Day-to-day Interaction in the U.S. and Germany

[Note: I’ll be visiting friends this weekend, so blogging will be light/nonexistent.  But I’m leaving you with plenty to chew on!]

Germans and Americans interact with each other in very different ways. I doubt this observation will raise many eyebrows among my readers. Even in the Rhineland, where people are unusually friendly and accommodating, I notice these differences every day.

While doing some research on another subject, I came across an article by an American sociologist named Stephen Kalberg on the different patterns of social interaction among educated people in Germany and the United States. Kalberg is mainly known as a Max Weber expert and has done in-depth comparative research on the United States and Germany.  However, he realized that there was not much literature on day-to-day interactions. So he set about creating some, based on nine years of in-country observation an extensive interviews with both Germans and Americans.

The result, which was published originally in 1987, is one of the most thoughtful and thorough explorations of the topic I’ve ever come across. I’m not alone: the article — both in German and English — was featured on the website of the DAAD for years (it seems to have been lost in a recent reorganization). Professor Kalberg has kindly given me permission to post some excerpts on this blog, so here they are.

West German and American Interaction Forms: One Level of Structured Misunderstanding

Although instant communication networks and entire industries of popular and scholarly books have served to increase our knowledge of other cultures, very little of the information acquired through these channels informs us concretely regarding those aspects of daily life that the non-native resident confronts more directly: forms of interaction, including the common modes of forming acquaintances and friendships. More frequently the barrage of journalistic and even scientific reports focus on such subjects as exotic cuisines, new art forms, beautiful landscapes, fine wines, crime rates, class structure, unemployment, the organization of factory work, political decision making, and social security systems. (603)

Too often, the failure of visitors to become informed about cultural differences at this pragmatic level leads to confusion of such a degree that stereotypes and prejudices become confirmed and animosities exacerbated-rather than alleviated. Unfortunately, the literature that attempts to trace out systematically the manner in which persons from one culture will be confronted with a constellation of specific interaction forms in a particular second culture is rare indeed. (604)

This division [between insider and outsider status] is far more severe in the FR than in the US due to the fact that social circles in all walks of life tend to have more fixed boundaries and a more clearly delineated ‘membership’. Indeed, whereas these boundaries are likely to be porous and changing in the US, a clear status is awarded not only to the insider in the FR, but also to the member of long standing as opposed to the new member. (606-07)

Because the porous character of groups in the US has often tended to preclude the attribution of status as a result of group membership alone, the American placed within the German context confronts immediately an unaccustomed situation. Moreover, the means the American typically employs in his or her own country to acquire in-group status generally conflicts with the accepted means in the FR: a demonstration of ‘personality’ tends to attract favourable attention in the US and to lead to recognition by the established group. The firmer boundaries to groups in the FR have, however, themselves placed a damper on this means of attaining in-group status and even, in some cases (especially if it takes an exaggerated form, such as clowning), stigmatized it as evidencing a lack of socialization into middle-class norms. Conformity to rules of politeness and a certain reserve is expected of the newcomer, at least until his or her status as a group member is secure.

Due to the more prescribed means for attaining full acceptance by the group and the more delineated character of its boundaries, a degree of ‘pragmatic diplomacy’ and caution, foreign to many Americans, is required. During this transition period, the American experiences a further, unaccustomed situation: whereas in the US (more so in the mid-West and West, less so on the East coast, particularly in New England) group members very often seek to facilitate the transition of the newcomer to full in-group status, acquisition of this status in the FR is more often viewed as the sole concern of the new or potential member. Just this aspect of the transition process is frequently interpreted by the American as a lack of hospitality and even conscious unfriendliness rather than the residual of a more severe insider/outsider division. (607)

The sharpness of the division between the public (the political, occupational, economic and educational spheres) and private spheres (family, intimate friends) in German society . . . and its reduction to a minimum in the US has given rise to a whole series of discrete differences, all of which retain the potential for introducing patterned misunderstandings at the level of interpersonal interaction. (608)

