Until I started living in different countries, I never knew that Germans are known for their directness. In fact, when I first heard about that stereotype I thought it was a little exaggerated… until I realized how non-direct other cultures can be. This realization hit me especially when I moved to the US. A very common stereotype of Americans in Germany is that they are superficial and don’t mean what they say. True? I don’t think so. After living in Texas for so long, I’ve slowly started to understand when people mean what they say and when they are just trying to be polite. The fact that I had so much trouble distinguishing politeness from people’s true intentions when I first moved here though shows you how different Germans and Americans are at heart. If somebody in Germany tells you they want to hang out with you, they mean it. Check your calendar and agree to a time, date, and location. If somebody in Texas tells you they want to hang out with you, say you’d love to and forget about it for a while. Time will tell if you’re ever really going to hang out with that person.I don’t mean this to sound harsh or critical. It’s just the way it is. Texans seem so intent on creating a nice atmosphere around them that it would be considered rude not to be nice – following through is a secondary consideration.

So, how does German directness fit into this culture of playing nice? Some days better than others. I’ve lived here long enough to know what is expected of me in most situations. For example, I know that I should reply in the affirmative when somebody tells me they want to get together sometime – even if I know for sure that it will never happen in a million years because I don’t like them or think they are boring. The German in me revolts against that and I actually feel bad about saying something that I have no intention of following through on. However, the expat in me also knows that being honest in that situation would only get me labeled as rude. I also know that the other person doesn’t actually expect me to follow through, so that makes it easier.

Want to know what happens when two expats here have that same conversation? One will propose to hang out at some point in the future, the other agrees… and adds that they actually mean it. It doesn’t even matter if they’re both from Germany. They could easily be from anywhere in Europe or South America. I can’t tell you how often that’s happened to me here. It’s this unspoken understanding that “we foreigners” are aware of the politeness here and we are giving each other a heads up about actual intentions. Funny, right?

I’ve lived here for so long that switching back and forth between more direct and less direct depending on who I talk to has almost become second nature. It’s funny to me when my American friends sometimes tell me how direct I am… because they don’t know that they are getting a very, very toned down version to start out with. Want an example? One summer our AC in the office wasn’t working. It was over 30 Celsius (probably close to 100 Fahrenheit) inside. We tried everything from calling maintenance daily to opening doors and windows in hopes of a cold breeze. After about 2-3 weeks my boss put a fan in the door of the office to get some colder air from the hallway in… It really felt more like a hair dryer with all the hot air it was blowing. An hour later he asked if the fan was helping… I shrugged my shoulders and said “aaaah”. He sort of uncomfortably chuckled and said ”Oh, wow! That was direct!”. At that point I realized that I am way less adapted than I thought… because my direct answer would have been “Thanks for trying, but I am sweating my ass off in here and it sucks!!”.

So, are Germans more direct? It depends. Compared to Americans, probably yes. Are Americans more superficial? I don’t think so. I believe it’s cultural. If you grow up here, I am sure you understand when things are said just because the situation calls for it. And I think foreigners get used to it as well. It just might take us some time ;)

via Wikimedia Commons

20 Comments

  • Laurel says:

    Love this post and being Canadian, I struggle with the German directness living in Germany. From my perspective I think the main difference lies in values. Germans value honesty more than we do in North America, even if it means that someone’s feelings get hurt. In North America we value someone’s feelings more than we do honesty and don’t see anything wrong with telling “a little white lie” now and then if it will protect someone’s feelings. I’ve heard from several European friends living in North America that they find this logic very strange.

    • Sabrina says:

      I think that’s a great way of putting it: honesty vs. hurt feelings. That’s really what it boils down to, isn’t it? I think there’s advantages to either approach… once you know what’s going on that is. Somebody who doesn’t expect the honesty in Germany will probably take it personal if people are too direct about what is and what isn’t going to happen. Somebody who doesn’t expect the “prevent hurt feelings”-approach in North American will probably also take it personal when people don’t follow through on what is “promised”. I can’t tell you how often I was wondering why people were to nice initially, but then nothing would ever come out of it. I really started asking myself if I did anything wrong…

    • Luise says:

      Wow, that’s strange. How can someone even be sure that their opponent is saying the true.

      On the other hand, for me as German I can say, the Germans are not nearly as honest as people think from foreign countries.

      • Sabrina says:

        Luise, I felt exactly like you before moving to the States. It was only when I started living in Texas that I realized how much other cultures sugarcoat things compared to (most) Germans. But I’m sure there are a whole bunch of other cultures out there who are just as direct as Germans, aren’t you? Anyways, regarding how to know when somebody is telling the truth… I think you slowly get better at understanding the little hints around what is actually being said. Know what I mean? I’m still not always sure I get it though ;)

  • MB says:

    I love my German friend and her directness! It is refreshing. I disagree that Americans don’t value honesty, but it is in the way the honesty is presented. Once people get use to the no sugar-coating feedback, I think they find it refreshing. You are also dealing with cultural issues. People in the South are more “polite” than people in other areas of the country. Our country is so vast and heavily populated, it’s like having a ton of countries and cultures all in one larger country.

    • Sabrina says:

      I agree, people here do value honesty. But maybe politeness is more important than honesty in some instances? Maybe honesty is not even the right word :) And I agree… being in the South probably plays a role in it. I only spent a weekend in Boston a while back and it felt totally different already. But you know… once I got better at understanding when something is real and when something is just “polite”, I actually started appreciating the politeness.

  • I for one would love some more directness. It really bugs me when people say “lets get together” and then we never do. If its important, set a date and stick with it.

    Interesting perspective though.

