Communicating with cultural competency… not always a given

For personal or professional relationships across cultural gaps to work, one big skill to master is communication. First, there is language. In a transatlantic setting this typically involves English and German (readers of this blog know: I like to bridge the cultural gap between North America and the German-speaking world). However, no matter how good your foreign language skills are, there is always an additional layer of complexity: communication styles based on culturally determined behavioral preferences.

To decipher each other’s cultural code in communication can take years and most newcomers to a culture trip over linguistic hurdles. Typically, one of the first misunderstandings in U.S.-German interactions is the informal American greeting:

Hi, how are you?“How are you?” is an English phrase – not an invitation to give a presentation about one’s current state. Since the phrase is a question, Germans sometimes feel prompted to give a sincere, detailed, and honest answer. Quick bit and well-known piece of advice to German-speakers: Don’t.  The proper response: “Fine, how are you?”

Another blunder very common among people with an anglo-style of communication: ignoring power distance and how it affects the way you address people – formally or informally.

Formal vs. Informal Address The presenter in the above cartoon most likely has earned all of his academic titles and may not be too keen on being addressed by his first name from an audience member.

I’ve written about the differences in communication styles between Germans and Americans before. This is one of the main elements of my intercultural training programs, during which participants learn and practice how to adapt the way they put information into language that is easily received by counterparts from other cultures.

Below are a few more of these differences to be mindful of. Of course this list is far from being complete. Feel free to add your experiences in the comments section.

Downgraders vs. Upgraders:

  • German directness directly affects the use of language: they tend to upgrade their communication by emphasizing and enforcing vocabulary like “definitely” or “absolutely”
  • Americans commonly downgrade the directness of communication with words like “would”, “could” or “perhaps”
  • German sentences tend to be long, complex, and loaded with a maximum amount of information
  • American English is often simple, short, and to the point
  • Americans sometimes feel that Germans’ direct communication style of stating facts and offering criticism is rude and aggressive

Presenting & Listening:

  • Germans like thorough presentations, supported by facts and details, background information and references
  • They like to feel that what they are buying into has been successful elsewhere
  • A logical and clear presentation is essential, often followed by a lively discussion with detailed questions 
=> be prepared  to have backup evidence ready
  • Familiar formula for meetings: 
agenda –> action points –> next steps –> time frames
  • The Germans in the meetings are usually the experts in their fields and will expect Americans to know their stuff
  • Germans usually speak only on their specialization and don’t expect comments from non-specialists
  • Germans present deductively: first, get mutual understanding of the complete situation & present all facts, then discuss individual points, finally lead to a conclusion
  • Germans’ communication style is direct and focuses on clarity by detailed explanations
  • This strong desire for clarity means German presenters are fearful of not providing enough information and detail
  • Americans present inductively: most important information comes first, details and discussion follow later
  • American presentations are shorter, humorous, and include more easily remembered elements/statements
  • Germans are usually more reserved and serious — Americans tend to misinterpret this as being unfriendly
  • Germans want to be respected and seen as credible — Americans want to be liked
  • Germans present data & content centered — Americans present audience centered
  • German: comprehensive & well-structured presentations need instructive visuals, drawings, diagrams, copies, etc.
  • The Germans’ fear of ambiguity stems from their unstable and violent history. Hence, problems/events in the present are often results of the past — Americans often struggle to understand the historical context
  • Possible result: Americans lose their patience in meetings => frustration and conflicts are imminent
  • Lengthy Germans => bored Americans 
=> Germans who feel patronized by Americans who don’t seem to appreciate their love for detail and comprehensiveness

Linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com


ch (April'14).2Christian is a cultural trainer, coach, and consultant with extensive experience in working with multinational companies and especially in developing global leaders. He is the President and CEO of The Culture Mastery, LLC, 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 overcome 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. Most just call him “The Culture Guy”. Find out more about Christian here and follow him on Twitter. You can also see him, listen to him, and experience his work – just invite him!



6 thoughts on “Communicating with cultural competency… not always a given

  1. I enjoyed reading this. I find a stark difference between phone vs email communication too. I find that in America it is more common to just shoot your colleague an email. It is fast, and you give the person a chance to reply when they have time. Here in Germany, I am constantly bombarded by phone calls and often people make comments about calling rather than emailing. As someone who is always on the go or in meetings, the phone is not really conducive unless I make time specifically for phone calls only. I find it interesting, and am curious for your thoughts!

    • My experience with Germans has been that they sometimes feel that written language lacks the sound of a voice and its tonality. Emphasis, mood, sarcasm, seriousness, etc. might get lost in an email. A phone conversation also allows to react immediately to questions, objections, or suggestions during a conversation. This can be attributed to the rather high score of German culture on the Uncertainty Avoidance Index (G. Hofstede): http://geert-hofstede.com/germany.html

  2. Great points! I include similar statements in many of my intercultural training programs, but from a U.S. American to Latin American perspective. The differences are staggering! Knowing what to expect and why can help make the presentation successful.

  3. So, so true! One of my first memories of Germany is when I walked through the halls of my new high school saying “Hallo, wie geht’s” and smiling at everyone. I was really trying to put myself out there and be friendly so I could make friends. Later I realized that everyone probably thought I was insane. Or American. LOL

    Communication expectations are so important to be aware of, especially in a cross-cultural work environment. Great info and tips here, Christian!

    Thanks for linking this post to the #MyGlobalLife link-up! Hope to see you there next month!

  4. Pingback: How To Say “This Is Crap” In Different Cultures | Southeast Schnitzel

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