This is my 29th year living and working in the United States after immigrating from Germany in 1991. While developing international business strategy over the years I have come across many differences between Germans and Americans. Some are outright funny, some are more serious, and some are more subtle. Here is a list and brief explanation of each. Let me know if you have similar observations.
#5 – Dinner
Dinner in America involves sitting down, getting your food, paying the check, and leaving. The whole experience is over after an hour and a half max. Not so in Germany. Dinner generally takes up the whole evening. It’s common for there to be a half-hour break in between the appetizer and the main course. And it’s even more common for people to sit together for another hour or two after the main courses and dessert have been finished. Lots of time to discuss what’s happened during the day. To this day my German friends start laughing when the waiter in New York brings the check when – in their mind – the dinner is only half over.
#4 – Driving
Driving to a German is a serious matter. For the longest time Germans could not understand why Americans would want to have cupholders in their cars. Who drinks a cup of coffee while driving?! Getting your driver’s license in Germany can take you up to a year and may cost you up to $3,000. About one third of applicants fail the test the first time around. You drive around for hours at a time with someone in the backseat trying to distract you. You learn to drive at high speeds (85-100 miles per hour and more) on the Autobahn. No time for coffee.
#3 – Culture
In America one of the first questions for a new President is about his or her cabinet. Who will be Secretary of State? Who will be Secretary of Defense? In Germany people also ask about the cabinet but they are more interested in who will be the Secretary of Culture. Who is in charge of the arts? This is a big deal to Germans. My hometown of Berlin has more than 150 theaters, 3 major opera houses, and 8 major orchestras. Most of these receive some level of government funding. It matters to most Germans who is in charge of “culture” and who sets the direction for the arts. This is something you should be aware of when developing international business strategy.
#2 – Debt
Debt is a bad word in German. When you translate the word “debt” into German it literally is the same word as “guilt.” So to a German being in debt means being guilty. While Americans see no problem with racking up credit card debt, borrowing to buy a home or car, and then refinancing instead of paying it off in full, Germans find this behavior strange at best, and reckless at worst. The entire country in recent years has prided itself on delivering a balanced government budget. They call it a “Black Zero” and many citizens love it. Most people save up for years to buy a car or buy a house. If you are a business person or on a global board of directors, keep this in mind when you propose to borrow funds to finance a project in Germany.
#1 – Directness
Perhaps the number one difference between Germans and Americans is that Germans are unfailingly direct. While an American may use euphemisms to offer a critique of an international business strategy, a German may just say that they don’t like it, followed by why they think it’s a bad proposal. There is no “this is great, but…” There is far less beating around the bush. They are not trying to be rude. Germans just find it far more efficient to be honest and transparent and not to couch criticism in overly polite descriptions that don’t get to the heart of the matter. And they expect the same in return.
One of the greatest parts of living and doing business in America is the opportunity to interact with people from so many different countries, cultures, ethnicities and religions. Our differences also are our strengths. It is important to respect our differences and build on our strengths. I welcome your observations and your own experiences.