Business ABC’s: Communication

This post comes courtesy of the letter “C”, as in “communication”. When it comes to business between Germans and Americans, it is often this very topic that makes or breaks the relationship, which is why I’ll devote the entire entry to communication alone. Buckle up…

Germans and Americans are both low-context communicators, which means they both convey meaning explicitly through words. In a business context, when an American is in a position of higher power (such as a customer or a boss), communication can often be very direct, even brusque (I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to use „brusque“. Score!) This does not have to be the case, of course, but does tend to catch Germans by surprise when it happens since Americans have a reputation for effusiveness, optimism and positivity.

Which brings us to American communication style on a personal- or equal-footing business level. Here, we roll on more of a „feel good“ basis, using smiles, agreement, compliments and „can do-isms“. Underpinning this style is the belief that motivation flows from mutual positivity. The fancy-pants academic word for this is called „reciprocity“ (this study takes a deep dive into the details of the communication style differences of German and American teams). In fact, communication tools such as criticizing, complaining and using negative sentence constructions are received as unfriendly and counterproductive.

In problem-solving communications, even spending time at length in identifying and analyzing problems at their deepest roots can get a German working in an American team branded as too negative. The same study linked above showed that American teams spend comparatively little time on problem analysis, instead jumping much faster to the business of finding solutions, as this is a more positive, forward-looking activity. Anecdotally, a client who works in the IT-area of his company told me that whereas German team members tend to work to solve a problem („ein Problem loesen“), the American team members often want to „remove“ the problem („ein Problem beseitigen“). The subtle difference implied in the German terms is the difference between solving a problem in a more drawn-out, complex—but thus more permanent—manner and „spot cleaning“ a problem so that it is quickly set aside, or solved on a more temporary basis.

Americans also love their brainstorming sessions, where solutions are contributed and considered regardless of how feasible they may be (because „thinking outside the box“ as opposed to looking towards past tried-and-true solutions is valued more by Americans). As a German, if you find yourself in the midst of one of these sessions, resist the impulse to point out why something can’t or won’t work; again, you’ll be pigeon-holed as a negative party pooper (I’ve also been looking for a way to work in „party pooper“. I’m on a roll!)

Another part of the unwritten rules of communication is that praise and thanks are doled out more frequently among Americans than Germans. Every time I get to this part in my trainings, someone inevitably cringes, mainly because lots of folks here live by the credo „Nichts gesagt ist genug gelobt!“ (roughly translated, „If I haven’t said anything, consider yourself praised!“). It is, of course, a bit of an exaggeration, but not in comparison to American communication style!

Germans, you really are going to have to go Zen with giving American colleagues (especially those reporting to you) a semi-regular dose of the verbal feel-goods. Some of this has to do with our communication style, some of it has to do with a generally lower level of job security in the USA that leaves folks needing a higher level of assurance that they are appreciated and doing good work. Do not be insincere; just lob a few simple praise goodies someone’s way when they have accomplished something positive, even if it that something is reasonably expected from their job duties. Bonus points: say it with a smile.

So, in true American fashion, I will stop dwelling on the problem (or „issue“, as we like to call it) and leave you with some ready-to-use solutions (or set-asides?) for how to communicate with American colleagues:

-While you can spend time gnawing at the deepest root of a problem in the privacy of your own cubicle, in the presence of colleagues, come in with your most well-thought-out but quickly (-ish) implemented solutions. If you can package these to at least sound new or innovative, so much the better.
-When your colleagues offer „out there“ solutions, try to keep your mind open, and in good German form, think of ways to make out-of-the-box solutions implementable. Somewhere in the middle is always a good place to meet.

-Avoid negatives in your language whenever possible („That won’t work“, „That’s the wrong approach“, „We can’t do that“)

-Become friends with „great!“, „thanks!“ „nice job!“, „really appreciate it!“ and, if you’re really feeling wild and crazy, „awesome!“.

So, that’s the scoop for today. In short, keep it positive, forward-looking, and say it with a smile.

Really appreciate your attention…it was great (awesome!) blogging to you again!

If a business relationship with Americans is on your horizon, book an intercultural training to get up to speed on communication style, among other aspects of business with the USA.

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