Communication or Kommunikation?

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. :-)


2 Responses to “Communication or Kommunikation?”

  1. Silvano Says:

    First I’ll clarify that I’m also a Spaniard and I know the German side pretty well (around 8 years living in Germany), but not the American one. I would say that in general Spanish way or communicating is something between the American one and the German one, but much closer to the latest. And more personalized I would say that I’m more oriented to the German way of “Kommunikation” than Per Abbat (and he at the same time more oriented to the American way of communication).

    After this long introduction I’ll say that I agree in general, but I don’t fully agree. You praise how the American people get communication almost to the level of art and, although I’m pretty direct, I really like that language has become more than a communication tool (in some countries more than in others).

    But I’d also like to praise the German way of communicating in certain situations: when you need efficiency. If the encoding/decoding process looses information, then some repetitions with different codecs is required to get the whole information transfered. I mean, If the girl asking her best friend about the red t-shirt knows that her friend’s favorite color is blue, she wouldn’t be sure if the answer “Don’t you think the blue one would match better the color of your eyes?” means that the t-shirt doesn’t fit her or if she’s trying to convincer to get the blue one, although the red one fits her. In this case, she would ask her friend again slightly different to cover that gap of uncertainty. I’m sure that in those contexts where uncertainty can’t simply be accepted (army, laws, technical specification documents…) even in America a more “German way of communicating” is used.

    In general I would say that a “polite communication level” is better suited for personal communication and a “direct communication level” is better suited for business communication. But way a sec! Aren’t we dealing with individuals on business communication? Who said that live is that easy as selecting one of both ways of communicating? So I’d say that a good mixture of both adapting it to the situation reaches the optimal balance.

    Didn’t I started saying that the Spanish way of communicating is something in between? Well, I finally got to the conclusion I wanted to get! The Spanish mixture of politeness and directness is the optimal one!! (this is only a joke dedicated to all the foreigners who know Spanish way of being patriot -”Como en España, en ningún sitio”)

    BTW, don’t take Javier Bardem’s way of asking Scarlett Johanson and Rebecca Hall to go to Oviedo and have sex with him in the film “Vicky Christina Barcelona” as an example of Spanish directness ;-)

  2. Silvano Says:

    I already learned that answering “I’m not really interested” to a proposal can sound normal to a Spaniard or a German, but it’ll surely sound rude to an American :-/

Leave a Reply