Archive for January, 2009

Communication or Kommunikation?

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

Codex Manenssisy German colleagues in Princeton sent me this link (only in German, sorry) with an interesting text that talks about the differences between the way English and German native speakers communicate. The main point the author makes is that, mostly because of politeness reasons, indirectness is king among Anglo-Saxons speakers. What they say doesn’t necessarily correspond to what they mean. The author gives some examples: if after hearing a colleague’s proposal an American reacts by saying I wonder if this is really the best solution or I’m wondering if we might need more time, or We might want to review some parts of the proposal, all those phrases actually mean “No, I don’t like it”. If a girl asks her best friend if she likes the new red shirt she is about to buy, and the friends says Don’t you think the blue one would match better the color of your eyes?, that means “No, I don’t like the red one”. If the girl asking were German, a culture where conversations are mostly driven by directness, she would probably think What the heck is she talking about? I asked her about the shirt, not about my eyes… And so on.

Since I find this topic very amusing and interesting, and Michael asked me to contribute from my neutral position as a Spaniard working with Germans and Americans by confirming (or refuting) what the article says, I thought I might as well made the topic public from my little corner in the Internet. So here it goes.

Although I agree with most of what the papers conveys (yes - the average German speaker is direct; yes -the average English speaker is indirect; and yes- those two facts can lead to a lot of communication breakdowns between the two cultures), I’d like to make a couple of comments from my outsider’s perspective (Warning!: I am about to generalize big time here, and therefore my comments might not be entirely fair to every English and German native speaker. I hope you understand what follows is just what I have experienced in my 8+ years of experience in the UK, Munich and Seattle when working mostly with geeks and engineers. Also, don’t take this as a lesson coming from an expert - After all these years living abroad and being married to an American, I still have big communication issues myself… :-) ).

1.- To state that Americans don’t want to say what they think because they don’t want to hurt people feelings or be rude is, in my opinion, a big simplification that misses the whole point. My theory is that for the majority of the Anglo-Saxons, especially for North Americans, the word “communication” means much more than in other cultures. For them to communicate is an end in itself; it is an act that goes beyond its intended and basic functionality of trying to make a point across. For me the English verb “to communicate” has a totally different connotation than the German verb “kommunizieren”. Theoretically they mean the same, but practically the English verb has a lot of implicit aspects that are missing in the German counterpart. That’s why North-Americans have turned communication into an art; that’s why they have revolutionized in many ways how people communication to each other. Just think of advertisement in the US, or of any political public speech in the US. I have never seen an American engineer giving a boring technical presentation, whereas I have witnessed presentations by Germans (and Spaniards, and Italians, and French, and Russians, and Indians, and Chinese…) where I was already sleeping before the presented had started his second sentence. Now, the phrase “No, I don’t like it” is too simple, too basic, too mundane, too ordinary for the American communication standards. It’s like eating a plate of plain pasta without tomato sauce versus eating a nice, well presented plate of spaghetti carbonara with bacon and boiled eggs with some aromatic herbs on top of it. Both things accomplish its mission: provide the body with nutrients. But obviously the second one is much more enjoyable and takes into account many subtle things that the first one obviates. For the pragmatic and direct Germans (and many other cultures) those subtle things don’t matter, they don’t give a damn crap about them because the important thing is not to starve (aka. to make your point across when you talk). For a North American to say a simple “No” is like two portions of plain and tasteless pasta.

Book of Hours, Johan de Luc, Paris, 1525That is the reason why they don’t say a simple “yes” either. If they like something they sort of over do it for European standards. They go brilliant, fabulous, cool, they even change the pitch of their voice… simply because they don’t want to have plain pasta. The text talks about this topic too, giving the example on how Americans get frustrated when, for example, they give presents to their German friends and these don’t add any spice, or salsa, or salt, not even butter to their reaction when opening the present. The Americans simply think the Germans did not like the present (Actually I should say Europeans and not only Germans, because that happened to me with a couple of Americans too… :-) )

So the bottom line here is: when talking to North Americans remember to add sauce and condiments to your sentences. Also, be aware of the side dishes that come with the main entree… if you neglect them you are probably missing the tastiest portion of the meal.

