Communication is a difficult thing, even among people of one culture, and even more so between those of different cultures. One first needs to understand the context, the unspoken signals, the motivation, and that can be quite a task.
I noticed that when I encountered the American “Be Nice” mentality. Now, don’t think that I’m not nice. I am. Sometimes.
In fact, my mother put a lot of importance on good manners, such as not pointing at people, not screaming in public, being honest, not resting the elbow on the table while eating or being nice.
I soon noticed the problem with “being honest” and “being nice”. As a young teenager, I vowed to always say the truth, no matter what. Then, my grandmother gave me a birthday present, one of those big T-shirts that could also be worn as dresses, the front decorated with a picture in the garish colours popular at the time (a lot of pink, turquoise and purple). The picture was adorned by the word “Hollywood” in golden sequins (it was the late 80s!). Usually, when I got a gift I didn’t like, I smiled, said “thank you” and pretended to like it. This time, in line with my new honesty policy, I thanked my grandmother, but said that it wasn’t quite my taste. The temperature in the room dropped about 10 degrees and my mother told me quite a lot about being polite. My defense was “But I was just saying the truth. Do you want me to lie?”
My mother faced the difficult task of explaining to me the delicate balance between truth and not hurting other people’s feelings. I learned that basically it was preferable to lie or at least omit or soften the truth if it could prevent being hurtful (and if nothing much depended on whether the truth was said or not). I understood that and have since tried to stick to this rule.
So, I’m familiar with “be nice”. During the course of my development as an intercutural trainer I also learned how different cultures have a different approach to this. You might have read the word task-oriented in this blog before. In such cultures, it’s all about getting the task done. There is no need to build a relationship for that.
Relationship-oriented cultures, as you probably would have guessed, have a different point of view. Here, the relationship is essential (remember my evening in Spain?). Time is invested in building up a relationship because without a relationship there’s no successful business. This also affects communication. In Germany, a task-oriented culture, communication serves to convey information. It’s a direct, no-frills way of communicating and it’s absolutely fine to speak the truth, even if it’s not a pleasant truth. As long as it’s a fact-based rational truth, there’s no need that it should harm a relationship (as you read above, there are some exceptions to this. Besides, communication in business life tends to be more task-oriented as in private life).
In relationship-oriented cultures, communication serves to nurture relationships. There are of course different levels of that. In some cultures (where “saving face” is also an important concept), unpleasant truths will not be spoken out. In other cultures, it depends on the seriousness of the situation. A popular way of conveying unwanted information is also to do it indirectly. There are many cases of German business people thinking everything is going fine in their business dealing with, for example, Asians and then being shocked when they realize that things have in fact been going very wrong. Understanding the different way of communication is absolutely crucial for successful dealings with other cultures. How to understand the context of a message? How to realize there is a context to the message (Germans are not that great at reading between the lines because our own communication style is so extremely direct)? How to ask questions (yes, the right wording of a question can make all the difference!)?
I had an interesting “be nice” encounter with an American, Chris. During one of our first conversations we found out that we both liked tea a lot. Chris asked me which were my favourite teas. I started this long-winded monologue about the wonderful flavoured teas I bought in a small tea shop in the town where my parents lived, that only there they had these special flavours and if he liked them, I’d be pleased to bring some along. (Yes, I admit it, I prefer flavoured teas. I got hooked on tea during a school exchange to England and started with “pure” teas, my favourite being Darjeeling. But gradually, I started to prefer flavoured teas and now drink them almost exclusively. – Oh, what’s that sound? …. Ah, it was nothing, just my British ancestors turning in their graves).
So, back to Chris. All through my enthused comments about flavoured tea, he smiled politely and didn’t say much. We then moved on to different topics. It was some time later that I found out that he despised flavoured tea. I was a bit surprised that he hadn’t just said so. Soon afterwards we did a cross-cultural training as co-trainers and he explained to the participants the difference in German and American communication. He told them that when a person he talked to said something he didn’t agree with, he usually didn’t start arguing, sometimes would even agree with them.
Diplomatic German that I am, I challenged poor Chris in the next break. “So you lie to people?” I asked. (And there you have a lovely example of direct conversation…)
He then explained to me his concept of “be nice”. Yes, he sometimes wasn’t truthful, not so much lying directly, but rather omitting things. Why? Because it wasn’t always worth starting an argument, especially with people he hardly knew. If he never saw them again, there at least hadn’t been any unpleasant development of the conversation. If a closer friendship developed, the other person would sooner or later learn his real opinion anyway. He also said that the closer the friends, the more open he was about his opinion, even if that opinion differed from that of the friend. He added that in really important issues he would not hold back with his opinion.
Well, it was like my grandmother-t-shirt incident. Don’t hurt people if you don’t need to, just taken a bit further. Which fits with the fact that Americans are less confrontational than Germans. I often had Americans telling me that they were shocked about the heated discussions Germans have about many things, and how surprised they were when after these heated discussions, the hitherto arguing Germans just went on as before, relationship not harmed one bit by the argument they just had.
That’s one German characteristic many foreigners find confusing. An argument, or rather a discussion is quite welcome here. While Chris would consider the issue of flavoured tea too insignificant to abandon his “be nice” policy, for many Germans it would be a welcome chance to voice their own opinions (maybe even because of its insignificance – after all: whose feelings could possibly be hurt by a differing opinion on tea?). When discussing likes and dislikes in Germany, one is sometimes met with an almost amusing indignation. “How can you possibly drink this garbage/like that actor/enjoy that book/consider this a good car!” is a frequent reaction. It sounds a bit as if the other person is seriously insulted, but in fact he’s just looking forward to a good discussion.
When talking to Americans, I try to keep this in mind, though occasionally my argumentative nature gets the better of me – not because I want to make the other person uncomfortable: it happens automatically. That’s the way culture usually works – one acts automatically in most cases. The more culturally savvy one is, the better behaviour can be adjusted to different cultures. Sometimes one even is too uncomfortable with another cultural behaviour – I couldn’t stick to the American “be nice” philosophy when there was a big misunderstanding in a friendship with an American. I need to discuss it and that was the end of that friendship. In a similar situation with a German friend, an open discussion was what saved the friendship.