The greater division [between public and private life] in the FR has led naturally to a localization of various social phenomena in one sphere or the other. Enormous warmth, compassion, and helpfulness permeate the private sphere, while the public realm is generally characterized by social distance and purely functional exchanges with only formal involvement. Conversely, all ‘impersonal’ values – particularly those indigenous to the economic and occupational spheres such as achievement, competition, and goal-attainment – are strictly banned from the private sphere. Nor are public sphere relationships characterized by these values viewed as capable of being transformed easily into ones of friendship. Thus, frequent contact in the workplace – the major ‘recruitment’ arena for friends in the US — does not lead, to the same extent, to the development of close ties. Finally, humour remains largely in the private realm and is often viewed as indicating a lack of seriousness when exhibited in most public spheres. Just the obverse situation prevails in the US. Public spheres of all sorts are penetrated by an informality and humour far greater than that which exists even in the Rhineland. On the other hand, the boundaries of the private realm are shattered to a far greater extent by consumerism and the entire array of impersonal values dominant in the ‘achievement society’. (608-09)

Given these differences, the American placed within German society will inevitably, though quite unintentionally, violate innumerable interaction forms and introduce situations of disharmony. The discomfort of Americans with social distance might be viewed as disrespect for public sphere decorum and thus, in some circumstances, as aggressiveness, evidence of inadequate socialization, and even malevolence. Confusion and a sense of insecurity may result for Germans: in injecting the personal element quickly into formal relations, the American forces a reaction on a personal rather than a formal level, yet the prerequisite for doing so satisfactorily from the German point of view – knowing the person well – is lacking.

Misunderstandings result regardless of which of the two conceivable strategies Germans select to deal with this situation. An attempt to relocate the relationship onto the formal level and thereby to resolve ambiguity will be perceived by the American, due to his or her culturally-imposed blindness, as a sign of unfriendliness and a lack of hospitality rather than as a manifestation of the public-private sphere division or the different pace by which relationships develop and move into the private realm. If the German chooses, on the other hand, to react in kind and cultivate the informality of the relationship, his or her culturally bound expectation that, by doing so, the relationship will acquire an inner substance and conceivably develop into one of Freundschaft, or intimate friendship, will be disappointed. This will occur simply because, for the American, lack of social distance and informality does not necessarily indicate personal rapport, but only behaviour in reference to a set of public sphere norms substantially different from the German. (609)

While the public-private sphere dichotomy in the FR often leads the American to view Germans as excessively formal and as erecting a wall against the development of friendship, this same division, given its different accentuation in the US, frequently leads Germans living in the US to be (a) first overwhelmed and impressed by the openness of public sphere relationships, and (b) to judge them subsequently as superficial and devoid of all substance, In a sense, this is an accurate assessment given the German definition of Freundschaft (see below). Due to the cultural frame of reference from which German visitors depart, such a conclusion may assume particularly disappointing and even embittering proportions. This results because, viewed from the German perspective, informal public sphere relationships in which social distance is kept at a minimum raise expectations that the Freundschaft relationship may be in the offing. Realization of the merely ritualistic character of this friendliness shatters this hope and, very often, calls forth a general disillusionment. Just this disappointment may lead, in the extreme case, to a global judgement of all American relationships as superficial and to a subsequent withdrawal from social contacts altogether. The common alternative response – to avoid ambiguity by inserting social distance into public sphere relationships – is also, if misunderstandings are to be avoided, unsatisfactory, for it is viewed by Americans as arrogance. (610)

A generally positive view of the public sphere remains strong in the US. Even today, to an enormous degree, people define themselves in reference to their occupations and interests; friendships are based primarily on interests, and particularly occupational interests. Indeed, in upper middle-class professional circles. the occupation tends to assume such a central place in the formation of one’s personal identity that all other aspects of life often become subordinated to it. Furthermore, friendships based on particular interests very frequently become weakened or even dissolved when interests change. (611)

[A different historical] context gave rise to an unequivocal scepticism in Germany towards the public sphere and a concomitant definition of the private realm of family and friends as the arena of greatest importance in life. This heritage has endured even to this day, to such an extent that the ‘cultivation’ (Pflege) of a few Freundschaften and their long-term endurance is evaluated much more highly than in the US. Thus, the German residing in the US may well find it difficult to establish lasting and deep friendships with Americans, particularly with achievement-oriented upper middle class professionals. The basis of Freundschaft also calls forth typical problems between Germans and Americans at the level of interpersonal relations. Within the German context, the relationship rooted primarily in interests is inherently an unstable one: interests may change and, more importantly, to define others in reference to their occupational, intellectual, or other interests constitutes a severe reduction of ‘whole’ persons to only one of their capacities. Good character and a certain quality of pleasantness is just as important for the establishment and perpetuation of Freundschaften. Consequently, the Americans placed within the German milieu, since blind to these additional bases for relationships, will be repeatedly confused to the extent that their efforts to formulate relationships revolve solely around interests. Conversely, the German in American society will continually seek to establish relationships based more broadly than on interests alone. (612)

