It was several years ago. In New Jersey. I met with a close friend – Michael – who I know from our days as students at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. We don’t see each other often, but when we do, we catch up very quickly. Michael went on to law school at Georgetown, then into the healthcare field. He is successful, has a solid marriage, and four well-rounded daughters.
After our undergraduate degree, back in 1981, I moved to Germany for a year, Michael along with eight other close friends went to Nicaragua in order to do development work organized by the Jesuits. They all took a summer-long crash course in Spanish, then moved in with Nicaraguan families in different villages.
When we met in New Jersey we discussed my work. Michael was very curious, but at the same time skeptical that cultural differences existed, or at least significant ones. I was quite surprised by his skepticism, since he had lived in a culture which was clearly different than the American. “I don’t believe there are real differences, John. People are people.”
I threw a couple of examples out between Germans and Americans. He remained unconvinced. Perhaps the examples were too simple. Or too complex. We ate our sandwiches, sipped on our milkshakes, then it occurred to me that Michael is a trained attorney. I said: “Ok, let’s take the law. Do you think that how conflicts are fundamentally resolved are the same in the U.S. and in Germany?” He was sure about the answer to that question. The law is the law, right?
Testing his patience, I went into some detail focusing on hearings. “Do you think when a team lead in a company resolves a conflict between team members that the German and the American team lead respectively will take the same approach?” A no-brainer for Michael: “Certainly.”
I went on to explain that Germans have a very strong tendancy to avoid an open hearing with the two conflict parties. Argument vs. counter-argument in front of next level management would only heighten the tension, making a resolution that much more complicated. Instead, the conflict resolver in the German context is far more likely to interview each party involved separately and on a one-on-one basis.
“Americans, on the other hand”, I continued, “expect a fair hearing. The conflict resolution actually starts off when the conflict parties, in the presence of each other, make their case before the team lead, who, in the American business context, sees her-/himself as the judge.” Self-defense is only possible, if one knows what they are accused of.
Michael had listened very carefully, raised his eyebrows, didn’t respond at first, instead looked at me and reflected. Then he said: “I didn’t know that about the Germans.” No, how could he? He had spent his entire life, with the exception of one year in Nicaragua, in the U.S. And he had studied law in the U.S.
Michael is a close friend. An intelligent, self-critical, reflective person. I’ve known him for more than forty years. And he had lived in a culture much different than the American. How could his operating assumption be that there are few, if any, significant cultural differences between the U.S. and Germany? I encounter this time and again, and it always surprises me.