Communication Style in the USA vs. Germany: Just Humor Me
Communication style in the USA can be deceptively tricky for Germans to decode, much less replicate (and vice-versa). I’ll take a few moments of your time here to highlight an aspect of cultural differences in communication between Germany and the USA that can potentially lead to the biggest misunderstandings, which can in turn derail both business and personal relationships.
In trying VERY HARD to maintain my A-B-C scheme, I’m going to file this blog entry under „J“, as in jokes. More accurately, this is really about humor, and how it is / isn’t utilized.
No More “Germans Aren’t Funny” Jokes!
First, I will dispense right away with the stereotype among Americans that Germans don’t have a sense of humor. Not true. I have students laughing (at? with?) me and my antics every day. Seriously (but just for a sec), I wouldn’t—couldn’t– survive here if Germans didn’t have a sense of humor. So, there’s that.
What’s Behind American Humor?
What I can say is that folks from the USA tend to use humor as a tool, both in business and private, in situations where Germans do not. Functionally, humor is used by Americans to diffuse tension and conflict, create an atmosphere of trust (the more personal, the easier to trust, to our minds), to express our underlying optimism and to satisfy our urge to entertain and be entertained.
Because we are such relentless individualists at our core, humor is an important tool to connect us with others. Self-effacing humor—an American specialty—is a way to express modesty, even as we’re busy tooting our horns. This applies especially in the working world, where self-promotion is a matter of professional survival.
The German View
In contrast, Germans do tend to follow a more serious game plan in business transactions. Jokes and lighthearted banter can and do occur amongst colleagues, but situations like meetings, negotiations and conversations with superiors will typically be humor-free (or minimal).
This is because Germans tend to view humor in these situations as an attempt to mask true intent. At the very least, it is confusing for Germans who are prepared for a fact-based business discussion to suddenly be thrown into a different gear where they’re asked to communicate in a way that feels more suited to a personal interaction.
So, what to do with this information? I’ll split-screen my advice to address Germans and Americans separately.
For Germans: As mentioned above, Americans largely use humor to counteract the effects of individualism. It is our way of fostering trust, especially if we make ourselves a bit vulnerable with self-effacing humor.
You do not have to become a jokester yourself, but I would recommend smiling more than you normally do. Also, come prepared with a handful of positive statements that you can sprinkle into your business interactions. To the extent that you can influence it, add a bit of animation to your speaking style to counteract the monotone that speaking in a foreign language sometimes produces.
If you do want to try throwing humor into the mix, the same rules for small talk apply here: avoid topics such as politics, religion, sexual innuendo and ethnicity, to name the biggies. A giggle-inducing ice-breaker could be, for example, to coach your American counterpart through a typical German tongue-twister (for many Americans, certain totally everyday words and phrases fall into this category! Ask my students what I’ve done to inadvertently butcher the word „kurzfristig“)
For Americans: While the Germans are brushing up on their global communication style, please go more Zen with direct communication. I often get feedback now from folks in the USA that I am very blunt. True story. In fact, I’ve come to value a certain degree of call-it-like-it-is communication. The key is to keep it neutral and fact-based. No one’s trying to hurt anyone, and the fastest way from point A to point B is a straight line, right?
Also, PLEASE remember that your German business contacts are very likely dealing with you in English, which is *not their native language*. This means para-language elements such as nuance, humor modulation and tone are not givens, which also adds to the perception of bluntness. If you are not prepared to switch into German, dial back on automatically interpreting offense out of directness. If you were the one faced with focusing on correct vocabulary and grammar to reach your business objectives, would you be able to throw between-the-lines subtleties effortlessly into the mix? Oh, and while you’re at it, also dial back on expressions non-native speakers are not likely to be familiar with. Thanks muchly.
For both: When communication is on a personal, non-business level, it is quite a bit easier to power through communcation-style differences by talking about them as they occur. Consider watching humorous shows or movies from each others’ countries (with subtitles, if necessary. I am staunchly anti-dubbing, but that’s a topic for a different post) to get a better idea of what tickles your counterpart’s funnybone (with the disclaimer that even within a culture, tastes in humor are pretty divergent).
So, Halloween is calling, so I’ll call it a blog post here. Thanks for humoring me, and feel free to join the conversation with a comment. Or, bring your best comedy routine to an intercultural training…no stage is too small!