Diagrams vs. Prose

“Why do Americans prefer describing processes in prose text? Germans prefer diagrams, which can then be combined to illustrate processes. The German approach seems to be übersichtlicher (clear, clearly arranged).“

A interesting point!

Germans brief

I’ve seen many process documents in both cultures. The Americans seem to use both prose text and illustrations. In fact, Americans are famous for preferring pictures with some explanatory words over too much text. I agree, however, that many process and procedure descriptions can be lengthy in wording.

On the other side, German process descriptions do tend to be brief, often relying on illustrations and very limited prose text. Could it be that those who write the processes in Germany assume, and expect, that the reader need only see the illustration (the boxes and their connections) in order to understand what needs to be done?

Americans lengthy

On the flipside, could it be that American process descriptions assume that the reader is not familiar with the process, therefore it needs to be spelled out in prose text?

Implied in the fact that a process is documented is that those people who will read it are not necessarily familiar with it. If that is the case, then it makes sense for the document to go into detail, or more detail than its German counterpart.

Differences are key

The more fundamental question here, though, is what the different approaches to such documents tell us about the differences between Americans and Germans when it comes to processes and procedures. Documents are no more than representations of logics, approaches, methods, ways of doing things.

Persuasive nonetheless

“How is it that certain Americans ﹣ although they do not understand the subject matter as well as their German counterparts, and have less experience ﹣ are still able to persuade me that their concept, product or service is better?”

This is an excellent question.

Many times in my work I have heard Germans say: „Our proposals are better than those presented by our American colleagues. We have deeper expertise and more experience. But often senior-level management, German included, chooses what the Americans propose.“

Ok, let’s pull apart your question.

Fachlich nicht so gut verstehen, meaning less expertise. And weniger Erfahrung, meaning less experience. What could be more persuasive than those two attributes? „We know the material at a deep level. And we have worked with it over an extended period of time.“ That should be enough to convince anyone, Americans included.

I define authentic expertise as experience understood. Knowledge without experience is empty. It’s up in the clouds, not grounded, it’s theoretical. On the other hand, experience without understanding is not known. It is merely anecdotal, cannot be explained. It, too, is empty.

So how is it that those German colleagues, who have authentic expertise, can fail to persuade another German (same culture!), whereas an American with less authentic expertise can?

Perhaps those German colleagues are ﹣ or come across as ﹣ too theoretical, too academic. Perhaps they are overly problem-oriented, focusing too much on complexity and risk, and not enough on opportunity. Perhaps they are a bit arrogant, therefore not fully listening, a bit close-minded, inflexible.

Perhaps they are not suffienciently motivated. It is one thing to possess the knowledge and the experience to solve a problem, to overcome a significant challenge, to know exactly what needs to be done. It is a wholly different thing to be fired up, determined, utterly focused, totally dedicated to then doing it. Execution!

Maybe, and this is quite subjective, the Germans are less likeable than their American counterparts. Maybe the Americans communicate with you﹣deal with you in the sense of handle you﹣in such a way that you say to yourself: „Yeah, I like these people. They inspire me. There’s energy and excitement in them. They’re like me. I’m like them. I want these folks to succeed. I want to be a part of this!“

Here’s another possible explanation.

Maybe knowledge and experience are not everything. Maybe there are other skills which are just as, if not more, important than knowledge and experience. Such as: a clear vision, if not in detail, of what needs to be done; the ability to recruit and inspire those who will make those things happen; and the management skills to ensure that execution.

Knowledge and experience can be recruited, bought, or borrowed. Americans define leadership more in tems of the overall ability to bring experts together, form them as a team, and then lead them to success. Whereas Germans define leadership on technical expertise (Fachwissen) and experience.

You can see this within their companies. Look at what it takes to advance in German companies, especially technology-driven companies. Then contrast that with what it takes within American companies.

My final thought is that perhaps you have experience working with Americans, or at least observing them, and you see that they, too, are successful. It is not as if America has not produced people and companies who succeed.

So, maybe the rational side of you says: „These folks know how to solve problems. They may not always have the highest level of subject matter expertise nor the many years of experience. But they have many other skills critical to success. And they have the `fire in the belly´ to succeed!“

Two final comments: Your question, Christian, begins with “Wie schaffen es bestimmte Amerikaner, ….“: „How do certain Americans ….“ So we’re talking not about all Americans, but some of them.

Second, and perhaps more importantly: How can Germans, who have authentic expertise, and in most cases, therefore, are proposing what is best for the team and the company, ensure that their message comes across persuasively not only to their fellow Germans, but moreso to their American listeners?

Personality vs. Facts

“When Americans are in persuasion-mode what is more important the power of personality or the power of facts and Argumente (reason, points, arguments, making the case)? And why is it so?”

