When Germans engage in discussions they seek out topics which lead to lively discussions. Germans are intelligent and well-informed. They enjoy intellectual give and take. And since this means a difference of opinions, Germans purposely choose controversial topics.
And they are critically-minded. Germans look for weak points in an argument, for things that do not work, which are suboptimal or just plain wrong. So the discussion inevitably involves Germans stating their critical opinion about some thing, person or people.
Americans purposely choose non-controversial topics. Divisive subjects are seldom raised. And although the age of the cocktail party is long past, Americans still know the answer to the question What are three subjects you don‘t bring up at a cocktail party? Sex, religion and politics.
The American logic is to avoid any tension which could damage a personal or working relationship. They, therefore, seek out commonalities. Americans look for reasons to relate, not separate. From their perspective it is difficult to argue about the weather.
The American desire to discuss non-controversial topics is often misinterpreted by Germans as being superficial. To the Germans, for whom intelligence, deep thinking, even brooding, is important, superficiality is considered to be a character flaw.
Germans, therefore, are disappointed when discussions involve what they call non-topics. They feel that an opportunity has been lost. Germans want to debate, compare and contrast. And most importantly, to learn from each other.
Americans have the impression that Germans seek out controversial topics in order to provoke. In many cases, Americans feel insulted, because the German approach often leads to criticism of America and Americans, of their society, politics, their very way of life.
When that happens, the relationship has been damaged. And it is very difficult to un-do that damage. Making things worse, some Americans will then report it to friends and colleagues, warning them about contact with „those opinionated Germans.“
Advice to Germans
Develop a sense for which topics in America are controversial. There are many of them. Choose very carefully with whom, when and how you address them.
Bring up controversial topics indirectly. First ask Americans what they think. If you are asked, state your opinion diplomatically. Seek dialogue, not debate. If you want to make your statement, perhaps phrase it as a question.
And remember, the two cultures have different definitions of patriotism. Germans are still skeptical and critical about their Germanness. Americans have a deeply personal relationship with their country. Criticism of America is criticism of Americans.
Advice to Americans
Remember, Germans separate between substance and person. Vigorous intellectual give and take on controversial topics is not personal. In fact, it is one way in which the Germans demonstrate respect for America and Americans. It means that they take America and your point of view seriously.
Engage with the Germans. Help them to understand the American viewpoint. And put some effort into understanding their point of view. It’s well worth the effort.