“Oberflächlichkeit – superficiality – is one of the main stereotypes Germans have about Americans. Are Americans aware of it, and where does the stereotype come from?”
MerriamWebster online defines the term stereotype as: to believe unfairly that all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same.
American awareness of the stereotype
Those Americans who have had no interactions with Germans will not be aware that superficiality is a widespread stereotype the Germans have about them. This means an overwhelming majority of Americans are not aware of the stereotype.
Of those Americans who do interact with Germans, depending on how much they interact, they may or may not know of the stereotype.
However, those Americans who have spent at least a year or two in Germany will most certainly have heard it directly from individual Germans or from internal public or private German discussions.
As for the Americans who have lived five or more years in Germany – and there are many of those – all of them will have heard multiple times that “Americans are superficial.”
Why this topic is relevant
This is a complex subject. Stereotypes are always complex. Too complex to go into detail. But, it is worth addressing just a few points. For this topic is relevant for at least two reasons:
First, stereotypes provide insight into the people who state them – the Germans – as well as into the people they characterize – the Americans.
Secondly, depending on the nature of the stereotype, it can damage the relationship. And the relations between the American and the German peoples are critical to both of them, as well as to the world.
What the stereotype says about Germans
The Germans are a serious people. They take seriously themselves, other people, life and the world around them. When I think of German seriousness certain German words come to mind:
Schwere: gravity, heaviness, ponderosity. Schwermut: gloom, melancholy. Grübeln: to brood, ponder, meditate, pore over. Ernst: grave, serious, solemn, severe, austere, unsmiling.
My mother (1930-2019) has been to Germany several times. She – born Laura Hentz – is an American of Irish and German heritage. Her father was Otto Hentz. My parents named me John Otto Magee. A certain degree of Germanness is not foreign to my mother.
During her last visit many years ago she said to me: “John, when you do your management seminars, you might want to explain to the Germans how much they can achieve with Americans if they would simply smile a bit more.”
In the late 1990s I was a member of the professional staff of the Christian Democrats in the German Bundestag. During one of our trips to Washington for discussions with Congressional members one of my German colleagues pointed out to me how every American, without exception, puts on a big, bright smile at every photo opportunity. We both observed carefully. He was right.
Americans smile. Germans less so. I smile at strangers here in Germany all the time. Seldom do I get a smile in return. Often the other person looks at me with astonishment or skepticism. I suspect that a smile – or at least too much of a smile – is considered by Germans to be a sign of lack of seriousness, or of superficiality.
Ernst: unsmiling. Take a look at the photos of Americans and Germans in their LinkedIn profile.
Germans are problem-oriented. They prefer to address things that are difficult, which are not working, which can be improved, things that bother them. To have a Problembewußtsein – literally problem-consciousness – in Germany is critial to be taken seriously.
Problembewußtsein is one of the key, and great, German strengths. It’s one of their national cultural characteristics which has made them so succussful.
Americans, too, grasp problems. The American people, too, has solved a few problems in its history as a country, as a nation. The Germans certainly don’t have a monopoly on Problembewußtsein.
In contrast to the Germans, however, Americans do not ponder problems as immediately, as intensely, as eagerly, and certainly not in everyday interactions with people they hardly know.
The German people are intelligent and well-informed. It’s no secret that the Germans have brought forth scores of great thinkers, in the natural sciences, in the humanities, in all important fields of human endeavor. Germans are a people of substance.
Draw false conclusion
If in their interactions with other people they do not experience substance, or worse a lack of interest in substance, the Germans will draw the conclusion that the other person is superficial.
MerriamWebster defines the term superficial as: of, relating to, or located near a surface; concerned only with the obvious or apparent; shallow, presenting only an appearance without substance or significance.
Finally, what a person – also a group, a people, a nation – defines as important, it wants to see in her-/himself, as an individual, as a group or people and nation. We call it self-understanding, our self-understanding.
We look for it in other individuals, groups, peoples. If we don’t find it we draw conclusions.
Let’s remember that those people who accept uncritically, and repeat, stereotypes have had little experience interacting with the other people, the other culture. Stereotypes in themselves are superficial.
Most interactions between Germans and Americans are in and of themselves superficial. With the exception of Germans living in the U.S. and Americans living in Germany, very few Germans and Americans have close relationships with members from the respective other culture.
Americans and Germans think that they know each other. They do not. The overwhelming majority of interactions between the two cultures are per definition superficial, lacking in substance, lacking in depth.
What, therefore, typically transpires between Germans and Americans you can experience, or at least observe, in smalltalk interactions. And those interactions verify, or underscore, the German stereotype of American superficiality.
See my fictional story about Hans in Chicago.
I like Germans, but
I like Germans. I respect Germans. I admire Germans. Not everything about them, but a whole lot. I like far more than I dislike.
I do not like their stereotype about us Americans as being superficial. However, I understand the stereotype. At the same time, we Americans have our stereotypes about the Germans. More about those in another article.
Finally, if we Americans are honest with ourselves, a little German seriousness might do us a lot of good.