“When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” or so the saying goes. As old as it is, it refers to what is nowadays termed “cultural intelligence.”
In order to live peacefully in a different culture, it is important to learn about it, respect it and act accordingly.
So, let’s look at some of the classic misunderstandings.
Have you ever experienced that smiling at a stranger led to an unexpected reaction of frowning faces? Have Germans you have only met a minute ago made a critical remark about your government? Did they start telling you in depth about their various sicknesses after you asked, “How are you”? All these awkward situations are simply part of a cultural misunderstanding.
Hyde Flippo, author of “The German Way” website www.german-way.com, explains: “If you don’t understand the German/European approach to strangers and casual acquaintances, you’re a prime candidate for cultural misunderstanding.”
The reason being that in Germany, any eye contact with a stranger is considered disrespectful as one is intruding on the personal space of another person without invitation. This is a typical reaction for nations where people live very close to each other. Remember, in Germany, 80 million people share a space half the size of Texas.
Among Americans, it is considered polite and absolutely normal to greet strangers by saying, “How are you?” A carelessly translated, “Wie geht es Dir?” However, this can result in a frown on the side of your German counterpart. Firstly, strangers always address each other with the formal “Sie” instead of “Du.” Secondly, that question is only used after having been introduced to a person. Asking a complete stranger how he was would be considered as a culturally inappropriate curiosity. Send a friendly nod if you have to interact — that’s all that is necessary in the beginning.
It is important to understand that there is no such high degree of small talk culture in the German language as is in the English-speaking nations. Consequently, if asked a question, even a small talk phrase, a German will feel inclined to answer truthfully. History teacher and experienced traveller Petra Hanisch from Ebhausen explains the readiness to criticize: “This has a lot to do with the recent German history. Enthusiasm without criticism is considered one of the main reasons for the Third Reich,” she said. “Ever since, the target in education is to eradicate that uncritical attitude and teach people to scrutinize anything authorities promise.”
So, talking critically about any administration is not meant to be impolite nor critical toward you. At the same time, Germans are very interested in what goes on in America, and they like to show that — even at unexpected occasions.
Melissa Lamson, author of “No Such Thing as Small Talk: 7 Keys to Understanding German Business Culture,” said she remembers standing at an airport waiting for the luggage to come from the plane from San Francisco. After casually mentioning the bags to the waiting crowd, a German woman next to her responded, “Oh, you are from San Francisco? So what do you think about the environmental policies that Arnold Schwarzenegger is implementing?”
Yet, what appears to be rude, is often just the Germans’ tendency to express themselves very frankly. So, take no offense. See the great opportunity in knowing exactly what your German counterpart wants, and in not having to read between the lines.
In his book “Leading with Cultural Intelligence,” U.S. author David Livermore, Ph.D., takes the need for getting a better understanding of other cultures even to a higher level.
“Our level of interest in connecting with the culture and the people as a whole will directly shape how well we do our work in subtle but profound ways,” he said.
His practical advice includes studying the foreign language, reading international books, being globally informed, getting a basic overview of a country, its history and the key issues of the locals, and, finally, just going to the grocery store.
“Observe what is the same and what is different from were you shop,” Livermore said.
However, cultural intelligence does not mean “go native.” For example, respecting the 1 to 3 p.m. “Mittagszeit,” or silent siesta, in Germany does not mean you have to go to sleep yourself, but your German neighbors will greatly appreciate you not mowing the lawn during this time.
“The richest cross-cultural relationships involve culturally intelligent behavior flowing both ways,” Livermoore said.
The good news is that there is more similarities than differences. Afterall, our cultural relations are very old. German immigrants first arrived in the New World in the 17th century and have kept coming ever since.
Practically every American has some connection with Germany. So, with a bit of effort, you can have the best of two worlds.
If you want to learn more about differences, from fully paid sick leave to the love of full-fiber food, keep reading:
— Melissa Lamson, “No Such Thing as Small Talk: 7 Keys to Understanding German Business Culture”
— David Livermore, “Leading with Cultural Intelligence”