Directness vs. Euphemisms

This article appeared in the Handelsblatt Today February 24, 2018. See all articles here.

Americans and Germans do a lot of business together – and often have unnecessary misunderstandings, causing a lot of grief and mistrust. An American consultant who has lived in Germany for 25 years offers some help.

The United States and Germany are among the most successful countries and cultures in the world. They have the largest and fourth-largest economies, great companies, and great talents. Clearly, they must be doing a lot right. And yet, so much can go wrong when Germans and Americans meet and do business together, as I know from my years as an American consultant living in Germany. It helps for each side to understand where the other is coming from.

Start with basic communication. Germans say what they mean. Mean what they say. Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t use euphemisms. Clear, direct, unambiguous. Get to the point. Right away. To Americans, as to many other English-speaking people, the Germans thus appear impatient, obnoxious, at times even insulting.

Once you enter the inner cultural logic of this German style of communication, it appears less off-putting. The Germans are not exactly an unintelligent, unreflective, insensitive people. Instead they consider direct communication to be honest, transparent, and efficient. And also respectful, because it reduces the risk that people will misunderstand each other. Germans want to understand and be understood.

The inner logic of American communication culture is different. Americans approach important topics cautiously. They use euphemisms to transmit awkward messages. They consider indirect communication to be polite, sophisticated, and still effective. They aim to maintain dialogue in order to deepen it.

Germans aren’t familiar with baseball’s left field.

Germans find the American style of communication too soft, indirect and unclear. The Americans seem to be wrapping their messages in wads of cotton. To complicate matters, the Germans often miss the nuances in the carefully-worded statements of the Americans (or Brits, or other English speakers). American euphemisms, idioms, and witticisms fall flat. Germans aren’t familiar with baseball’s left field. Americans, in turn, perceive Germans as impatient, impolite, and rough. That’s why Americans are wont to feel uncomfortable in a conversation with Germans.

Germans should therefore practice using a softer vocabulary and approaching important topics indirectly. They don’t have to clarify key points immediately but should first establish a rapport. Americans, meanwhile, should embrace German directness, which has advantages. They should keep it simple and unambiguous. It’s OK, the Germans won’t break down in tears.

Let’s consider the way Americans and Germans negotiate agreements. Many Americans I know call their German colleagues Dr. No. (Behind their backs, of course.) More accurate would be Herr or Frau Dr. Nein. The German Nein is indeed more rule than exception. It can come hard and fast. But this Nein, depending on the context, can range from hard to flexible. Germans only say Ja (yes) when they are sure that they can deliver.

In the American context, by contrast, a no is the exception rather than the rule. Americans take pride in being open, helpful, and flexible. They extol cooperation, teamwork, and volunteerism. To reject a request from a colleague out of hand feels like negating these values. Americans are especially reluctant to say no to a boss or a customer.

Germans may think they have an agreement, whereas the Americans communicated no such thing.

So the American no comes in the form of a conditional yes signaling the reasons why assistance is regretfully not possible. To Americans it is a sign of professionalism and finesse to communicate rejection in a positive, supportive, affirmative way. This is not easy for Germans to decipher. Germans want clarity. But a no in the form of a conditional yes sends mixed signals.

The resulting misunderstandings can get ugly. Germans may think they have an agreement, whereas the Americans communicated no such thing. Germans will then conclude that the Americans are unzuverlässig (unreliable). Even on minor matters, to be unzuverlässig is a character flaw in Germany. Unzuverlässig is a label which can take a painfully long time to have peeled off your forehead.

The Americans in turn perceive the Germans as born nay-sayers: Unfriendly, uncooperative, the opposite of team-players. The German Nein comes so fast and unequivocally that Americans seldom consider its real meaning: “Sorry, I cannot commit – at this time.” The Nein is usually conditional, like the American yes.

Germans should realize that their Nein sounds harsh and unfriendly to the American ear. They would do better to soften it. They could try instead to enter into a dialogue with American colleagues by stating the reasons why they cannot (yet) enter into an agreement, then giving the Americans a chance to think about solutions. The Germans should keep in mind that they may need assistance from this very same colleague at a later time – and check their foreheads in the mirror daily.

The Americans, meanwhile, should communicate more literally with their German colleagues than they are used to doing. If they can’t enter into an agreement, they should simply say so, then provide reasons. If they are willing to enter into an agreement, they should give clear indications to what degree their yes is conditional: “Sure, Hans, I can deliver that by next Thursday. But, I have a lot going on at the moment. I can guarantee it only 50%. Let‘s talk again on Tuesday.”

Germans tend to separate message from messenger. Americans do the opposite.

