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. In particular, German is a different language and a different way to communicate. Understanding the differences in conversation etiquette will help better prepare you for German interactions.
Many Americans consider Spanish and French the most common, useful languages outside of their native English. While it’s true that those two are the most widely taught non-English languages in the United States, it might be surprising to learn that German is the third most commonly taught spoken language within the United States.
Within the 28 states of the European Union, German is the most widely spoken language, and German registers as the primary language for about 95 million people worldwide.
German takes on even more significance in the scientific world, where it ranks as the second most commonly used language. On websites, only English, Russian and Japanese appear more frequently.
Many students of German find the grammar quite demanding. Learners must account for three genders and four cases. To make matters even more complex, verbs are conjugated for both person and number. The grammar reflects a need for precision and order that can be found in many other areas of German culture.
It might not be the easiest language to master, but German stands as a crucial tongue in the world business community. But knowing the language is only a small part of understanding the cultural differences between the German nation and other major players on the world stage.
The phrase “say what you mean” is often followed by the addendum “mean what you say.” In German culture, it’s extremely offensive for someone to say they are going to do something and then not follow through. If a German says “I’ll do my best,” it means they will do everything they can to succeed. If an English speaker uses that phrase, it often means they may or may not get around to it, and often indicates a lack of intention to follow through. Doing one’s duty is an important part of German life, and is just as important for the person cleaning up after their dog as it is for military personnel or businessmen.
This sense of duty originates from a deep belief in higher principles that is integral to German tradition as seen in the operas of Wagner and the great romantic poets Goethe and Schiller. Implicit in German intellectual life is the principle of the greater good which revolves around the sense of “Gemeinschaft” (“community”) and “Gruppenzugehörigkeit” (“group belonging”). Because of this, it is important for the individual to subjugate one’s own will to that of the group, and to not act against the interest of the group. This form of idealism explains in part why the Germans seem to have an internalized sense of public order.
Late one night a German taxi driver packed five weary airplane passengers into his cab to take them to their hotels. “After all,” he explained, “it’s better to be a little uncomfortable but get to your hotels faster, than to wait to be taken individually.” “It works out well for you too,” the German passenger piped up, “since you are charging full fares for each of us!” The rest of the non-German passengers felt bad for the driver. Though it was true, the other passengers felt like the driver should have been thanked for bending the rules, not chastised for it. Germans, however, are never slow to say what is on their minds, and often don’t understand the British and – to some extent – American reluctance to quibble.
Be prepared for Germans to be straightforward about bad service, high rents, or unacceptable behavior. Germans are used to voicing their opinions, and won’t hesitate to say what they are thinking! It’s important to have a thick skin so you aren’t offended when someone complains to or about you. If you tend to complain, keep in mind that there is a difference between being frank and being tactless. Above all, don’t make the mistake of thinking you are in a nation of whiners. This is anything but true!
One day, a British manager suggested to his German counterpart that a special discount should be offered to a branch in Switzerland. He was surprised when his colleague responded in a seemingly over-dramatic manner, telling him in no uncertain terms that this kind of thing was not appropriate.
The German businessman went over the nature of their relationship and the British man’s responsibilities and the limits of his authority within the company. It was made quite clear that the British manager did not have the competence or standing in the company to suggest such a thing, and was wrong to try. The British man felt that this was extremely rude, and was quite frigid the next time he interacted with his German colleague. The German man, on the other hand, was his normal charming self, and was concerned for his British friend who seemed to be in a bad mood.
This story showcases the difference between British or American business manners and those of Germans. A non-German would have been much more polite when turning down his colleague and letting him know that it was not his place to give such a suggestion. The German executive, however, did not think he was being rude or mean, but rather that he was explaining why the suggestion was wrong. Remember: it’s all a matter of perspective!
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