Why are Americans so…? Why are Germans so…?

“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.

Germans:Americans are

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.

peach-coconut1So 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.


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!


18 thoughts on “Why are Americans so…? Why are Germans so…?

  1. Interesting article. I enjoy following your blog because I have a rather unique background (born in Germany but left when I was 3 years old – spent my entire life in peachy countries such as australia and the usa – and only just moved to Germany last year – in my mid 30s – for the first time in my life) (I travelled here every summer as a teenager though – am familiar with German culture of course and well – my family is very German!)
    In any case – if there’s one thing I struggle most with, here in my new life in Germany, it is finding a way to connect with people. In the US and in Australia you can easily strike up a conversation with anyone, over anything. Yes, some of these conversations will be superficial and flakey but at least you have the option of a friendly chat with a stranger at any time. Here in Germany I struggle a lot with the more reserved conversation tactics and the lack of small-talk (which has its pros and cons, mind you). Although I have noticed, it also has a lot to do with HOW I REACT.
    An example: sometimes I find myself being not at all myself. I’m in a store, I feel grumpy, have a long face, I shuffle to the register, the cashier barely says hello, which immediately annoys me, I have to look at the digital screen to find out how much I’m supposed to pay because I couldn’t hear the cashier mumble the amount, and then I leave and think “god what is wrong with these people”. That happens very easily to me here and it’s not at all how I usually am, or how I grew up.
    When I make a conscious effort to approach the situation differently, things change. Not always but sometimes. I walk into a store and instead of being grumpy like almost-everyone-else I remind myself I am actually a happy, open, friendly person and I walk up to the cashier, who chances are, doesn’t say hello and mumbles at me but I go ahead and say “Guten Tag” very friendly, smile, wish her a nice day, walk away thinking “andere länder andere sitten”. However sometimes when I take this approach of trying to purposely be VERY nice, I see that many people here in Germany are responsive and sometimes (perhaps only sometimes) their attitude changes and adjusts in a way I didn’t assume it would.
    I digress. I think it’s important to note that not ALL Germans are direct, stern, and introverted. It’s a common assumption, a stereotype if you will, and largely it is somewhat true I think. BUT I have noticed how me changing my own attitude here in this country helps the situation also. Sorry I am rambling, but I do often miss the openness and friendliness of Australia and the US – I struggle most with that and positive/negative perceptions and reactions from people!

  2. Great Article Christian. So how about French ? Peach or Coconut model ? It is hard to judge your own country especially when you have not lived there for so many years. I would say French may be sour like lemons (means cynical), wearing their emotions and opinions quite strongly like seeds on strawberries.However If you put some sugar on a strawberry salad with lemon that is actually delicious:-)

    I have been living in Moscow for 18 months now and I am trying hard to find people that match all the stereotypes spread by Russians themselves and foreigners who are not living here. I have found all kinds of people, coconuts, peaches, strawberries and lemon included, it really depends on circumstances. When I fall down because of icy streets I have always been helped. When I can’t remember Russian words to buy something a smile always helps, When I socialize with Russians especially women, they are are quite extrovert, speaking openly about their ambitious career plans, family struggles with their mother in law or their desire to have children.

    I have also been punched on the street (got a bruise for one week) and got some heavy doors in the face, but this could have happened in Paris too. In the Metro young people almost always give seats to old people. Some strangers make comments to you in Russian while waiting for the bus and if you smile they will smile back. Teens and young adults have their iphones plugged in their ears and sure it is not always easy to communicate with them 🙂

    My feeling is that in the last 20 years only, Russians have jumped from the feodal communism system to the 21st century hard capitalism. The middle class is not as much developed as in Germany or United States. There are more Billionaires in Moscow than in NYC but the gap between the poorest and the richest is much bigger in Russia compared to Europe and the U.S. People mentality and technology are changing very fast but stereotypes from the cold war are still there .

    I lived altogether 7 years in The U.S (New York City, Atlanta and New Jersey) and I would say that Americans have behaviors closer to the stereotypes you listed and are more “predictable” than Russians. I think this is the effect of the large homogeneous middle class. Of course when you go down to individuals, social status and age may impact social behaviors more than the country where people are living.

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  4. Interesting expansion on the peach/coconut analogy, Christian! One thing that is apparent, of course, is that we tend to view people from other cultures (no matter where we are from, I think) as extremes, or as caricatures. Your observation that simply identifying the stereotypes is not enough, but that we need to find ways to bring the two cultures together within an organization, is much appreciated. I think sometimes we interculturalists get hung up on outlining differences and forget to guide people through them. I also like your highlighting of C-level leadership being a critical factor. Without receiving meaningful messages from the top that working together across cultures is necessary and valued, employees won’t bother.

    One point as an American: I think Europeans in general tend to think Americans are like the ones they meet in New York, where the characteristics listed above are especially pronounced. By contrast, in the Southwest where I am from, I would say being casual/informal, egalitarian, and sincere are much more significant than being money-minded and loud. So, reading your post was also a reminder that when we stereotype, we often do so based on one iteration of a culture, to the detriment of regional and personal variations.

  5. Reblogged this on Giannis and commented:
    Παίζοντας με τα στερεότυπα. Τί γνώμη έχουν οι Γερμανοί για τους Αμερικάνους; Οι Αμερικάνοι για τους Γερμανούς;

  6. “Contrary to popular belief, Germans do not know everything. They just tend to know everything better.” — this gave me a good laugh. So true in my experience! 🙂

    I think there is some truth to the peach/coconut analogy. When I was a grad student working in study abroad I once was getting ready to prepare some students to study in Latin America. One thing I wanted to discuss was how to meet people and make friends. At that time I hadn’t been to L.A. and was basing this topic on the study abroad experience to Germany. When I brought it up to the adviser for L.A. he just laughed and said that’s not much a problem in L.A. countries.

    His comment made me realize that my experiences living in Germany – constantly trying to crack that coconut – had led me to assume that it was like that everywhere! It’s not always easy to crack the German coconut – but the struggle is worth it.

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  11. Very interesting article! Americans also think that Germans are blunt. We’ve dealt with disapproval of our honesty and bluntness here in the job environment as well as in our personal relationships. But now I actually know quite a few Americans who appreciate that I’m outspoken and straight forward. Furthermore I personally do not like the picture of the coconut too much. I think the shell is too thick. It takes a while to get to know and befriend a German, but I feel that my fellow Germans can also be very friendly and open-minded, at least our generation. This wouldn’t work too well with the picture of the coconut. And I really don’t know what the coconut milk is supposed to illustrate? I would suggest a pineapple instead. Its shell is prickly and a bit harsh, but with a good knife and some effort you get through it and you can find rather sweet pulp 😉 and a sturdy core. The green leaves of the crown seem like another shield, but if you pull on them and they’re loose that means the pineapple is ripe and ready for contact. You just need to give the pineapple some time to adjust and to become receptive. What do you think?

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