Have you ever heard the stereotype that Americans are shallow and Germans are cold? Well, this stereotype comes largely from the fact that Germans and Americans communicate very differently: with friends, family, coworkers, bosses, teachers, strangers, etc. During my year abroad in Germany, I noticed several key differences between the ways in which Germans and Americans relate to each other and make personal connections. In this photo story, we will identify the major differences between German and American communication and investigate how they apply to informal and formal conversations among different groups of people.
This photo story is geared towards students in Grade 9.
Photo 1: In Germany, communication is generally more direct and forward than communication in America. Imagine conversation as a road (like the German Autobahn pictured above) going from Point A to Point B; in Germany, the road would run straight. In America, on the other hand, the road might twist and curve or take a few detours along the way. What I mean by this is that when Germans have something to say, they typically say exactly what they mean– honesty and directness is highly valued in conversation. Americans tend to talk around a subject in order to sound more polite, humble, or non-confrontational. During my first week with my host family in Germany, I walked into my host mom’s office to grab a stapler, and asked her how she was doing. I meant it as a casual form of “hello”, but my host mom launched into a fifteen-minute conversation about her trip to the doctor’s office for her fungal toenail infection. What do you typically say when someone asks you how you are doing? When do you ask “how are you” in a conversation?
Photo 2: This photo is of a meeting in the German Bundestag (German Parliament). German communication tends to be more formal than American communication, especially in the workplace, school, or in meetings with strangers. Germans place high value on titles, such as Mr. and Mrs., Dr., Prof., etc, and use one of two forms of the word “you” in German, either the formal “You” (“Sie”) or the informal “you” (“du”). “Sie” is used when talking to strangers, coworkers, bosses or people in positions of authority, or by children when talking to adults. “Du” is used among family members, kids, and close friends, and many consider it slightly offensive if the wrong “you” is used in conversation. Why do you think some languages have a formal and informal form of “you”? The English language does not make a distinction between a formal and informal “you”—how do you show respect to strangers, adults, or people in positions of authority?
Photo 3: Conversations with strangers in Germany tend to be more formal and reserved than conversations with strangers in America. In America, especially in the southern United States, it is not uncommon for strangers to strike up a conversation while waiting in line or on the bus, or to smile or say hello in passing on the street. In Germany, however, it is not as commonplace to talk openly to strangers. In my first week in Germany, I tried to start a conversation with a kind-looking woman waiting next to me at the bus stop, and she gave me a look like my host family’s cat, pictured above. Likewise, when you bump into someone on the street or in a crowded bus or train, Germans don’t typically apologize or excuse themselves. My host family, for example, found it strange that I said sorry every time I brushed against them on accident. How many times do you think you say “I’m sorry” in one day? Why do you apologize?
Photo 4: Americans and Germans tend to form friendships a little differently. As we learned above, Americans are generally very open and friendly with strangers– and Americans tend to call a lot of people “friends”, even if they aren’t really good friends. Germans on the other hand, tend to be more reserved and guarded with strangers and consider few people to be real, true friends. This difference in communication is illustrated in the commonly-used metaphor that Americans are like peaches, with a softer shell and a harder interior, and Germans are like coconuts, with a harder shell and a softer interior. I found this to be very true when I was making friends in school. Everyone was very polite and kind to me, but for a while, my classmates referred to me as a “classmate” or an “acquaintance,” not as a “friend.” But after a couple months of getting to know each other, we became very good friends and for the rest of my year abroad, my new German friends were always there for me; the above photo was taken at my goodbye party the day before I left Germany to return to the US. Who do you consider to be your true friends? Do you consider yourself a reserved or outgoing person?
Photo 5: Communication between parents and children is generally more open and direct in Germany than in America. Take for example the topic of sexual health and reproduction. A study done in part by Planned Parenthood found that over 50% of American parents feel uncomfortable talking about topics relating to sex with their children. In Germany however, parents talk very openly with their children about many topics including sex, drugs, alcohol use, and at a very young age. My host mom told me that she had talked to my host siblings about these topics when they were in elementary school. This photo is of my host brother, my host dad and me. Do you and your parents talk very openly or are there some topics you feel uncomfortable discussing with them? Which topics, and why do they make you uncomfortable?
Photo 6: This photo was taken in Frankfurt, one of the largest financial and economic centers in Europe. Many businesses are headquartered or have branches in Frankfurt, and they run a bit differently than businesses in America. Businesses and schools are generally more formal in Germany. Oftentimes, coworkers in Germany who have worked in the same office for many years will still address each other with their formal title and last name, not with their first name. While I was abroad, I met a professor who also had a doctorate; her full title was “Frau Doktor Professor Schwarz”, or “Mrs. Doctor Professor Schwartz” and her colleagues and students always addressed her with her full title. Meetings in Germany are also typically more formal than business meetings in the United States. There is little small talk, fewer jokes, and they nearly always start exactly on time—Germans get down to business, and fast!
Photo 7: German and American humor is also a little different, and the differences stem largely from the overall differences in communication between Germany and America; German humor is generally more direct, straight-forward, and dry. American humor on the other hand, is a bit cruder and involves more slapstick humor and sarcasm. In my experience, the show “Seinfeld” does not translate well at all. For one thing, the show makes a lot of jokes about American culture, especially about life in New York City, and the characters’ use of sarcasm was very confusing for my host family and friends. This is a photo of my host grandma in mid-laugh at a joke my host dad made about a German idiom that didn’t translate well into English. What TV shows, jokes, or kinds of humor do you find funny?
So what can we say overall about communication in Germany and America? First of all, communication in Germany is generally more direct, forward and honest than in America. Secondly, Americans are generally more open, informal, and friendly with strangers, coworkers, or people in positions of authority. Finally, German families are typically more open with one another in talking about uncomfortable or mature topics; Americans tend to approach such subjects in a more traditional way and tend to consider it embarrassing or inappropriate to talk frankly about sex, drug or alcohol use. With all these observations in mind, do you think the metaphor that Germans are like coconuts and Americans are like peaches is appropriate? What do you think could be improved about the metaphor, if anything?
Remember: These points are just observations and generalizations taken from my personal experiences. People are complicated, unique, and never one-dimensional, and therefore you should never assume that one cultural or regional characteristic or tradition applies to everyone in that culture or region. Cultures are not better or worse than others—they’re just different!
Photo 1: http://www.destination360.com/europe/germany/autobahn
Photo 2: http://canaryinthecoalmine.typepad.com/.a/6a013487f321e0970c015392a6a81e970b-800wi
Photo 3: Photo by my host mom, Carolin
Photo 4: Photo by my host mom, Carolin
Photo 5: Photo by my host mom, Carolin
Photo 6: My photo
Photo 7: Photo by my host mom, Carolin
Featured Image (photo at top of page): My photo