An American thinks his culture is weird

Working in the USA: about cultural differences that Germans should be aware of

28.04.2016

Many may not believe it, but American culture - even if we mostly follow the same value system - differs enormously from the German way of life. Above all, "think positive!" I met a lot in San Francisco, especially in my work life - manifested in two significant issues: on the one hand, nobody uses the word "no" and, on the other hand, hardly anyone deals with details. It is therefore no coincidence that Germany is seen worldwide as the land of thinkers and America as the land of unlimited possibilities. A big cliché has been confirmed here in the context.

"In the USA, there is hardly any demand for details!"

I noticed the first differences just in how ideas and projects are dealt with. In the USA, for example, the goal is first formulated, usually in the form of a vision. Afterwards, those responsible sit down together and consider how the goal can be achieved as quickly as possible. In the meantime, however, they hardly ever ask for details - you just go ahead and see what happens. In this sense, the American appears as a doer. This seems strange to many Germans, because we are used to collecting all information first, putting it together and then drawing a concrete picture.

In this respect, most will quickly have the feeling that Americans are acting too impulsively and are not aware of possible problems. Americans, in turn, find this attitude sluggish. One's strength is action, the other's planning. But both have their advantages and disadvantages, as I have to find again and again after five months on the west coast.

There is a different culture of conversation in the USA

It is also interesting how quickly misunderstandings can arise when it comes to communication. Because Americans, for example, cannot do anything with a direct contradiction in the form of a clear “No!”. This does not mean that criticism or counter-arguments cannot be voiced in the USA. But they have to be formulated positively: "Your thought is understandable and good, but we should consider whether ...", works better than a direct rejection à la "No, we have to do it differently". For many Americans, such an answer feels like a negative attitude, and it will inevitably go wrong. It is particularly important that such manners are observed - even if some Germans see it as an unnecessary empty phrase and see it as a pure waste of time.

And Germans should also bear this in mind with regard to the culture of conversation: By "You are a good listener", Germans mean that you deal with the other person's problem in peace, let them finish their conversation and do not interrupt the word. In the American working world, however, such behavior tends to cause confusion - at least if the interlocutor is not repeatedly discussed in between. While Americans use gestures such as a nod in agreement or brief words such as "I see" or "I agree" to signal that they are completely in the conversation, Germans tend to do the exact opposite. Americans then often have the feeling that their thoughts are elsewhere. In this respect, they are more of an active listener.

Regardless of the attitude, misunderstandings can also arise with the specific choice of words. In this respect, for example, Americans do not like the word "problem" at all in a professional context. While Germans use it to express concern, Americans mainly use it to draw attention to an emerging crisis. "Issue" or "concern" is better.

Negative honesty only in a light dose

Shortly after my arrival in San Francisco, I was once asked what I thought of the Oktoberfest in Germany. I replied that I found it bad that it was largely a mass binge and that the prices were usury. However, my American interlocutor did not expect that and did not find the answer particularly charming - as I noticed in his reaction.
Germans should be aware that an almost unfiltered honesty is quickly perceived by Americans as rude. In my experience, it is better to describe a number of positive things and then perhaps incorporate one or at most two negative aspects - but always with a rather optimistic conclusion. Some Germans find that difficult because they believe they are pretending to be. In addition, they inevitably get the feeling that nobody really cares what you think, but that it's really just about small talk. For me this is still one of the most difficult differences.

Nobody is angry with you - as long as you work on yourselves

Admittedly, there are some cultural stumbling blocks waiting for Germans in the USA. And if you are not aware of the local manners, you will also fall a few times. It is also clear that the east and west coast are culturally different. The country is huge and the mentalities are not the same everywhere. Even in small Germany, the Berliners from Swabia and Hamburgers from Munich differ in detail and yet some characteristics are deeply rooted in German culture - also in the USA. Anyone who is a little afraid of stepping on the floor can be reassured. I have never met an American who is resentful - as long as you work on yourself and don't rest on your cultural background.

Author: US correspondent Andreas Weck (www.t3n.de/news)