This is an exceptionally critical (as in important) question. It goes to the heart of one of the major divergences in how Americans and Germans persuade. Please read our analysis at persuasion_objective.

It is not so much a question of which is more important. Both are central to being peruasive in the American context. They cannot be – or are seldom – separated.

Your question begs another critical question: How do Americans combine them?

„combine“ not in the sense of a mechanical-kind of 50-50% balance, but in the sense of the logic operating when an American puts personality ahead of facts and reason or the other way around.

This, of course, will depend on the situation: What is the nature of the subject matter? Who is the target audience to be persuaded? What decision (behavior) should the persuading lead to? What is the particular style (capabilities, inclinations) of the person(s) persuading?

Truly persuasive people in the American context are masters of combining the two elements: personality and fact.

The Germans are masters of this craft, also. But in accordance to their, to the German, logic. They place far more emphasis on fact and Argumente.

Why is it that Americans are more open to, more persuaded by, personality? This is a very complex question, one which we at CI have not yet researched. Clearly, though, Americans choose freely both to be persuaded via personality, and to persuade via personality.

A culture’s approach to persuasion is always an unspoken agreement between two parties – the persuader and the to-be-persuaded. How personality and fact/Argumente are combined is driven by national culture. It is a shared logic, shared within the respective culture.

Get our message across

“Our German colleagues do not accept (trust) our forecasts for the U.S. market. We’re not sure why. Perhaps they are stubborn. Or our American presentation logic does not persuade them. Or maybe they simply don’t understand us. How do we get our message across more effectively to Germany?”

Prepare the ground

“In my experience, Germans usually try to persuade in a fairly logical manner and in that sense are not dissimilar to Americans. I have noticed a tendency, however, to assume the audience thinks like they do, shares their general views of the world, etc. In selling something (products, ideas) it would seem useful to prepare the ground a bit more before going forward.”

Your question has three parts. All three are highly relevant. Let’s address them one by one.

„Germans persuade in a logical manner … not dissimilar to Americans.“

Yes, both cultures have so much in common. Their deepest roots are common: Judeo-Christian faith, Greek philosophy, political structures influenced by the Romans, the rule of law, human rights, democracy, market-driven economy, language, generations of close contacts on many levels, and so much more.

And although Americans are made up of many cultures, Americans as a people, and America as a culture, is still primarily European. The German influence on American has been especially significant, in both the past and the present. Americans and Germans are relatives in an extended family.

This fact makes their cooperation that much more complex. Does this sound counter-intuitive? Only apparently so. For the differences﹣deep and subtle﹣are not suspected, not anticipated, therefore neither seen, much less articulated.

Germans and Americans can certainly succeed in their cooperation without addressing these subtle cultural differences, but they can succeed even more if they do. Your question makes that point indirectly.

„… a tendency, however, to assume the audience thinks like they do ….“

Which we all do. Don’t we all assume that our way of thinking is universal and not formed and driven by our particular, specific national culture? Is it not the case, that we see our approach to persuading as human and not as American- or German-human?

When I reflect on my first years in Germany, my operating assumption was that Germans were Americans who just happened to speak German, live in a different country, have a different history, etc. The readers of this are certainly welcome to laugh at me.

And I laugh at myself, too. It did not occur to me until I had lived in Germany for roughly five years that the Germans thought in many ways much differently than I did. It fact, it did not occur to me at all. It was pointed out to me by a German who was working in the cross-cultural field.

It is only when we experience a different reaction to what we think is clear, straightforward, obvious, that we realize – if we’re fortunate enough to realize ourselves or have pointed out to us – that there are other ways of thinking, that there are differences, many very significant, between how Americans and Germans think.

This goes to the heart of the matter, Matt, to understanding those differences in our national cultural hard-wiring, differences in our most basic operating assumptions, the coordinates of our thinking.

„In selling something … useful to prepare the ground .…“

Yes! And it is there that CI is trying to make a contribution. The first step is to understand the differences. In this case between how the two cultures fundamentally persuade.

The second is to anticipate the influence of those differences on how a message﹣our message﹣is understood, or as is often the case, not fully understood or even misunderstood. The third step is to then adapt one’s message so that it, indeed, does come across persuasively.

We „prepare the ground“ by taking those three steps. Please see CI’s analysis on Persuasion.

Get on the journey

“Both sides need to be willing to change. How can we get them on that journey?”

A change journey, indeed! But not change our own cultures. That is impossible. And not necessary. USA and Germany, two great cultures. Instead, we want to understand the differences in how we think. For there is no action without first thought. Understand thought, understand action. “Journey”, what a great word. It will take time, patience, curiosity, learning, adjusting.

