What Americans notice about Germans…(part 3 of 4)

This is the continuing saga of what Americans notice about Germans, which was first published in die Zeit in 2002: Was Amerikanern an Deutschen auffällt,  oder Fünfzig Wege die Amerikaner gewinnen den Deutschen Aufmerksamkeit (50 ways the Americans attract Germans attention). You can read part 1 here (numbers 1 – 10) and part 2 here (numbers 11 – 26).

27. When in America, they wear bum bags [BrE]/fanny packs [AmE] out of fear of being robbed.

In this culture, practicality outweighs fashion, as I have said before, „Ordnung muss sein (Order must be)!‟ Also, see number 9. Wearing designer glasses is viewed/counts as a sign of individuality. Unfortunately, I think part of this lack of fashion is due in part because of the strange place the internet plays in Germans lives. Some, like the young (of course) embrace it fully and completely while others, the old (of course) don’t use it except for business (work) some shopping (they seem to love Amazon.de) and emailing. You can tell those who embrace this technology because no matter what age they are they all look the same. My husband and I went to Luxembourg city the other night only to run into a group of teenage boys who looked exactly like my fifteen-year-old nephew in Portland.

28. Deathly silence on the Underground/tube/subway and (commuter/suburban [BrE]) trains.

Brits don’t talk on the underground or overground – they just read. New Yorkers also don’t talk on the subway. Also, in our modern world, everyone seems to have a personal listening device and use it on public transportation often because it is their time to tune out, or into whatever they might want to because it is there time away from work, family and other stress. As a student I always tried to use the bus to study or catch up on required reading and people always tried to talk to me on the bus, oh Portland! I always tried to be polite Sometimes however, the conversation was a welcome break but, in all honesty, I generally didn’t like it. I always tried to be polite no matter how I was feeling, especially if I didn’t really want to talk to people.

29. You hardly ever get to know your neighbors.

Here, I would like to hold up a mirror to my American friends and ask them, how many of them actually know their neighbors, especially by choice! Interestingly enough, I found a Pew Research Foundation survey that stated that 46% of Americans talked face-to-face with neighbors about community issues, cool. I wish I could find information on Germany like this. I will say though that I bet it has to do with a number of factors.

Firstly, Germans are a rather private people. They have their close friends and then acquaintances. They are not so quick to open up, like Americans. Secondly, this is Americans saying this, so I also bet there is a bit of a language barrier. Thirdly, just like in America I am willing to bet that location makes a big difference too. People are more likely to know their neighbors in smaller cities and towns over larger ones – probably no matter where you are, Germany or America. Fourth, how long had the Americans that said this actually been in Germany? It is so easy to make assumptions and lump a whole people into a certain simple classification if you only stay or live in a place a short time – unless your an asshat that hates the world as soon as the ‘honeymoon phase’ is over (meaning for any and all parts of your life, like the new car smell is gone). Finally, the Americans must not have known that they already create a stereotype for this on this list, see “number 15. The art of conversation is largely unknown.”

A Romanian friend recently moved into a new flat with her German partner. When they were moving out of their old place, they noticed that their neighbor finally said hello and invited them over for dinner. They said they were just happy to be acknowledged and elated to be invited for dinner. In all of their three years as neighbors to this person, they had never before even said hello. Wow! My husband and I have only a few neighbors as we live in the inner-city, in a mixed use building but, I frequently see our neighbor – at least the one across the hall, and we frequently share greetings. Mind you I don’t know all of the neighbors, nor would necessarily invite them over for dinner. But, for me that has more to do with the language challenges more than anything else.

When I was researching the “German Stare“, I read a lot about little old ladies as neighbors who won’t necessarily talk to you but, will be little nosey-nellies and be all up in your business – even without you often initially realizing it, because this is an element left over from the time before Germany’s reunification. Being as far west as I am, I have not noticed that, at all.

The other thing I wanted to say about this point too is that maybe you don’t want to get to know your neighbors, really. I mean, when my husband first arrived and we sub-let a place – we never talked to our neighbors but, I knew they talked to each other and the people who originally had signed the lease for the place. We didn’t really have any interest ourselves in really getting to know them because we really didn’t know how long we would end up in Germany. We were only staying there for six months anyway.

