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