Respect their Bluntness

Tory broadsheet The Daily Telegraph shines a light on The Germans in their National Cultural Profile of Germany:

Negotiating characteristics: Germans will arrive at the meeting well-dressed and with a disciplined appearance. You must match this. They will observe hierarchical seating and order of speaking. They compartmentalise their arguments, each member speaking about his/her speciality. They expect your side to do the same. They do not interfere with a colleague’s remarks and generally show good team-work throughout.

Listening habits: Germans have a long attention span when absorbing information and especially like repetition and plenty of background information. Manners and taboos: The right to privacy, both at home and in one’s office, is paramount. Eccentricity, ostentation, unpunctuality and disobedience are frowned upon.

How to empathise with them: Be frank, truthful and as honest as possible. Respect their bluntness and accept criticism when it is directed towards you. Avoid irony, sarcasm and quick wit. The people of Germany do have a sense of humour, but they do not use it at work. What amuses a German will not get all other cultures laughing too.

All reasonably accurate, as far as thumbnail generalizations for use by business types go.  I love the long attention span, being the long-winded type myself.

The stuff about hierarchy is still achingly on-point, except in the most self-consciously leftie environments (and sometimes even then).  One of the most amusing spectator sports is to watch Germans mixing in an environment in which status indicators are unknown, like some big conference in which everyone from entry-level employees to CEOs to professors might congregate.  Lots of comically stiff, halting, impersonal conversations in which the participants desperately try to ascertain each others’ status, so as to know whether they can use formal or informal address and what subjects are appropriate to talk about: Can I confess my love of Dieter Bohlen?  Or must I try to sound like I’ve read Martin Walser’s latest novel?

It’s like watching ants try to re-group after their invisible chemical trail has been interrupted.

4 thoughts on “Respect their Bluntness

  1. the piece is pretty spot on for the suit&tie crowd on tour, in the office with people under 40 it’s a different ball game altogether in my experience.

    having that said, your mileage my vary especially in big dax companies that tend to be structurally very conservative.

    who gets to make the joke can also be a matter of seniority in an german environment.
    as for not getting it, i think that can be asking a little to much from a non-native speaker especially with the british public school set whose only core competency at times can be just that, quick wit.

    but the observation that humor in general is not as pervasive in german culture as it is the case in britain is a valid point.

    that leads me to an observation of my own, hierarchy in anglo-saxon cultures tends to be even more important, but less openly manifested or discussed, than in germany. social exchanges tend to be fraught with unease which gets papered over with humor, thus one of the grand unified field theories of british humor links it directly to the constant social unease the british and by extension also the american caste system, though for slightly different reasons, instils in its subjects.

    so yes the lack of obvious pointers in a social setting can be confusing for germans, but that goes more for professional occasions than private ones.
    the two spheres are, as correctly observed by our right honorable friends at the torygraph, very much a separate affair in germany as opposed to britain or even more so the u.s. .

    once the german side has sussed out the intricacies of the anglo-saxon social routine they often find them downright disingenuous and more than a tad tiresome.

    personally they often remind me almost more of east-asian face-saving rituals, than european behavioral patterns.

    btw if they find germans to be blunt what’s their take on the fins, who have in my experience mastered the art of bluntness to a gobsmaking degree.


  2. I love the characteristic torygraphian display of modesty in the opening quote from the profile:

    “National Cultural Profiles are your guide to the thinking patterns of all the world’s major cultures.”

    Thinking patterns. Nice one. Pavlov’s dogs spring to mind. Or does the author mean “genetic thinking patterns”?

    But I guess we must be thankful for being considered “major” by the British press. And cultured.


  3. @westernworld
    LOL good point with the Fins. I think this is the reason why I get along so well with my Finnish colleagues. My observation is, the farther you go east in Europe, the blunter the people are. Fins are very similar to Russians when it comes to bluntness, IMHO.


  4. Interesting points all, westernworld. The whole “bluntness” trope crystallizes a difference in cultural practice. Americans and especially Brits of a certain background avoid directly denouncing or criticizing others, instead getting the point across by means of gentle sarcasm. It’s the difference between arching your eyebrows and saying “Do my eyes deceive me, or are those dolphins on your tie, Jenkins?” and saying “Mr. Chenkins, please do not take offense, but I must say zhat your cravat is not appropriate for zhis business meeting!”

    Of course, I’m no expert on ties, not being much of a tie-wearing type myself. But I have noticed the sarcasm/bluntness dynamic. Among ourselves, we “Anglo-Saxons” complain about having to deliver brutal-sounding declarations to Germans, after criticism disguised as gentle mockery or ironic-distancing goes completely uncomprehended.


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