In public sphere relations, rules of politeness structure modes of speaking in the FR much more than in the US and tend to put a damper on disagreement, outspokenness, conflict, and, in some cases, even directness. Americans, blind to these rules of politeness, express their disagreement in a manner unrestrained by them. In the German context, however, their raised voice and critical phrase are often viewed not only as ill-mannered. but also as a sign of aggressiveness and as a personal provocation rather than as a sharp statement of strongly-held opinions. Similarly, Germans in America may perceive the direct expression of disagreement as unfriendliness directed at them personally, rather than as a residue of a different mode of speaking. While a high degree of goal-directedness and means-end rationality characterizes public sphere conversational styles in both countries, just these features are far more likely in the US to be carried over into the private sphere than in the FR. Indeed, These aspects of public sphere modes of speaking are often viewed us in direct opposition to the expression of warmth and concern expected in the private realm. A distinctly lesser degree of initiative taking is also common to this realm. A slow pace. an often random exploration of a wide variety of topics, a playful lack of directedness, long pauses, and story-telling are typical, all of which may well appear to the American – simply because of the lack of issue-orientation – as novel, though uninteresting. Because of its unhurried, uncompetitive, and person-oriented character, this conversational form (plaudern) might be very much missed by the German in America, especially one who associates primarily with achievement oriented professionals. These modes of speaking can be best examined further by turning to the distinct group dynamics in each country.

Only three general statements can be made about modes of speaking in the FR and US: (a) speech tempos are often slower in Germany; (b) the Germans accept as a rule far longer pauses in conversations, silences Americans find discomfiting and may even understand as a sign of disinterest; and (c) conversational forms vary in the FR to a far greater extent than in the US according to their location in the public or private spheres. (613-14)

While this form of [looser, more informal, American-style] social gathering is becoming increasingly extensive in the FR, particularly among young people, a more traditional form characterized by a quite different group dynamic still remains widespread in the upper middle class. In this form, individuals constitute themselves into a single large group. Except in groups comprised mainly of students, senior and higher status generally imposes an obligation to determine the theme to be discussed and allows these participants a greater freedom to express themselves, even spontaneously, should they be so inclined. A lively conversation may ensue where wit, story-telling, apercus, and anecdotes prevail, and individuals distinguish themselves by their capacity to contribute to the general banter. Throughout, social status remains a tacitly acknowledged and central component, and lesser status people generally take cognizance of this fact by assuming a posture of deference and, at times, even passivity.

The salience of status also tends to minimize the highly individualized ‘impression management’ situation widespread in the US. Adaptation to this group dynamic can be a difficult task for Americans. First, the general character of the theme under discussion in no way facilitates their acquaintance with the participants in respect to their crucial ‘identifying’ question (‘what do you do?’), nor does it, from this vantage point, demonstrate an interest on the part of other guests to become acquainted with one another. The manner in which themes are treated also fails to serve these purposes, even though the American may enjoy being entertained by the humour. The ‘randomness’ also very often leads to a questioning of the ‘justification’ for this group dynamic. Further, the degree of deference to social status appears quite unusual and unjustified, as does the fact that numbers of people seem content to remain passive and excluded. Finally, due to the different group dynamic in comparable social gatherings in the US, only the rare American has been able to develop and refine the social skills necessary for regular participation in the German setting. (614)

In fact, impressions acquired on these bases and in larger groups may be very often preferred by Germans over the impressions acquired in smaller groups, if only because they guarantee a slower pace to the relationship and a longer ‘observation period’, foreclose the possibility of an unwanted invasion into the private sphere, and offer the security that comes from observation from a distance. Finally, that high status persons should be accorded a more central role seems quite natural and proper. (615)

Furthermore, the greater attentiveness and even, in some circumstances, extreme sensitivity to status of middle-class educated Germans erects obstacles to a free mixing from group to group, even if the social skills for doing so are present. This is the case simply because each new social situation requires an assessment of relative status and the assumption of either a posture of deference or leadership, an exercise that is far too stressful to be repeated frequently. (616)

For those who are interested in reading the whole article, it can be found in Theory, Culture and Society 4 (Oct., 1987): 602-18. A German version of basically the same piece is in Berliner Zeitschrift fuer Soziologie 6, 1 (March, 1996): 33-42.