Finally, consider the American and German styles of presentation. Germans tend to separate message from messenger. A German presenter consciously moves into the background so that the content can take center stage. Arguments should speak for themselves. German speakers strive to be factual, analytical, scientific. This often makes them appear objective, impersonal, and colorless. They display little body language and stay behind the podium or to the side. Content takes center stage.

Americans do the opposite. They link message and messenger. Content, form and presenter should form a unity: “Sell yourself first, then your product or service.” So Americans get personal and anecdotal, with personal color and plenty of gesticulation. Go to YouTube and look at Steve Ballmer on stage in his Microsoft days. The messenger is the message.

Germans react ambivalently to this linking of message and messenger. While listening, they whisper to each other: “If his case is so strong, why is he putting on such a ridiculous show?” or “Typical American. All show, no substance. We’ll take him down when we get to Q&A.” Yet some of the Germans secretly think: “Wow. Uninhibited. Natural. Believes in himself. Getting me to believe. Wish we Germans were allowed to do the same.”

Americans watching a German presenter often feel that the speaker lacks passion or even courage. “Why is she hiding behind the podium? What’s she afraid of?” or “Sleeping pill. Quick, someone open the windows.” or “Oh please, don’t do the math. We believe you.” Yet some Americans secretly think: “Wow. Clear-eyed, clear-headed. Nothing but the facts. Rock-solid analysis. Wish we Americans didn’t have to entertain the children.”

So the Germans should identify more with their message. Use “I”. Tell anecdotes. Don’t run away from who you are. Tell the story, including your story. Put your heart into it. Drop the robot-stuff. The Americans, by contrast, should temper their inner showman. Inject skepticism into your message. It adds to credibility.


Conversation as Interview

Germans like to get to the point quickly. They are more interested in the content than the person. They know before the meeting what they want to learn, hear, the information they seek. The conversation is often more of an interview than a discussion, as if they came prepared with a list of questions.

Figures of speech: Es gibt keine blöden Fragen. Es gibt nur blöde Antworten. There are no stupid questions. There are only stupid answers. Gut gefragt, ist halb gewonnen. The right question is half the right answer. Fragen kostet nichts. Asking doesn’t cost anything. Fangfrage. Trick question.

Löcher in den Bauch fragen. Literally translated: to shoot holes (with questions) in the other person‘s stomach. Preisfrage. Price question. Das kommt nicht in Frage. Literally, that does not come into question, or absolutely not.


Thou vs Ye

In Old English, thou/thee were used to address a single person, while ye/you were used to address more than one person. However, as English developed, the terms ye and you were used to politely address a single person – first the king, then other high born nobility and the clergy, and eventually anyone at or above a person’s social status.

By the end of the 16th century, the word ye had virtually disappeared from daily speech, and the term you was quickly replacing the term thou.

As Early Modern English began, the word thou became associated with emotions, rather than number or hierarchy, and most people would only use thou if they were angry or in love. Ironically, these days people very rarely use the informal thou to indicate formality or to sound more archaic:”Thou shallt not lie.


Harry Truman Plain Speaker

Americans who use direct communication are typically labelled as plain speakers. It is difficult for plain speakers to rise high in American politics, and one of the few to do so was Harry Truman.

Truman’s entrée into politics began in 1922, when he was elected to be a judge in the Jackson County Court. He served as a judge from 1922 to 1924, but despite his reputation for honesty and efficiency, was not reelected in 1924. Undeterred, Harry ran for judge again in 1926, this time winning his election.

In 1934, Truman became a senator, and in 1944 he was nominated to run as vice president with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The two men won their campaign, and Truman then came to office as president following FDR’s death in April 1945.

In 1948, Truman ran for reelection, and to the shock of the public (who considered his defeat inevitable), Truman won reelection. In fact, Truman’s defeat was so widely anticipated that some newspapers went to print with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” before the election results were known. As a result, there is a famous photograph of Truman smiling as he holds up one of these newspapers after winning the presidency.

Harry Truman left the presidency in 1953 and retired from political life. Some examples of Truman’s Plain-speech:

On why he opposed silencing dissenters: “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”

On why he would not accept the Medal of Honor: “I don’t consider that I have done anything which should be the reason for any award, Congressional or otherwise.”

On politics: “We now see that other past presidents, have found a new level of success in cashing in on the presidency, resulting in untold wealth. Today, many in Congress also have found a way to become quite wealthy while enjoying the fruits of their offices. Obviously, political offices are now for sale.”

