After having done some reading on the topic I came to the conclusion that intercultural communication is horror.
I mean, in the average English didactics lesson the professor tells about the fact that there might be some problems and that one has to be careful; usually this is accompanied by a stereotypical example of things that went wrong. But this is as far as it goes. Many professors and English teachers mistake the whole topic of intercultural communication by only pointing out differences that are apparent: Germans shake hands at every opportunity, Anglo-Saxon people don’t, etc. And that’s about it.
But due to above-mentioned research I am now able to tell that there are quite some more differences between the US/English and the German culture. What is more, many features of communication are implicit to the respective culture and therefore most people are not aware of them (it’s like the grammar of behaviour: you need no explicit knowledge of grammar to speak your mother tongue correctly). Only to people who live in another culture for a longer time period these differences can become apparent – and then it is additionally very difficult to trace those differences. In the following explanations it is necessary to use somewhat stereotypical features of the cultures to make distinctions possible. I am absolutely aware that this is not an accurate way of describing reality. So when you read about a typical German or a typical American this only represents a theme and not actual persons or characters.
One of those stereotypical features of German behaviour is a certain amount of directness. Germans usually mean what they say. An invitation for coffee entails the act of arranging a possible date to drink coffee. In other words: the polite American who says: “Hey, why don’t you come over some time?” will be surprised to find that the German really wants to visit him. The same principle applies when the American is taken aback by the German who just says goodbye without an invitation – the German and the American both never intended to invite the other after their first meeting, but the German makes it clear.
A similar problem occurs when a person is asked his or her opinion on the country (or anything else). The polite American will say that everything is lovely and nice because saying something negative would be horribly impolite. The German, on the other hand, remarks both positive and negative things because it is a sign of a critical mind to analyse things and find good things and downsides. So the German shows polite behaviour in criticising things as this shows a certain respect towards something – only if you think about something you give it a certain value. By thinking you find downsides, and if you express them – well not a problem to another German, just say WHY you have your opinion. Many Germans love to argue or to discuss and there’s nothing better than a nice disagreement for a good discussion. This even leads to the phenomenon that some people are of a different opinion as a default. Sometimes I behave myself like that: Somebody states something with which I agree. Nevertheless I take a different point of view – all for the sake of a nice discussion and, what is more, the more diverse the opinions are, the better you can understand different viewpoints and the more thoroughly you can analyse the thing.
And there is more. Germans have humour. They just don’t show it. In Germany a very sharp seperation of public and privat sphere applies (Dienst ist Dienst und Schnaps ist Schaps). In the private sphere Germans can be quite humorous people but in the public sphere they are not. This is because being funny in public means that you are not serious. [Public sphere should be defined as a setting in which people meet who are not friends and who have business to do. So, political debate, classroom, business meetings etc can be identified as public sphere settings. In analogy, private sphere can be defined as a meeting of people (usually close to each other) that mainly serves the purpose of ‘mating’ or relaxing (pubs, the family’s living room, a party etc.).] The German is therefore quite surprised to find his English-speaking business partners constantly joking as he is not aware that humour is an essential part of Anglo-Saxon culture and prevails in all life situations. Vice-versa, the Anglo-Saxon is surprised by the German’s perceived stiffness.
When it comes to friendship relations the atlantic divide also becomes quite obvious – although the reasons for the misunderstandings are not so very obvious. The American defines him- or herself mainly by his or her profession and is therefore looking for friends with similar interests. Therefore the pattern of friend-making is that they ask what people do for a living and pick friends accordingly. For the German, however, the occupation of a friend is a secondary thing as friendships are based on a broader perspective: a general pleasantness is also valued highly. The German therefore banters a lot with people and talks about quite a number of topics with a possible friend before actually calling the relationship one of “Freundschaft”. The American’s direct request what a German does for a living and the tendency to stick with the one shared interest strikes the German as superficial whereas, in the opposite direction, the German is perceived as stiff and a bit boring (why all this talk about politics, cars, the environment? I want to talk about fishing!)
There are many more examples of misunderstandings that can occur when people of the above mentioned cultures meet. Usually, however, their seemingly unpolite, or superficial, or stiff behaviour can be explained by the different cultural grammar. The best intentions can be in vain because the perception on the other side is a different one.
Therefore, after this (I hope sufficiently neutral) introduction to the cultural differences, I have a request: Please try to become aware of the differences and let the results of possible communication failures not contribute to your set of stereotypes.
The sources I used for this article are the following:
The links lead to the three articles that are very explicitly dedicated to the topic but I can only encourage further reading (especially in the former two). There is a lot to be learned! May be you can even help me with one open question. Kalberg (German Joys) and Spiegel online are somewhat contradictory in one point. Spiegel online and USA-erklärt both point out that Germans are more direct whereas Kalberg points out that Americans are. My possible explanation is the class relationship. The German will speak openly to and contradict anyone in a close relationship whereas he/she is more cautios towards people of higher social rank (even more so in public settings). The American, on the other hand, is very polite in private settings and in public settings less aware of (in his/her culture non-existent or less-existent) hierarchies and can therefore speak his/her mind more openly in the public sphere. Read for yourself and tell me if you find that explanation convincing!
23/01/2008 Edit: Today I talked to a university professor of mine who is from the US and came to Germany some 25 years ago. She found my hypothesis that the situations are reversed (US: private politeness, public sphere openly speaking their minds – Germany: private directness, public sphere politeness) quite convincing. I am happy to have it confirmed by someone who knows a bit about it. 🙂
Thank you for reading. And, btw, some evidence hints that I myself violently hurt some people on this minefield. I am really sorry but I did it unintentionally.