Once we moved, I learned through a friend that because there were four names on the doorbell and mailbox and only one bedroom one of the neighbors, on the main floor, was quite suspicious of what exactly was happening in the apartment. Turns out, because we never really talked this neighbor (or neighbors, because they always had parties and people over in their one bedroom apartment too), this neighbor thought that we were having orgy sex parties. “Oh, you know that teacher?! They do some really strange things there. People are always coming and going and I think multiple people live there because there are four names on the mailbox.” Nevermind that after about a week of living there, I was on the phone with a girlfriend of mine arranging a running date when I heard a strange sound from outside. Try as I might I could not locate the source of the strange sound…perhaps of a person dying to ex-spell demons from their body (or dry heaving), until that is, that I fully opened the window and looked down to discover my downstairs neighbor (I think). Half of his body hanging out of the window into the gutter and while I understood less German then than I do now, I am pretty sure he was cursing the night he had and the alien demon that was trying to punish him by jumping on his stomach from the inside.

30. Some German families actually eat dinner together.

I can’t believe this even made the list. Are you kidding? Is this because it seems like a very special thing in modern America for families to eat together anymore? Gris owing up my family ate dinner together every night until I was in junior high school. The only reason we stopped was because both my sister and I began playing sports and so our regular dinner time was interrupted and making concrete plans for dinner became tricky. However, I usually ended up eating with my mother and sometimes my father if he wasn’t off with my sister’s sports team. All holidays we would eat together, with our extended family, without question. Even my husbands family, which today is the size of a small army, finds time TODAY to sit down and eat together and any and all that are available are welcome. They eat at seven every evening unless there is a special request to eat later. They always make space and are happy to have you. How would German families be any different? Is family not supposed to be important to them? I just cannot wrap my head around this statement and the utter lack of awareness by those who said it. I am actually rather ashamed it has even been considered here. Depending on who said it, Americans or Germans, it says a lot about them. However, enough assumptions have already been made so I must stop there!

I feel like this was just a stretch on the part of the writers or specific demographic that was asked these questions/ made these statements. I recently began English conversation meetings with a German lawyer who works almost exclusively with Americans because he lives and practices near the air force base. He was telling me the other day that the Americans he deals with cannot speak German and never seem to try. They also seem to remain on the base as much as possible unless leaving cannot be avoided. I say this because it might offer insight into the type of Americans that were asked these questions or offered these statements.

31. Musikantenstadl (a German folk music program) is one of the most popular things on TV.

I have never seen this program. Never mind that turning on the German television is the last thing my husband wants to do at the end of his day of speaking English at work. I am sure, if I were able to fulfill my dream of speaking to the German grannies, they would tell me this is true. Yet, of  the Germans I have met and discussed television – none has mentioned this program. People tell me I should be watching Tatort (a German version of Law & Order, which is filmed in various states throughout the republic, airing on Sunday nights) or die Heute Show (the German version of the Daily Show with John Stewart). Also, what about Eurovision, which airs generally the last Saturday in May? Most non-participating countries have no clue what that is, but Germans seem to love it, at least from where I’m sitting.

32. Lots of German dailies/(daily) newspapers feature/publish/print/contain photos of naked women every day – and nobody protests.

My husband and I were in Media Markt (an electronic/home/media chain) buying ink for my printer the other day and happened upon the “how-to” books that teach you the ins and outs of specific programs. I discovered a Photoshop how-to booklet and decided to flip through it, in a way testing this naked lady hypothesis. The book had both of us literally laughing out loud because of some of the ‘artistic’ photo shootings (yes, that is what the Germans call a photo shoot – they think that is how English speakers say it). One naked woman had a leg through the back of a chair while she held said chair and attempted to look demure – or stupid. When I finally came across a decently shot (and edited) picture of a pretty, young dark-haired woman wearing a blue sweater I proclaimed, “Ha, here is a nice one where the woman isn’t naked!” My husband responded simply by pointing down to her baby blue sweater, where two tight, very red and very pronounced areolas. I just rolled my eyes and said, I give up!

To put it another way, Germans show images of naked ladies like the Americans show violence. Which is worse? There are laws in Germany which establish the drinking age, television programming and the like.

Television programming:

Basic television will not show violence or nudity before 9:00 pm (21.00) assuming that is when “adults only” are watching television and “children” have gone off to bed. I believe it gets really saucy after midnight though.

Cable/Satelight televison, anything goes. We have satelight television and so, countless channels devoted to 15-30 second commercial clips with half naked women with a phone number you can call to talk to said women. We’ve been deleting those channels as we find them.

Drinking age:

  • At 14 – undistilled (fermented) alcoholic beverages, (beer & wine) in the company of their parents.
  • At 16 – beer & wine are allowed without a parent
  • At 18 – having become adults, liquor is allowed to be consumed

33. When they meet you for the first time (/On first meeting), Germans are/come across as distinctly/noticeably/decidedly reserved/distant/cool/standoffish.