On politics: “My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference. I, for one, believe the piano player job to be much more honorable than current politicians.“


“Thank You”

Politeness is so ingrained in Americans that sometimes they will respond with the polite formality before realizing that their politeness might seem a little out of place. In the American television show “Scrubs: Med School” the main character, a med student named Lucy, complains to her teacher that she doesn’t feel like he’s trying to teach her anything. The teacher tells her that he’s not, because he doesn’t waste time on people who won’t succeed. Her response to this was “Thank you” before walking off and criticizing herself for thanking him.


Learning to speak American

In her blog – Learning to speak American – Vicki Hollett from the UK asked herself if Americans were more direct than the British. Hollett writes:

„Indirectness is an interesting feature of politeness. Like most people, I don’t always say what I mean. So for example, I might say, ‘Do you have a pen in your bag?’ when really I mean ‘I want a pen’. And people ask for things indirectly like this all the time:

Those biscuits look nice. (Give me one) Is anybody else here feeling hot. (I’m hot. Open the window.) Have you finished with that newspaper? (I want to read it.) Are you going past a post box on your way home? (I have a letter I want you to post.) Are you busy? (Help!)

The ambiguity in requests like these has social benefits. If I can get what I want because you want to give it to me, then life will seem like it’s harmonious and pleasant for us both. And if I haven’t gone on the record with a request, then it’s easier for me to rescind or modify it later.

So I might say ‘Those biscuits look nice’ hoping you’ll offer me one. But then if you say ‘Yes, I bought them for my kids’ school’, I can say ‘Oh how old are your children?’ and we can both pretend I wasn’t asking.

Now people often say Americans are very direct, but I’m not sure how true that is, particularly when it comes requests like these. An American would say cookies instead of biscuits and mailbox instead of post box, but they seem just as likely as me to make requests in this roundabout fashion.

In my experience, Americans are pretty much like Brits when it comes to saying what they mean directly. In short, they don’t.

It was once considered the height of good manners to ask for something by first offering it to another person. For example, a typical piece of dinner dialogue might have been:

“John, would you like some more bread?”
“No, Bob, but would you like some?”
“Yes, I would.”
“Here you go, then.”

Although no longer the fashionable way to indicate that you would like something, it’s not uncommon for Americans to use this roundabout way of asking for a favor.


Demographics

According to a report by the Census Bureau, the United States is expected to be a majority-minority nation by 2043. Within the next 50 years, nearly one in three U.S. residents would be Hispanic. Within the same time span, the Asian-American population will double from 15.9 million people to 34.4 million, and the African-American population is projected to increase by 20 million people.

From 2024 to 2060, the non-Hispanic white population will fall by nearly 20 million people, and will make up 43 percent of the nation’s total population by 2060. In 2011, the population of the United States was comprised of the following: White persons not Hispanic (63.4 percent), Black (13.1 percent), American Indian (1.2 percent), Asian-American (5.0 percent), Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander (0.2 percent), Two or more races (2.3 percent), Hispanic or Latino Origin (16.7 percent).

In diverse cultures people approach potentially sensitive topics indirectly.


Circumnavigate

Probe. To probe is to physically explore or examine something with the hands or an instrument. To probe is also to seek to uncover information about someone or something. The word originates from late Latin as proba, or proof, or in medieval Latin as examination. It is derived from Latin probare, meaning “to test“.

Circumnavigate. When one circumnavigates, one sails all the way around something, especially the world. To go around or across (something).

Euphemism. A euphemism is a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing: ‘pre-owned car’ instead of a used car; ‘sex worker’ instead of a prostitute; to be ‘between jobs’ instead of to be unemployed; ‘senior citizen’ instead of old person; ‘underserved neighborhood’ instead of impoverished neighborhood.


Too rude

Leon Lederman, the author of the book The God Particle (Higgs Boson) originally wanted to call it The Goddamn Particle because the particle was proving very difficult to find, but his publishers thought that this sounded too rude.

Higgs Boson is a particle which is largely responsible for the mass of subatomic particles. It took almost five decades after the particle was first postulated to find it, largely because of the high energy needed to produce it and how quickly it decays into smaller particles.


Euphemisms

Because Americans find it difficult separate what they say from the person they are saying it to – especially in the case of criticism – they strive to use softer, more indirect language, including euphemisms: mild or indirect words or expressions substituted for ones considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.

Examples of euphemisms: pre-owned car instead of a used car, sex worker instead of a prostitute, to be between jobs instead of to be unemployed, senior citizen instead of old person, underserved neighborhood or underserved population instead of the poor, or an impoverished, needy neighborhood.

Further examples: economically disadvantaged instead of poor; temporary negative cash flow instead of broke; enhanced interrogation methods instead of torture; collateral damage instead of civilian deaths.