2.- In my opinion, a large portion of the German population (at least those who studied engineering and other technical stuff) missed class the day they taught non-verbal communication. And let me tell you that their lack of that sort of soft skills gotta be really bad if such as an unobservant person like myself can notice it. That’s why they need to have a direct, explicit communication, because getting or sending the message through non-standards, implicit channels is out of the question. The North American saying I wonder if this is the right solution is probably communicating This sucks in other ways such as eyes or hand movement, shoulder position, or something like that. But that goes unnoticed for the pragmatic German who is just concentrated on processing the literal meaning of the spoken words. (I guess this could also trigger a debate on the differences between men and women and the way they talk and communicate, but I better leave that for another occasion).

The funny thing is that I am currently reading a super fascinating book called Chryptonomicon (thanks a lot, Zane!), highly recommendable for any pretending geek, that shows how Germans and Allies dealt with cryptography and secret information channels during WWII. The efficiency, directness and pragmatism that lead the German Wehrmacht to conquer almost the entire European continent, failed to be the appropriate tools for the German intelligence office that was supposed to intercept and decrypt the enemy’s messages. They simply lacked the necessary empathy and subtleness for it. They had basically lost the information war even before the British had actually broken their codes and had built the Enigma machines. But, hey!, that’s okay. The average German is intelligent, highly educated, focused, efficient, disciplined and deeply analytical. If they were good communicators too (well, hundreds of tons of extra flexibility and improvisation capabilities wouldn’t hurt either) they’d be la crème de la crème, and the rest of us would be pretty screwed because Adolfito would have won the war.

So let’s better learn how to deal with the ways other cultures communicate. They are not better or worse, they are just different, and since we all are in this same world we are condemned to understand them and make ourselves understood.

The floor is available to whoever wants to add any comment to my theory. :-)


The US will Desintegrate in 2010

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

Codex Manenssis

eez! I knew that the American economy was pretty messed up and that most of the political and economical experts foresee a couple of really tough and difficult years ahead… but I couldn´t believe my eyes when I happened to find this header while browsing the Wall Street Journal website. And no, it wasn’t April’s Fool issue.

This apocalyptic vision comes from a Russian professor in Moscow, by the name of Igor Panarin, who is far from being a nobody in Russian society. As the article says: “A former KGB analyst, he is dean of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s academy for future diplomats. He is invited to Kremlin receptions, lectures students, publishes books, and appears in the media as an expert on U.S.-Russia relations.

Unkown Codex

Mr. Panarin states that mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation will trigger a civil war next fall and the collapse of the dollar (God… even more?). Around the end of June 2010, or early July, he says, the U.S. will break into six pieces (warning!: Jaw-dropping sentences follows) - “California will form the nucleus of what he calls “The Californian Republic,” and will be part of China or under Chinese influence. Texas will be the heart of “The Texas Republic,” a cluster of states that will go to Mexico or fall under Mexican influence. Washington, D.C., and New York will be part of an “Atlantic America” that may join the European Union. Canada will grab a group of Northern states Prof. Panarin calls “The Central North American Republic.” Hawaii, he suggests, will be a protectorate of Japan or China”.

Here you have the map of the division. I have to admit I have no words to describe it.

He goes further to say: “It would be reasonable for Russia to lay claim to Alaska; it was part of the Russian Empire for a long time.” I really wonder how in the world the current Spanish government missed the opportunity to hire this genius. With his intelligence and his anti-Americanism he would definitely fit right in among many Spanish ministers. Not to mention the huge possibilities that would mean for Spain to be able to claim Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, California, Guam, and Puerto Rico. After all, they were a part of the Spanish Empire for 300 years. What the heck is Zapatero doing? Oh well, I bet he is probably scared of hiring someone as witty and clever as himself…

You can read the entire article in this link of the Wall Street Journal Website.

At least the good thing is that I still have a year and a half to learn Chinese. How do you say Seattle in Mandarin? By the way, HAPPY NEW YEAR! :-)