Germans separate the professional from the personal. Work colleagues can disagree, even argue, about the substance of an issue. This, however, does not have a negative affect on their working relationship.
Critical thinking, stating one‘s opinions in a straightforward manner, debating the strengths and weaknesses of a given point, are in the German culture signs of professionalism. And a sign of respect for the other person.
Americans connect the professional with the personal. Statements made about a proposal, a concept, or work results are by definition statements about that person‘s competence, experience, skills.
To say that engineering work produced was poor, is to say that it was a poor engineer who produced it. And in the American business context there can be consequences for those who do poor work. American colleagues seldom challenge each other in a direct, vigorous or threatening way.
In some cases Germans sense that their American colleagues feel insulted. From their point of view, however, Americans are too sensitive to criticism. They take things too personally. Americans can come across as thin-skinned.
This is a surprise to Germans. For the Americans have the reputation of being rough, tough, ready for a vigorous debate. And because Germans define professional as being focused on substance, American colleagues come across as requiring special attention.
Americans can, indeed, feel personally insulted by the statements German colleagues make. From their perspective Germans go on the attack, saying things such as: „No, that is wrong“ or „That makes no sense“ or „You did not do your homework“ or „We used that method years ago. You need to get up to date.“
In the American culture being professional is knowing how to voice your opinion in ways respectful of other people. Germans can scare Americans. Some Germans can be (mis)perceived as so unpredictable and explosive that American colleagues, customers, and suppliers will find ways to avoid contact with them.
Advice to Germans
Continue to be straightforward. Continue to address critical topics directly. Those are German strengths. But do it in a spirit and language which is softer and more dialogue-oriented. Americans also focus on substance. And they have vigorous debates.
The challenge for you is not only in understanding how Americans discuss and debate. It is also a question of language and tone. Mimic American statements. Use their terms and phrases. Speak in their language. Literally and figuratively.
And from time to time remind the Americans that you are speaking in what for you is a foreign language. They will respect you for it. And some will feel a bit of shame that they do not speak a foreign language.
Advice to Americans
Develop a thicker skin. Not every criticism of your work is criticism of you and your ability. From the German perspective you can, and often should, debate intensely with them. It will actually strengthen your working relationship. This is not a paradox. It is the German logic.
Vigorous debate, intensity, even “getting in each other’s faces”, as long as you use solid arguments, are signs of competence, backbone and professionalism in Germany. Step up, not back, to the challenge.
If a German colleague comes across to other American colleagues too directly, come to their rescue. Rephrase their statements in softer, more diplomatic American terms. Then ask your American colleagues to focus on substance, not form. And to not take it all so personally.