(My) Expat Guide to sticking it out (beta v 1.2)
Part six of 10 ( + 2) bits of advice on how to survive the transition without throwing in the towel.
You, the American in Germany, smile at someone on the street and get a blank stare in return. You offer small talk to your cashier and get no response. You think you’re doing a good job but your boss just tells you how he didn’t like your presentation, in extreme detail. You often tell your colleague how good she looks and she’s only asked you once if you’re ill because you look like hell.
What the hell is wrong with these people?
6. Germans are stiff and seemingly unfriendly.
Assuming for a moment that you’re with a German partner or have been to Germany on occasion, you then should know at least a bit about the cultural differences between Germany and Americans. Specifically, the fact that they are blunt as spoons.
I can say that for Americans, German directness crosses over into rudeness. They do not, as a rule, pad or soften a statement with a compliment like we usually do. This can shock the hell out of an unprepared American who comes over used to having a lot of smiles and unsolicited compliments thrown at them in the course of casual conversation.
I see it as boiling down to a whole other concept of sincerity. Germans aren’t good on subtle hints, hidden clues, softened criticism, etc. Instead, they have a no-shit attitude to communication. This means that if they are upset, they say so instead of saying that they’re “less than thrilled” and leaving you to put two and two together. I found this startling at first but then, with a little time, refreshingly easy to understand. When Americans give criticism, we will start with a positive statement and then follow-up with the negative. Germans will cut to the chase. This can take your breath away as an American the first few times it happens
This sincerity rule by the way also applies to smiles, small talk and over-friendly attitudes towards strangers. A German friend summed it up once, saying that if there was no reason to smile at a stranger on the street (puppy, cute baby, funny hat), to do so anyway would be akin to dishonesty or lying, and why would he want to be so rude as to lie to someone? Small talk, being overly friendly and the like seem insincere, which is dishonest, which is rude. I found that really interesting.
In the US we have many grades of friends: casual friends, good friends, close friends, best friends, etc. We’ll call someone we met twice a “friend”. Hell, once is often enough (don’t want to seem unfriendly now, do we?). Being a “friend” of an American doesn’t necessarily mean at lot. Unless someone throws in a qualifier (My best friend), then you’re just a person they think is nice and would consider possibly one day being really good friends with, but until then you’re in a ginormous pool with everyone else who isn’t actively objectionable.
My interpretation of it over here is: What a German would call a friend is what an American would call a great or very close friend and everyone below that is an acquaintance. On the plus side, when you actually become friends with a German, they really mean it and take it very seriously.
There are other things also lost in translation. It might be a California thing, but one thing we often do is tell people, “let’s have coffee sometime”, or “let’s meet for a drink” even though we have no real intention of actually doing so. It’s understood by both that this probably won’t happen; it’s just a way of being nice. This is very hard for Germans to understand and I’m often told stories of how they’ve felt slighted or stood up because this was said to them but the corresponding invitation never came.
When I first came to Germany I ended up having coffee with a lot of people I really wasn’t too interested in hanging out with because I went around suggesting and agreeing to coffee dates and then was astounded when everyone persistently followed through. When I tried to get out of it, I was sternly informed by Oliver that I was going to have to make good on all these offers if I didn’t want to offend everyone and as an American abroad I should know better than to write checks my butt couldn’t cash.
So I went out for coffee. A lot.
These kinds of things are why Germans often say that they find Americans insincere. We think we’re being nice; they think we’re being totally rude and offensive. We think they are being rude and even a little mean; they feel they’re being sincere and honest.
This all just takes some getting used to.
And once you figure out this body language and cultural issue, it’s time to master effective communication. Yes, there’s more to it. I’ll tell you how next.