Negotiating style

“What are the differences in negotiating styles?”

We at UC have not addressed this topic. Why? We believe that colleagues within companies should not negotiate with each other.

However, those same colleagues will negotiate with both suppliers and with customers. And we all can imagine how negotiations would go if folks in the same negotiating team have different approaches!

Which means that we at UC have to begin soon doing the research on differences in how Germans and Americans negotiate.

Disney Store

“In the Disney Store the young saleswomen dressed as Mickey Mouse were so nice, so sweet to us and our children, as if they wanted to take us in their arms and cuddle with us. Just as quickly, however, it became clear that it was all show. That sudden realization could under certain circumstances lead to Kauf-Unlust (purchase-aversion, -reluctance, -disinclination), after having been so „touched“, and given in the impression that you are the greatest customer in the store. Am I being too critical?”

Sell wares

What a great anecdote! So common in German-American interactions. Let’s have some fun with it. Point by point. And a bit tongue-in-cheek on my part: a figure of speech implying that a statement is meant as humor; it should not be taken at face value.

The Disney Store. Stores are businesses. Their goal is to sell their wares, to make a profit. They do so when many customers come in and purchase those wares.

Saleswomen. Yes, those were salespeople in the Mickey Mouse costumes. They are paid to welcome customers to the store, with the hope that they will purchase items. The saleswomen come to work each day dressed in normal clothes, then change into costumes, at the end of the day they switch back into their clothes and go back home.

“… as if they wanted to take us in their arms and cuddle.“ Children﹣your children!﹣are the target group. Disney is primarily about children. Cuddling is what children want to do with their favorite Disney characters. The children then go from the cuddling to seeing something in the store which they want. Seeing the glow in their childrens’ eyes, parents have a difficult time saying no. What a great business model!

“… it was all show.“ Well, yes, you were at Disney. What were you expecting, a collaborative, rational cost-benefit analysis right then and there between you, your wife and children on the one side and the salesperson in the costumes on the other? (tongue-in-cheek)


„That sudden realization (Ernüchterung)….“ What a perfect word﹣Ernüchterung﹣for this anecdote! It can be translated into „disillusion“ (removing the illusion) or „sobering“ (making you feel serious and thoughtful).

But an even better translation is „disenchantment.“ To enchant means to attract and hold the attention of someone by being interesting, pretty, etc.; to put a magic spell on someone or something. Magic spell. That’s it! That’s what Disney is all about, enchanting children (and adults, too).

„sudden realization.“ Clearly you and your wife know that a certain degree of „show“, of selling, is normal. And your children, regardless of how young they might be, are also aware that they are in a store, and that stores are about business. Children see their parents pull out their wallets to pay for items. Children often hear from their parents that they cannot have certain things because they are too expensive. The realization could not have been all that sudden.

„That sudden realization could under certain circumstances lead to Kauf-Unlust (purchase-aversion, -reluctance, -disinclination).“ This is the key point of your question. It is the key intercultural point. You are aware of it and have imbedded it into your question. And rightfully so!

Let’s spell it out, but only briefly. For we have done so under Persuasion_Learn.

Buyers and Sellers

We know that in all cultures products and services have to be sold. And that means at some point an interaction between the two parties: buyer and seller. What does that interaction look like, however?

Our topic is Persuasion, which is a sophisticated word for selling. There are all kinds of selling. In different business sectors. At different levels. Between different disciplines. But the core activity is persuading. Selling. So how do Germans and Americans respectively sell, how do they persuade? Stated more precisely, how personal should it be?

For your (German) family visiting Disney in Orlando, Florida, the selling in the Disney Store was a bit overdone, overly sweet, „as if we were the greatest customers in the store“, as if they wanted to „cuddle with us.“

Warning to Americans

Therein lies the difference, the message, the warning to Americans. Put simply: yes, you want to establish some kind of connection to the person to whom you want to sell something. And maybe that connection could and should be personal. But how personal from the German perspective?

And to what degree is it truly personal vs. business-personal, in the sense of a means to an end? The Germans are much more likely to believe that you mean it truly, really, authentically, when you work to establish a personal connection, a personal relationship. Remember, Germans separate between personal and professional far more strongly and clearly than Americans do.

If Germans sense that a person, an American, is not truly interested in a personal connection, that they are faking it﹣a means to an end﹣they might experience Ernüchterung, disenchantment.

And we all know the what feels like to be disenchanted. The magic is gone. One has been tricked, deflated, disappointed, and becomes angry and hurt. „You didn’t really mean it!“

Enchantment may help you close one sale. There may never be a second sale, however.

“Let’s give it a shot”

“One line I often hear in the U.S. is ‘Let’s give it a shot’, and ‘This is simple, let’s make a small commitment and see how it goes.’ Is the core thought here to get the foot in the door and build the relationship with a small, low-risk try-out?”

