When first-time expatriates arrive in the United States they are often underprepared for the North American way of communicating. This is especially true for Central Europeans who tend to assume that
i) they learned enough about American communication patterns via literature and media consumption, and/or
ii) communication styles are very similar and thus, differences can be neglected.
The trouble typically begins when expats do not detect or even ignore the transatlantic gap. Unfortunately, many Americans also lack the communicative fine-tuning to realize that their new colleagues from Germany or Austria share information differently. That’s when intercultural team building efforts can hit a roadblock. However, companies and their employees can prepare for these obstacles.
Here are what I consider the 9 key aspects of the US-American communication style worth internalizing:
- Cut to the chase — No matter how banal it may sound but for Americans time is still money. So be aware of their time urgency and – if in doubt – spare them the details. This is true during presentations where Germans & Austrians like to go gung-ho with a flood of data, as well as in negotiations where Americans prefer reaching a deal quickly. If Americans feel that you are wasting their precious time you will loose their interest immediately. Clearly justify why they need to listen to you. Get to the point.
- Familiarize yourself with (sports) jargon — See what I did there in the above paragraph? Americans love idiomatic language and use it in colloquial and in business situations. “Cutting to the chase” may be as unintuitive to non-native speakers as phrases borrowed from sports which aren’t very popular outside of the U.S. (like baseball). While many Europeans are familiar with terms like “home run” or “slam dunk”, few know how to interpret the meanings of “to punt”, “a Hail Mary”, “stepping up to the plate”, or “rain check” (to list just a few examples). So in order to perform under par in the American workplace Germans need to play hardball and buckle down on improving their language skills.
- Be prepared for informality — Like it or not, most Americans tend to be fairly informal. Depending on the industry you are dealing with, Europeans will find that, compared to their home cultures, people in the U.S. have a desire to reach a low level of formality quickly. This can be reflected in their choice of clothes (khakis & button-down ” business casual” vs. suit & tie), the type of language they use, and the posture they display. If you come from a Germanic culture you will find that in business situations Americans appear to be very relaxed and comfortable. You shouldn’t mistake that for disrespect or for a lack of seriousness. You also shouldn’t assume that just because you’re calling each other by your first names in the U.S. you have bypassed the process of building rapport. Americans may give trust easily, they also revoke it just as quickly.
- In the Southeast, avoid direct confrontation – Please know that there isn’t one uniform U.S. culture. In fact, some of the regions have very unique cultural peculiarities. Here is what I’ve been experiencing in the Southeastern United States: Southerners tend to avoid direct conflict and confrontation in communication. Germans, who value the dialectical exchange of arguments, will come across as very confrontational with their culturally determined communication style. Complaining about issues or criticizing the execution of a task (a socially accepted control mechanism in German culture) will typically be viewed as directly aimed at the individual in the Southeastern U.S., thus hurting somebody’s feelings. As a visitor or newcomer to the area you should try to package and soften your direct approach.
- Know about the unique qualities of American English — If you acquired your English language skills in the German school system chances are you were taught British English. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, BE does sound quite charming – if you know how to speak it. If your English sounds like that of most German school graduates you may have to get used to explaining yourself occasionally. AE is different (George Bernard Shaw supposedly said that the UK and the U.S. are two countries separated by a common language). Of course there are the obvious “false friends” (lorry/truck, underground/subway, rubber/eraser, etc.) but there is more: American English is full of downgrading vocabulary like “would”, “could”, “perhaps” which makes messages less direct by European standards. Germans, in contrast, are upgraders. The German language favors the use of reinforcing and emphasizing verbiage like “absolutely” or “definitely.” Since German culture ranks high on the uncertainty avoidance scale the German communication style tries to eliminate ambiguity. Americans, on the other hand, are in general more uncertainty tolerant and value a less direct approach.
- Try not to be offended by interruptions — Since the American workplace and U.S. society are structured only very loosely around hierarchical principles seniority, specialization or social status rarely regulate who can contribute to the conversation, or when. In an egalitarian culture the playing field of communication is even and everyone has the same right to join the conversation – regardless of rank or age. Sometimes this can be experienced in Americans contributing to the conversation in an open-forum-type modus. By American standards these interruptions aren’t always rude. They are a sign of engagement and interest.
- Present inductively, not deductively — Yoda knows it: Germans verbs at the end of their sentences put. Germans also conclusions at the end of presentations put. Which, it turns out, drives American audiences nuts. Resist your desire to give presentations in a deductive style, meaning to present every aspect of your topic in a logical or chronological, step-by-step order which, at the end of your talk, will have shed light on the subject matter from every possible angle and will leave your audience with all the background information you think they need. Keep in mind that Americans want to be engaged, sometimes even entertained. A little humor goes a long way. So does being selective of the information you share. You’ll get the best response if you leave your American listeners wanting more. Give them a reason to stay engaged with you and leave time for Q & A at the end of your presentation.
Generations of U.S. students have learned the principle of the 5-sentence paragraph: In the 1st sentence they introduce their thesis. In sentences 2 through 4 they present supporting evidence. The 5th sentence sums up the evidence and the thesis. Here’s how my High School teacher explained it: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.” – If you think that’s redundant or repetitive you’re probably not American.
- Brevity and Conciseness will earn you respect — It is easy to accuse Americans of having a short attention span or – stereotype alert! – of being superficial. The truth, however, is that… well, see #1 above. If you lack the ability to boil down your line of argument to concise bits you’ll easily bore Americans. In return, central Europeans who sense this boredom tend to feel patronized by Americans who don’t seem to appreciate their love for detail and comprehensiveness. The United States are a young country with a young, blended culture. Don’t underestimate the speed at which business is conducted here. Most Americans feel that they have a lot to do, and that their families/employers/companies/society as a whole is demanding much of them. There is no time to be wasted. By cultivating your skill to reduce your message to its essence you will become more successful in communicating with Americans.
- Remember: Silence is not golden — The United States are often described as a loud culture. Something is always on: the TV, radio, computer, stereo system, tablet, phone… Sounds are everywhere and this wall of sound creates the illusion of being present, of not being alone, of partaking in the hustle and bustle of life. Silence, by contrast, is somewhat disturbing to many Americans. Whenever there is a silent pause during a conversation Americans may feel awkward and uneasy. This gives you two choices: Use silence as a tool to gain leverage in communicating with Americans, or avoid silence to accommodate them.
These are just a few tips on how to improve communicative behavior when interacting with US-Americans. Obviously, there are many more. Feel free to add your two cents in the comment section below.