I just finished a customer service unit with my business English students and this was part of the discussion. In fact, this is always a part of the discussion in my teaching at some point, and we usually come back to it time and again. There is a metaphor about German and American interaction, the peach and the coconut.

In a nutshell (or as the Brits say, [as I have just learned] to put it in a nutshell), Germans are like coconuts because they generally don’t like small talk, are harder to get to know initially and thus can be seen as hard, rude and snobbish. Yet once you are able to ‘crack that shell’, they will likely be friends with you for life and will have in a way, an all-access pass to their friendship. On the other hand, Americans are like peaches because they are initially easy to get-to-know, especially within regard to a specific activity (yoga, church, etc), but will not necessarily be friends with them for life or beyond the specific activity that binds you. This is where the negative stereotypes of Germans by Americans comes from and vice versa. In the end, neither one is wrong, it just depends on what we’re used to.

Here is an excellent and entertaining video, by Dee who explains the metaphor quite well:

I have come to learn that this primary difference in our cultural communication and social styles is because of the dynamic nature of our cultures, or more specifically the specific versus diffused nature of our cultures. Specific-oriented cultures tend to segregate task relationship while diffused-oriented cultures tend to create close relationships that are not necessarily separated (by task or activity, for example). This can explain how far we get involved socially with others, how we show emotions to others and finally how we do or don’t engage with others. Using the peach and coconut as an example when thinking about this, we can see that if Germans are coconuts, their outer or social self is very hard to crack, but at the same time very thin while Americans outer or social self is rather soft but thick and their inner self is very hard to penetrate, but easy to separate into sections, unlike the coconut. Here is a link to a lesson about Peaches and Coconuts, to help people realize which they are and how better to relate to the other.

According to Kurt Lewin (1890 – 1947), a German-American Psychologist, represented the personality as a series of concentric circles with “life spaces” or “personality levels” between them and divided American and German social style and approach to space into two types, U-type (American) and G-type (German).

U-type life space

  • Much more public space than private, separated into many specific sections
  • Friends enter into the public spaces are not necessarily as close or life-long
  • American personality is so friendly and accessible as being admitted to one layer is not a huge commitment.

G-type life space

  • Entry and access to life spaces are guarded by thick line
  • It is hard to enter and you need the other’s permission to enter
  • Public space is relatively small
  • Private spaces are large and diffuse – once a friend is admitted, this lets the friend into all, or nearly all private spaces.
  • Your Standing and reputation cross  over these spaces.

So what does this actually mean?

  • What U –types sees as impersonal, the G-type sees as highly personal
  • Pleasure and pain, acceptance and rejection ramify more widely in the diffuse system
  • When Americans “let in” a German or French and show their customary openness and friendliness, that person may assume that they have been admitted to diffuse private space.
  • French / Germans for example, may be offended by criticism-as-a professional which they take to be attack-by-a –close friend.
  • Specific Cultures with their small area of privacy clearly separated from public life, have considerable freedom for direct speech. “Do not take it personally” is a frequent observation.
  • In relationship with diffuse people this approach can be insult.

This is also known as high and low context culture, based on American Anthropologist and cross cultural researcher Edward T. Hall Jr.’s  (1914 – 2009) work. While Germany and America seem to sometimes share the context equally, this is not the case in all situations. It is important to understand that if Germans are going to be in or do business in an American context – or vice versa that these delicate notes should be understood and taken into consideration by both parties. Again, neither one is necessarily right or wrong, but effective communication ultimate requires an awareness, understanding and interplay of both contexts. Thus recognizing that privacy is necessary and that a complete separation of the private and public can lead to alienation and superficiality. (Part of this information was taken from the slideshow ‘Cross Cultural Communication, Chapter 7: Life Space’).

Low and High Context Culture examples in the business world

So, with this I would like to close this section by saying that how dare you traveler or business person be so self involved and lacking external awareness to assume that others should bend to you and not the other way around. As stated above, you should be aware of these differences and attempt to keep them in mind rather than just expecting the world to be just like your home culture.

2 thoughts on “What Americans notice about Germans…(part 3 of 4)

  1. The nipples were funny, There was also a picture of a naked woman wedged like a bridge over a dusty and rocky pathway between two ancient dusty walls. Very uncomfortable but we suffer for art. I do think it is important to incorporate different people’s work ethics into the job. Every one has their own motivation.

  2. Pingback: What I know about Germans… | living the american dream in europe

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