“Why do Americans share so much personal information with people they barely know?”
“Why are Germans so reserved towards people who are trying to get know them?”
When interacting with representatives from cultures other than our own we are easily influenced by first-impression observations which sometimes manifest themselves in stereotypes. Some of the typical stereotypes Americans and Germans have of each other include these:
- Let’s all stick to the rules. Isn’t an organized life easier for everyone?
- Contrary to popular belief, Germans do not know everything. They just tend to know everything better.
- Was du heute kannst besorgen, das verschiebe nicht auf morgen. (= Do not postpone until tomorrow, if you can do it today.)
- In the U.S. everything is allowed, unless it is explicitly forbidden.
- In Germany everything is “verboten”, unless it is explicitly allowed.
- If you can please a German customer, you can please any customer.
And then there is the impression that Germans appear to be rather stand-offish by American standards while people from the United States are seen as superficial by many Germans. Here’s the problem with stereotypes in general: Within a cultural group you’ll easily find a majority which will support the stereotypical characteristic of the other culture.
It’s the insider’s point of view. Being able to understand the outsider’s point of view and to see things from that person’s angle as well as from our own, that is one of the secrets of intercultural success.
So where do these German-American clichés come from? Is there a way to explain the stereotypes?
There is, it’s called the peach/coconut model and it has been used widely in training programs by many – including myself, as participants of my trainings will tell you. It is based on the work of German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin and its adaptation by cross-cultural expert Fons Trompenaars of THT Consulting. Below you’ll see Fons explain his model during a TEDx talk he gave in late 2013 in Amsterdam.
It basically attributes the peach’s characteristics (soft, juicy, fuzzy, colorful, sweet, hard pit in the center) with (stereo)typical American traits: being extroverted with strangers, being open & curious, making “friends” quickly, talking openly in public, private & public/professional lives interwoven.
It also correlates the coconut’s properties (hard outside, hairy, milk inside, nutritious meat inside) with German clichés: needs time to warm with strangers, public & private lives separated, social distance determined by profession or (perceived) status.
For leaders in German-American teams the challenge lies in combining and reconciling these differences. The danger zone is where the peach meets the coconut. A participant in one of my programs, a senior executive in a German automotive company, once told me he had a solution: “We need to breed peachnuts!”
In reality, it may be rather difficult to create hybrid cultures within individuals. Trompenaars’ suggestion of creating a spirit in organizations that allows the different cultures to combine behavioral opposites sounds a little more promising. It does take a lot of effort, though. And political will which has to emerge at the C-level of a company.
The question Fons posts is: how can we connect? So, how does the peach meet the coconut? His answer: diverse groups need to combine opposites to create a higher reality – one they share. We need to build a bridge with our different view points.
As much as I like and use the peach/coconut model, there is one reservation I have: I am not so sure that stereotypical Germans are really like coconuts. At least not like the ones we find at the store. My impression over the years has been that my fellow countrymen are more like a coconut with its husk still attached around the shell. Fibrous as this outer layer may be, it still offers the peach a little bit of material to work with. The stripped coconut reminds me more of Eastern European cultures like Russia.
I always try to illustrate this with this scenario: Imagine a train cabin. An American, a German and a Russian are traveling in the same compartment. In my experience, the American will be able to strike up a conversation with the German a lot quicker than with the Russian.
What do you think? Does this reflect your experience as well? Any opposing views? Feel free to comment.
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Christian is a cultural trainer, coach, and consultant with extensive experience in working with multinational companies and especially in developing global leaders. He is the founder and owner of Höferle Consulting, where he leads a team of dedicated training, destination services, and expat support specialists. Christian works with global organizations (or those who are going global) to help their employees oversome cultural differences. Typically he only uses the word “normal” in quotation marks and he is an advocate for helping people understand the why of behaviors – not just the dos & don’ts. Find out more about Christian and follow him on Twitter. You can also see him, listen to him, and experience his work – just invite him! Or sign up for the Höferle Consulting newsletter.