kind and affable. Very American. As he greeted you by first name, of course, there was a lot of deliberate elbow and arm touching as he talked. My German “sense of formality” flag went up. It called to mind that cringeworthy YouTube video of then US President George Bush giving German Chancellor Angela Merkel a shoulder massage at the G8 meeting in Russia in 2006.
And let’s look at Ken’s colleague, Robert. He was a big, burly man. Simple, straightforward speaking. While I would say that Germans tend to appreciate straight talking more than fluff generating, I think that Robert might have been a bit too straightforward. Perhaps asking the visiting German manager at the start of his visit whether or not he thought they were all a bunch of rednecks might have been a bit too blunt.
I am often wary of “intercultural training” per se because they are, afterall, based on a lot of generalizations and stereotypes. But, after hearing these experiences and thinking of some others I’ve seen: emails addressed to a university president by first name when no relationship was really established, I think it could be a good idea.
When I was preparing to travel to Germany for the first time to represent my London employer back in 2004, I sought advice from some of my German clients based in London. One piece of advice that one of them gave me has stayed with me: avoid at all costs having to say that you’ll “have to get back to them on that.” If you do, you’ll lose instant credibility. And once you’ve lost that credibility, you’ll have to work twice as hard to earn it again.
Unfortunately for Ken and for Robert, I think that they are in the position of having lost credibility and trust with their German counterparts and are indeed struggling to earn these back again. But perhaps with a bit of this soft skill training called “intercultural communications,” they might be able to repair their adversarial relationship with their German colleagues and in the end, work successfully together.