Why Germans don’t give compliments

The absence of criticism can be taken as praise in Germany, Courtney Tenz learned the hard way. On Compliment Day she explains why she misses “superficial” American compliments, but appreciates the German approach.

“Though it has taken me more than a decade, I have finally come to terms with the fact that in Germany, I won’t be complimented on everything I do and when  if  I garner attention for praise, it will likely be more sincere than anything I’d have heard in the US. Like the one a young girl recently gave me after I visited the beauty salon: “You look much better now that your gray hair is gone.”

“Say that we’re good.”

In February 2015 Reimund Neugebauer was interviewed. He is the Head of the Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany: 66 research locations, 24,000 employees and an annual budget of 2 billion Euros.

Neugebauer was asked whether German technical and industrial innovation was weakening. His response: Not at all. Germany’s innovativeness secures the country’s prosperity. Fifty percent of all so-called hidden champions (little-known global market leaders in their fields) are located in Germany. Mittelstand companies, said Neugebauer, are simply very modest.

Neugebauer recalled giving a speech at a company anniversary and deservedly praised the firm. “After me, the owner took the stage and said he felt like clarifying something, saying that the company was just one of many and that everyone in the room was good at what they did. 

He was worried that the praise would not be well received. That’s so typical! In a way, I like this modesty, too. But we also have to be able to say that we’re good. Germany wouldn’t be the world’s No. 1 exporter of research-intensive goods if we had constantly missed the boat on innovations.”

Praise properly

The February 2015 edition of the magazine Deutsch Perfekt, published by Spotlight, whose target audience consists of people interested in learning German, contained an article dedicated to the topic of praise in the workplace:

“Praising appropriately: It is clear that praise is an important aspect of a team which works together well. So how can one give more praise in the German everyday workplace, and still be taken seriously?

In Germany, praise is something special. Great praise is not given for small deeds. Positive feedback is only given when something was truly good – differently from many other cultures.

Many foreign co-workers quickly become aware of how little praise is given during everyday life in Germany. What is interesting, however, is that the majority of Germans who were surveyed also stated that they received too little praise at their place of work.

However, if too much praise is given, the one being praised can quickly becomes distrustful of the statements. If Germans are not themselves convinced that they have done something special, but still receive praise, it is not credible to them. In such cases, Germans will simply not take the praise seriously.

For this reason you should formulate your praise precisely: What was good? Why did you like it? Praise (like criticism) should always be concrete and specific. In this way, it becomes more understandable to the recipient.”

More praise, please!

An international employee survey by the Geva-Institute of Munich from 2009 demonstrated the differences by country in the expectations of employees from their supervisors.

80% of German employees expected their boss to be good at making decisions and able to execute their plans.

Besides this, German employees prefer to take responsibility for their own work. Accordingly, three out of four people who were surveyed stated that a supervisor should provide enough freedom to their employees with regard to making their own decisions and taking action.

Nevertheless, the typical German office could use some more dolling out of praise: only half of German employees felt that their work is sufficiently appreciated.

Be wary. Be happy.

Germans strive to remain clear-headed, to avoid incrementally inflated euphoria, to avoid a step-by-step distancing from a sober assessment of reality. For Germans it’s not “Don’t worry. Be Happy.” But instead “Be wary. Be happy.”

Wary: marked by keen caution, cunning, and watchfulness, especially in detecting and escaping danger.

“Escaping danger.” Dangerous can be thinking too highly of oneself. Dangerous can be misreading a situation. Dangerous is unjustified happy, euphoric.

But, there is another reason to “be wary.” Neid, envy. The Germans themselves speak of their Neidgesellschaft, “society of envy”, of their Neider, the envious. 

Public recognition can lead to envy within the team. Envy threatens cohesion. Germans are not comfortable with “stars” or “rainmakers” in their organizations. Neid is one reason. The other is purely rational.

In complex organizations, especially those which are highly matrixed, how can individuals or individual teams be cited as especially successful? As clearly better than others? How can that be measured?

„Self-praise stinks“

Eigenlob stink: self-praise stinks; it is dishonourable; those who praise themselves make themselves unpopular. Lobhudelei: tossing praise about; exaggerated praise, typically self-praise; for mediocre work. Etwas hochjubelen: to praise something or someone to the high heavens; overblown praise, undeserved, unwarranted.

