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Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. Germany is an old country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your German language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. Much like many things German, German conversations are often concise and to the point, without out any room for small talk or needless niceties.
The German drive for objectivity can at times be ferocious in nature. They place a lot of value on examining issues in great detail and discovering the truth. Their determination in this regard can come across as aggressive and demanding. This means that in a business setting, presentations can be followed by questions that seem alarmingly probing or interrogative if taken personally.
The focus on content and analyzing key features of what has been said or is being said means conversations can get quite forceful at times. English speakers are often shocked by what they perceive to be an expression of anger, either at what is being said or at the person saying it. It’s important not to assume people are getting angry, or to take the discussion personally; this is what animated discussion sounds like with Germans! Once the discussion is over, the normal tenor of conversation will return. The most important thing is to not take it personally, and understand that it’s just an analytical discussion. This will protect your feelings, and will make it easier for you to join in the objective conversation.
This also applies to written communication, especially emails. Germans will write a strong or firmly worded email when they disagree with something, then will be taken aback by their British or American colleague’s cold response. Once again, their comments weren’t personal, and shouldn’t be taken that way.
The German language is known for being direct, and the German people usually prefer to say what they are thinking and speak honestly and plainly. Frankness and straightforwardness are traits that are common in German culture and society. This is seen more in the north of the country than the south, though a degree of straightforwardness is integral to German culture as a whole.
This is especially seen in business negotiations; Germans are inclined to state what they want and spend less time trying to haggle. While their American or British counterparts may be more inclined to start negotiations high and go back and forth until a deal is reached, German businessmen tend not to deviate from their position very much before reaching a compromise.
Germans aren’t too worried about offending people with what they say or how they say it. Because of this, comments on personal things like behavior or character can feel uncomfortably direct or offensive, no matter how well-meaning or supportive the original intent behind the comment was.
This straight forward way of speaking can cause problems when Germans use English. While native English speakers tend to use phrases such as “would”, “could”, “maybe”, and “might”, Germans tend to stick with words like “yes”, “no”, and “must”, which can come across as uncompromising or rude to native English speakers.
In Germany, communication, especially, in business involves making contact. This method of communication has become a culture. When making contact, you have to do a short introduction or an e-mail and follow with a telephone call. Waking up all of a sudden and making calls without following this procedure is considered unacceptable. This procedure persisted until recently when the Germans decided to gradually drop it. Remember, the practice has not been fully abandoned. Therefore, it is advisable to understand the expectations of the person you want to communicate with before taking that first step.
In Germany, job applications letters are submitted to potential employers in a typed form. You also need to submit your photograph when applying for a job. In other nations, typing an application letter is not acceptable because the employer may be tempted to think that you did not take the time to write the letter yourself, and they take that to mean you did not value the job vacancy.
Until 1998, telecommunications in Germany was highly concentrated in just a few companies. Today, there are a number of vendors available, including Vodafone, O2 and a variety of other Pan-European companies.
English speakers tend to avoid words such as “must” and “should” to avoid sounding offensive or over-bearing. Germans often don’t realize this, and will unintentionally come across as blunt or too assertive when translating “müssen” or “sollen” directly into English. Germans also do not shy away from direct contradiction if they disagree with something.
They will often use the terms “doch” and “aber” – which translate to “(yes,) but…” – to flatly contradict something that has just been said. An English speaker is more likely to acknowledge and give credit to the ideas or statements that were just communicated before expressing disagreement or presenting a counterargument. Germans don’t see the need to do this, and will simply state directly if they disagree with something, and why.
When communicating with Germans, it’s important to recognize that what we may see as offensive or rude may be perfectly acceptable in German discourse. If you feel offended by something that is said to you, or something you see written down, ask how it was intended before you take it personally. Remember that Germans focus on the communication rather than the person, while Americans and Britians think the person is just as important as the conversation.
The German disposition toward directness is reflected in their use of language. English speakers will commonly use phrases such as “would”, “could”, “perhaps,” and “maybe” to soften their conversations and make them seem less blunt or harsh. This is true more for British than Americans, but both cultures tend to soften their speech patterns compared to the Germans, who are very direct in the way they speak and can use phrases that seem rude or confrontational to non-Germans. For example, they tend to use words like “definitely” and “absolutely” more frequently then would be expected.
Accordingly, Germans are not as inclined toward small talk as their English-speaking colleagues, and don’t feel the need to soften their instructions with niceties. It often takes time for foreign secretaries and administrative assistants to get used to the German way of interacting. For example, a German colleague will walk into an office and say, “Give me that file, please” rather than “Hi Carol, how’s it going? Could I have the Smith file please?” Germans generally find conversational padding to be a waste of time. When they want to talk to you about your family or personal life they will, but when they are talking about work, that is the focus of the conversation. They see no need to mix the two.
Germans value clear verbal communication and focus on content and what is being said rather than on building a relationship or establishing rapport with the rest of the people in the conversation. This is especially true in a business setting, and can seem overly serious to American and British businessmen who, while also content-focused in conversations, place a good deal of emphasis on building relationships.
That being said, it is interesting to note that younger Germans tend to have more in common with the youth of other countries when it comes to communication. This is because they are all brought up in a more globalized pop culture that gives them common ground for more closely-related styles of communication.
Another factor that influences German communication habits is education. Germans are taught to be clear, factual, and analytical. This results in a tendency to take matters seriously, and the ability to recognize and accept that if a situation is serious it can also be complicated. While American and British communication values simplicity and ease, German conversational habits are often academically precise and complex. As a result, Germans often complain that American and British comments can be too simplistic, while native English speakers think that German conversations can be unnecessarily complicated.
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