    • Sabrina says:

      :) You would do so well in Germany :) And you know… it’s of course all exaggerations and there are plenty of exceptions. I have met many Americans who truly mean what they say and follow through.

  • Katja Brown says:

    I have lived in the US since 1996 – slowly getting the hang of what Americans really mean when they are polite. However, I still prefer the German way where you don’t have to wonder if that is really what they mean when they say “Let’s hang out” to you…

    • Sabrina says:

      I’ve only been living here since 2004 :) It really is a process to learn how to understand when people are just being polite. The German way is definitely much easier to understand. Are you in the South of the US as well? Or further north?

  • Suzy says:

    The whole “let’s hang out” American response really reminds me of high school and college in the United States. I would hear that all the time, but you always knew when the person didn’t really mean it. Since those days, I don’t really hear it. Perhaps it is a maturity issue. I think though Americans in general tend to like to keep conversations smooth and free of controversy, especially in the US South which could explain why you encounter it so much in Texas.

    • Sabrina says:

      It’s true. I’ve encountered that particular sentence much more in college than in the work environment where people tend to be a little older and presumably more mature. Still happens, but less so. Smooth and controversy-free :) I like it! That describes pretty much every conversation I’ve had here :) Sometimes it surprised me that it seems to extend into work as well. Very unproductive…

  • Lita says:

    German directness mostly has nothing to do with being mean or rude – as the American politeness has nothing to do with dishonesty.
    I think each culture has its own values that we cannot condemn wholesale. There are different histories and backgrounds, so there is always a reason for something.
    Or at least it should be. And who are we all to justify?

    Each culture has its positive and negative facets.
    Misunderstandings and irritations often come from a lack of empathy and the will to look behind the surface – and the self-conception that the own culture is the higher-valueable, plus a thoughtless action, and the misery is complete.

    And – we need to be aware that it is easy to set up new preconceptions once we get in touch with one single person who serves them well. Then it won’t be just ONE single American or German, then it’ll often be ALL the Americans and all the Germans.

    For example – I was invited for dinner by a distant cousin-in-law who lives in the Grand Ole South – born and grown up in Alabama. It was delicious but way too much.
    I felt so embarrassed because I could not eat everything and – German as I am – did not want to hurt her feelings as a cook and apologized.
    Her answer?
    “That’s okay, only pigs and Germans eat the whole dish!”
    !!!

    I cannot see how someone’s feelings would not be hurt by getting such a superficial statement.
    Where would I’ve got to without the will to understand what made her being so rude in my eyes? We talked about it and we really share a very nice and vibrant companionship since then.
    She wasn’t aware that my generation grew up with the stories our parents and grandparents told us about the hunger after the war and how desperately people were trying to feed their children and did not have anything to offer them as a healthy diet.
    But what if we hadn’t talked?

    As I mentioned in another blog – communication is the magic word…

    And I really like this opportunity to get in touch with people and learn more about cultural differences and world views.

    Dankeschön, Dein Blog ist echt spannend! Viele Grüße!

    • Sabrina says:

      Danke :)

      That comment with the pigs and Germans would have totally thrown me off. I actually think that’s rude to say, no matter the culture or nationality. You probably handled it much better than I would have. But it sounds like it managed to bring you two closer by talking about it. Way to go :)

  • Marie Houck says:

    There is also a great difference culturally in the US. I grew up in the upper mid-west, then experienced a surprising amount of culture shock when I moved to New England. Since then, I’ve lived in California and now in North Carolina. Here, my “mid-western” directness still gets me in trouble from time to time! (Not sure how much of that is influenced by my German great-great-grandmother, but other folks raised in the upper mid-west report the same thing — we’re just too direct for the genteel south!) Rest assured that for some of us, if we say we want to hang out with you, we really do!

    • Sabrina says:

      :) I’m glad :) And, you know, I’ve met really nice Texans over the years here who also mean it – it just took me quite some time to separate them from the ones who are just trying to sound nice/polite. I like your perspective about the different parts in the US. It is such a big country that the differences within really can be huge, hm? There are so many places I still would like to visit here! Have you changed how you act depending on the state you live in? I’ve noticed that I am much more “friendly” when in Texas and much more reserved when in Germany.

  • Katherina says:

    Great post, and a really interesting topic! I haven’t lived in the US, but have been confronted with other “cultural differences” along those lines… The spanish, for example, are said to be very open, talkative and will easily invite others home for dinners, drinks or anything similar. The swiss, in the contrary, are much more served. You can invite a swiss person to your place some time, but don’t expect them to invite you to theirs. It will take a bit more time. Is one better than the other? No. It’s cultural! And so is german directness (which I LOVE, by the way ;) )

    • Sabrina says:

      That funny about the Swiss :) I never knew they were so particular about having people in their homes. And I think your point about one not being better than the other is the main point overall. Usually what is more familiar (i.e., one’s own culture) feels better because it’s easier to understand. But does that objectively make it better? Not at all! I wonder how London will factor in the mix of Spanish and Swiss experiences soon :) But you’re already spent quite some time there, haven’t you? So, it won’t be all new.

  • I was a little uncomfortable with stereotyping until I started traveling. Then I realized that stereotypes are just one way we relate to other people we meet. Some have more truth than others, and of course not everyone falls into the stereotypes of their culture. I have no problems with people stereotyping Americans, as long as they are open to learning about me as a person and how I do or do not fall into the stereotypes.

    • Sabrina says:

      I agree. I don’t have a problem with people using stereotypes to get an idea – as long as they’re open to changing their opinion after they meet me (for better or worse I guess :) ). Many people tell me that I am not a very typical German girl and I never know if that’s good or bad… I guess it’s because I am a little more open/smiley? But I know many Germans who are like that….

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