The Ikarus myth. Ikarus is a figure of Greek mythololgy. His father, Daidalos, in order to escape from the labyrinth on the Greek island of Crete, built wings our of feathers and wax. Although Daidalos warned his son not to fly to close to the sun, Ikarus in his self-confidence did not heed his father‘s warning. The wax in his wings melted, he crashed to the sea and drowned. The lesson taught is that hubris – conceit, over self-estimation – leads to a fall.

Germans are very wary of over self-estimation.

„Not criticized is praise enough“

There is a logic to why Germans rarely give praise. They believe that being one‘s own most severe critic is the prerequisite for working independently, for self-management. Praise is given and expected sparingly. The following expression reveals the German logic: Nicht geschimpft, ist genug gelobt or Not criticized is praise enough.

Germans learn at an early age to expect more critique than praise, from parents, teachers, sports coaches. Young Germans are trained to be self-critical, to be wary of undeserved praise. Experts in education and child-rearing warn of the dangers of too much praise. It can quickly lead to oversized egos, to overrating one‘s abilities, to losing touch with reality.

If praise is given, then it should come from an external, neutral, critical source. German children learn from an early age on not to put their achievements on display, not to brag, but instead to be reserved and modest. Every German child has heard at least once that Eigenlob stinkt, that self-praise stinks.

Fruits of the Labors

The Germans value being self-critical. Inflated, positive feedback threatens self-critique, threatens one‘s ability to identify and learn from mistakes and weaknesses. Germans prefer that their work results speak for themself. They value the quiet, focused worker who is not easily distracted by comments about their performance.

Studies, though, document that this ideal is not always in the best interest of employees and their companies. More than half of all German managers and subject-area experts feel that they deserve more praise. Only a quarter are satisfied with the current level of positive feedback. 14% responded that they receive no praise at all for their work. Only 3% stated that they need any additional praise.

Recognition

German praise is often communicated by a simple nod of the head or a gut gemacht, „well done.“ Too much praise can be seen by both parties as exaggerated, not objective, emotional, not to be taken seriously. In Germany it is important to auf dem Teppich bleiben, literally to keep your feet on the carpet. Exaggerated praise can easily be interpreted as sarcasm.

In Germany, praise in the presence of other colleagues is even more seldom, and is a sign of truly exceptional performance. But even in that context the Germans distinguish between excellent and exceptional work. Praise should always be closely in line with actual performance.

At his retirement ceremony the president of a prestigious German-European research institution was praised with the words: „He is a kind, humble person, who led others based on fairness and objective standards, and who from time to time had valuable scientific breakthroughs. He never sought the spotlight.“ His „valuable publications“ were also praised. The speaker said at the end „You have done a good job!“

Praise and Motivation

Germans believe that too much praise can lead employees to „rest on their laurels“, to not continue to work at a high level of intensity. In order to avoid that effect, Germans praise good work in moderate terms. This signals that there is more upside potential. It aims to motivate.

Germans seldom score work results as near perfect or perfect. „Close to perfect“ is the best one can expect. German business psychologists see a weakness in this approach, though. They believe that more praise would increase employee motivation and thus productivity.

Sich auf seinen Lorbeeren ausruhen. To rest on one‘s laurels. To relax after having produced good work results; after success to not strive for more. During the Middle Ages laurels were a sign of fame. The winner of a jousting tournament or a battle had a laurel wreath placed on their head.

Deflation. When the price for products and services decreases; when money loses its value. German economic and monetary policy aims to maintain the value of goods and services, but most importantly to prevent inflation. When it comes to praise, Germans take a conservative, restrictive, deflationary approach.

Deflationary. In feedback discussions the Germans consciously use deflationary terms. Honesty and transparency are seen as guarantees for effective, clear communication. „Say what you mean and mean what you say“ is the German logic. People should speak their minds freely and without inflationary euphemisms.

Den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben translates into „Don‘t praise the day until the night has arrived“; don‘t count your accomplishments before the day is over; don‘t be confident of something until it has actually happened.

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