That is a very interesting﹣and accurate﹣observation. Although we at CI have not yet begun a research project on the topic of relationship management, I am confident that it is a clear difference, and important one, between Germans and Americans.

Let me explain what I think is at play here.

Persuasion is in the end always about asking the receiver of the message to make a decision: to respond with „yes“ or „no“ to the product or service offered. Or to the idea, concept, suggestion, proposal offered within a team.

The bigger the yes-no question is, the greater is the risk that the receiver will tend to say „no.“ Conversely, the smaller the yes, the less risky, thus, more likely one will get a yes.

Americans might be more inclined than Germans﹣again, we at CI have not yet done the analysis ﹣to move the relationship with the customer forward via incremental steps, via small yesses. It is not only a trust-building measure. It makes it difficult for the customer at a later stage to say „no“ after having said „yes“ several, or even many, times.

This American inclination is also consistent with another, much stronger, inclination in the U.S.: trial-and-error. As long as the risk (or investment) is not too high, Americans are willing to „try things out“, or as you write to „give it a shot.“

Low-risk try-outs can be of very high value. They produce experience (data), which can help the decision-making process. And frankly, many things simply have to be tested in order to know if they work. There is a reason why so many companies in the U.S. offer potential customers a trial period. Whether it be a physical product or service, „Try it out!“ helps to get the sale. „See for yourself!“ is effective.

So, reducing risk is one reason. A second reason is that trial-and-error is deeply imbedded in American thinking. A third reason might be the American tendency to take complexity and break it down into its component parts.

Reducing complexity is a form of risk management. Americans are sceptical of large, complex, systematic solutions, whether they be products, services, or approaches in general. They’re seen as too risky. See CI’s thoughts on this under Learn_Persuasion_Analytical.

Maintain forward movement

“The Germans do not feel comfortable with aggressive, hard sales, including the American version of it. Americans, on the other hand, perceive their German colleagues as being sales-shy.

Taking this important cultural difference into account, how can we maintain forward movement in the U.S., especially since we often cannot predict whether a customer will commit or the size of the opportunity?”

This is a complex situation. And a highly important one. But it can be managed. And managed well.

First: Continually explain to your German colleagues the nature of the American business environment, especially the important of marketing, of sales, of building relationships. In the context of this question, the importance of aggressiveness in sales. 

Because marketing sales is understood differently in Germany, you have no other choice but to remind your colleagues time and again of the logic in the U.S. Including that American customers are comfortable with aggressive sales, expect it, and they, too, have aggressive sales people in their organization.

Always use concrete examples. Particularly effective is showing them how competitors are aggressively going after the same opportunities. And use examples from other sectors of the U.S. economy which illustrate the need to be aggressive.

Second: always acknowledge the rightness and legitimacy of the German logic. Honor the strengths of the German approach to marketing and sales. Which is also aggressive, but in a German way, in a more discreet, quiet, unemotional, determined way. Anticipate their unease with what you will be asking them for, with what you will be proposing to them. 

Third: spell out for your German colleagues what forward movement concretely looks like. Spell out what aggressive sales means literally, “on the ground”, in your conversations with customers and potential customers. Once understood, your German colleagues may just respond with: “Oh well, that is not so aggressive. That makes perfect sense. Or front-line sales folks would essentially do the same. Ok good, we can work with this. We can help you with this.”

Fourth. “especially since we often cannot predict whether a customer will commit or the size of the opportunity?” That’s all about risk. And you will see many Q&As on CI which in one form or the other address the differences in how Germans and Americans understand risk.

There is only one way to handle that: explain to your German colleagues what you can and cannot predict. Give them the best, the most accurate, risk-assessment as you can. In fact, perhaps the better term is success-assessment or hit-rate. 

Very important, whenever you provide Germany with these assessments, you need to explain not only the factors involved, you need to explain what those factors mean, the deeper logic. Again, your German colleagues are German and not American. What you as Americans take as a given, as self-stated, as not needing explanation, as universal, is not any of those things. 

When you, for example, provide an assessment of the chances that the customer will commit, explain, and in detail, what the factors are which move the customer in the one or in the other direction. The same goes for the size of the opportunity.

Folks, this will require a lot of patience on your part. You will have to do a lot of explaining. And explaining of things which for you as Americans in the U.S. business context are seldom discussed, seldom debated, seldom questions. It is what it is. 

Well, you are working in a global environment. Or more precisely, you are working in the US-German environment. You have no other choice but to address the deeper-lying cultural differences. Good. Do it. Get good at it. Combine the strengths of two great cultures. To the benefit of your customers. And to the detriment of your competitors !