Do you actively observe various interactions between people of different backgrounds? This can be so revealing in terms of what they value, what’s important for them and how that impacts their communication style!
In this article, we are going to focus on particular aspect of cultural differences between Germany and England. You can use a similar approach to observe a multitude of things also when listening to the conversations between different generations or sub-groups. Not everything will be cultural, but if you have a feeling that it might be – check it!
The below example is a case of a mixed working team where on the surface everything seemed ok, but really what was lacking is building deeper trusting working relationships.
Katharina and Laura live in Munich. They both work there as recruiters for a big corporate and although they have been travelling for work, they have always lived in Germany. Fluency in speaking German and some specific expertise is required for the jobs they recruit for, and therefore their pool of candidates in Germany itself can be quite limited. Many of the candidates that they recruit are actually based in the UK, but want to relocate back to Germany. That is why Katharina and Laura work closely with the recruiting team in the UK office, mainly with Sophie and Mary. Sophie and Mary although they’ve also travelled for work, they have always lived in England.
The two teams organise various events together to have the chance to meet those candidates and make sure they know about the job openings in Germany. The UK team also helps to organise interviews with those candidates on behalf of the German office, to minimise the need for the candidates to travel.
Sophie and Mary have a similar working relationship with colleagues from other offices as well, to facilitate the recruiting process for the locally based candidates. That is why they had to implement stricter timelines – the same for all offices they work with – to manage their time more efficiently and continue providing such support.
The process implemented by Sophie and Mary’s team didn’t work well for Katharina and Laura, so they decided to connect over the phone to discuss how to make it work for both sides.
While on the call, the German team proposed changes to the newly announced process and they didn’t go down well with the English team. Sophie and Mary already had to manage many other events which were covering the same timeline Katharina and Laura had suggested. They would have preferred to consider making only small adjustments to their new process first and see whether the German office can adjust, rather than implementing all the changes suggested by them.
The arguments given by the English team were along the lines of:
- “I’m not quite sure if we’re on the same page. We were thinking about something slightly less drastic…”
- “Maybe we should take some time to think about what you’ve shared and come up with some alternative solutions?”
- “I’m not entirely convinced… Would you mind explaining a bit more as to what you have in mind?”
The arguments given by the German colleagues went something like:
- “This has worked for us very well with other offices so far and we would like to stick to it. I understand that it’s not the best solution for you guys. What are the things that we can flex to accommodate both our needs?”
- “I don’t think we should postpone this discussion. Let’s discuss in more detail now, since we are all on the call anyway.”
- “Let me tell you how we currently work with other offices and we can then discuss which parts, if any, you can implement in your office to make this happen.”
After a lively discussion, they created some action points for them to try out in the coming months. When they hang up however, the English colleagues started commenting on how rude and inconsiderate the German colleagues were on that call and how they don’t like working with them. They were annoyed that Germans are pushing their solutions and don’t leave any space for discussion.
As much as they managed to find some solution that was acceptable by both locations, this came at a price of a big frustration. It did not help the teams to build a better relationship. It was very much a transactional conversation rather than building a true rapport.
Time to put our cultural lens on!
Where did the frustration come from?
You might have already seen the description of various dimensions of the Culture Map model by Erin Meyer. If you haven’t – start with the Communicating and Disagreeing scales as this will give you a good base for understanding the above example.
We know from various research that the dimensions are not ideal and although not a 100% correct way of describing the reality, they do provide a good overview of an average representative of a given culture. They can especially be helpful when looking at interactions between people who are not third culture kids and have not had many experiences of living abroad for longer periods of time. This is because it means they have likely mostly been encountering people from similar cultural backgrounds and did not need to adapt their core values, beliefs or behaviours significantly. The deep influence of other cultures on them was minimal.
So, where did Sophie and Mary’s frustrations come from in the above example?
When you look at the position of the German and the English on the Disagreeing scale (with a spectrum from Confrontational to Avoids confrontation), you will see that the Germans are generally much closer to the Confrontational end than the English. It’s more common and more accepted to openly express disagreement in a direct way and this does not usually mean anything personal, but rather simply means challenging a given idea.
In addition to this, you will see that on the Communicating scale the Germans also are on the far left end with the preference for Low-context, direct communication style, while the English are a bit more in the middle.
What’s important though is not where they are on the scale exactly, but rather where they are in relation to each other. In both cases, the gap between the average preferences of the German and the English is significant.
It seems that in the above example, the arguments given by Katharina and Laura sounded very confrontational for the English colleagues. The way they expressed their disagreement was simply very direct. While the Germans could say “I disagree with this, I don’t think it will work for us.”, the English could be expecting something more like “I’m not convinced, not quite sure if we’re on the same page”.
The language used by the British can often be very indirect and may be misinterpreted by people coming from a more direct cultural background. When the English person said “I’m not quite convinced”, the German person might not have classified this as a disagreement, but rather as a sign that they are making progress and there is a chance for convincing them, they might have treated this as an encouragement to continue with their concrete arguments to clarify their point.
Interestingly enough, when you would compare England to another culture which is characterised by a far more indirect and high-context communication style (like for example China or Japan), you could face a completely different challenge, where some people would say that in England people are so direct. It is all relative to your own cultural background and what your normal is – it’s extremely important to remember that.
How can they approach this challenge to improve collaboration?
It clearly is challenging when people express disagreements in different ways. One side might end up being “the rude one” while the other “completely indecisive”.
After looking at the situation through the cultural lens, there is a number of things that the English and German teams might do when working with each other in the future. Better understanding of each others’ communication styles can transform the transactional approach into a more trusting relationship. Both British and German cultures are closer to the task-based trust building side on the Trusting scale, and it might seem that as long as the task is done it’s all fine. However, in fact if the whole process of doing the task is frustrating , this would simply not work and the trust will be decreasing.
Tips for the English team members:
- Try to use less qualifiers (eg. like, quite, slightly, kind of, possibly) when putting forward your opinions and ideas. This will make them sound more direct and decisive as well as help minimise the areas for misunderstandings.
- Propose collating ideas from everybody before the meeting and come up with an agenda or voting system that will enable everyone to express their arguments in an equal manner.
Tips for the German team members:
- Try to be more attentive to the language the British colleagues use and filter through the qualifiers if they are being used. That way you might more easily pick up on the statements that signify disagreement and invite for further discussion.
- Be less directive and try asking for other perspectives before presenting yours.