Americans avoid criticism

“I have the impression that Americans shy away from using criticism, be it in personal conversation or at work. In Germany it is accepted to express objective criticism when appropriate.

But in conversations with Americans everything is always great. On what level is it socially accepted to voice concerns or criticism in America?“

John Otto Magee

An excellent question.

No society can function well without it having a way to voice and address things which aren’t working. Whether it be within a family, a school, a religious community, a sports team, certainly within a company, the group needs to have a common understanding of what is and is not working.

“What is effective? What is helpful? Where do we stand? What needs to be improved?” These are questions to be asked, and answered, on a constant basis.

Merriam-Webster defines criticism as: the act of criticizing usually unfavorably; the art of evaluating or analyzing; the scientific investigation of literary documents.

So, certainly Americans engage in criticism. Certainly Americans are capable of giving and taking criticism. As are the Germans. Both societies are complex. Both are successful. Both have their approach to criticism. And both approaches work.

The key questions for their interaction as Americans and Germans are: What are the differences in their approaches to criticism? What influence (effect) do these differences have on their collaboration? How can they best manage that influence?

Don’t celebrate success

“Our German colleagues seem to be much more reserved in celebrating successes. Whether it’s a business, personal or even sporting event, they do not seem to celebrate victories. I was wondering why?“

I know what you mean. Americans are often quite surprised by how reserved the Germans are, modest, even stoic. Especially after successes.

Americans inflationary

What Americans might call a success is often for Germans “just doing our job.” We Americans, if we’re honest with ourselves, know that we have become inflationary in praise.

Just look at the terms we use: great, fantastic, awesome, super, etc. Very rarely would Germans use comparable terms in their own language.

In fact, America has become inflationary in general: McMansions of the 1990s and 2000s; oversized portions of food and drinks; grade inflation at just about all levels of education; inflated working titles in the private and public sectors; federal monetary policy (“quantitative easing”); trophies awarded to youth sports teams far from the top of their league.

Thankfully, a debate has begun in the U.S. challenging all of this over-praising. For the danger in inflationary praise is losing touch with reality.

Germans deflationary

At the same time the German approach can be too deflationary. Nicht geschimpft, ist genug gelobt – literally means, not chewed out is praise enough.

Many Germans with experience working with and for Americans have very positive things to say about how in the U.S. people are praised for good work and for team successes.

They feel motivated by it and wish there were more such positive thinking in German organizations.

If not understood, this cultural difference can have very significant (negative) influence on American-German collaboration.

In the end, Americans and Germans who collaborate need to sit down together, discuss these cultural differences, then decide how they jointly define success, as well as if and how they want to celebrate them.

It can be done. It isn’t rocket science. First understand the differences in approach. Then integrate those approaches.