Agreements. We discuss, enter into, and fulfill them. On a daily basis. Most are routine. Others are complex. Let’s contrast the two approaches:
A yes in the German context is more exception than the rule. Germans are reluctant to enter into an agreement without being sure that they can deliver. They, therefore, respond almost instinctively with reasons why they cannot (yet) enter into an agreement.
That’s because the German yes signals a high degree of commitment. It is the equivalent of giving your word, of entering into an oral contract, something not done without first giving the agreement serious consideration.
A yes in the American context is more the rule than exception. Americans almost instinctively say yes to assisting a colleague or to serving a customer. Reacting quickly with a no is interpreted as negative, unhelpful, uncooperative.
The American yes, however, can signal different levels of commitment. The unreflected yes means: “In principle I want to help you. I‘ll think about if and how I can.” The level of commitment is clarified by questions about time, resources, interest, and other obligations.
The German no is more the rule than the exception. However, its level of hardness is based on contextual factors. It can range from a hard to a flexible no. Only through asking what the barriers are to the yes is it possible to discern how hard the German no actually is.
And converting a German no into a German yes requires identifying, addressing, and overcoming the reasons for the no. This can require a lot of time and effort. But as stated before, the German yes is worth fighting for.
A no in the American context is far more the exception than the rule. Americans pride themselves on being a can-do people, of being open, helpful, good neigbors. They believe in cooperation, teamwork, volunteerism. Americans do not feel comfortable saying the word no.
To reject a request out of hand is to negate these values. An American no, therefore, comes in the form of a strongly conditioned yes. The conditions communicate the reasons why yes is not possible.
Because the German yes involves a high degree of commitment, before granting it they request a lot of background information. For three reasons:
First, it helps them to determine whether the agreement could have negative effects on them, their work or their team. Second, if they say yes, they want to fulfill their part of the agreement.
Third, because Germans do little to no follow-up during the time-span of the agreement, the better they understand the overall context, the better they can fulfill their commitment. The term is front-loading.
Because follow-up in the U.S. context is frequent, and because agreements can increase and decrease in priority, Americans enter into agreements quickly and without discussing their overall context in great detail.
The parties of an agreement are in constant communication with each other. Full context information need not be communicated all at once during the very first conversation. The term is back-loading.
In Germany follow-up is infrequent. Once an agreement has been made neither party feels the need to contact the other in order to inquire about the status or priority of that agreement. Agreed is agreed.
And agreements are meant to be held. The priority of an agreement remains at the level it was assigned when entered into. There should be no need to verify or reinforce the importance of an agreement.
In the American context, because people enter into many agreements and on a constant basis, follow-up is essential. It is how Americans maintain a common understanding of the status and priority of any given agreement. In many cases, parties to an agreement arrange predetermined times to communicate with each other. In other words, they schedule their follow-up.
The Germans prefer a complete deliverable, even if late, over an incomplete deliverable, on time or even early. Lateness is tolerated as long as expectations are met. Completeness is preferred to speed.
Americans expect initial parts of a deliverable as quickly as possible. A partial deliverable early often meets the needs better than the complete product on time. The remaining parts of the deliverable are then supplied promptly. Speed is preferred to completeness.