With(out) Compliments

Last week it happened again. I was talking to someone from Britain. I made a compliment and her reply was “Oh, you’re just being nice.” As always when this happens, I was a bit… irritated is too strong, rather: taken aback. Of course as a good interculturalist I know why this happens, but still…

Now, what am I talking about? I’m talking about the British and to some extent American way of replying to compliments with comments like “Oh, you’re just saying that / you don’t mean that / you’re just being nice.” For the British, this is part of not showing off. Even if they consider your compliment completely warranted, they would never say so. Visit your chum, the Earl of Soandso, in his beautifully kept Elizabethan stately home and say “What a lovely house!” and the answer is likely to be “This old hut? Well, at least it keeps the rain off.”

Still, the above-mentioned reaction to compliments also tells a lot about compliment culture in both the UK and the US. My reaction to the reaction tells a lot about compliment culture in Germany. If you now say “Compliment culture in Germany? Ha!” you got it about right. There is no big compliment culture in Germany. Compliments are made and praise is given, but only when there is a reason for it. “Being nice” is not a reason. Doing your job well is not necessarily a reason. Doing your job extraordinarily well is a reason. This is something Americans notice especially. Positive feedback is a big thing in the US, both in business and private life. The feedback tends to be rather enthusiastic, at least by German standards. I once showed an American friend through Munich. Munich is admittedly a nice city, but I was a bit surprised at the excitement my friend showed (I was much younger and less interculturally versed). He kept exclaiming “Oh my God, this is great! Oh, this is so old! This is so great!” Whenever I tell this to someone, that someone has a “very enthusiastic American” (by German standards) story as well. Enthusiasm can be lovely. It can also be misunderstood.

Germans are not overly enthusiastic (with Fußball being the obvious exception). Enthusiasm makes them a bit wary – why all the excitement when it’s not necessary? Well, this is too much enthusiasm to be real…that person has to be insincere. There you go – it can be a short way from enthuiastic to insincere. That goes for both demeanour and choice of words. “This is a lovely dress,” is fine. “Oh my God, this is the cutest and most stylish dress I have ever seen in my whole life!” is too much for most Germans. They would believe the first compliment, they would wonder if they are being made fun of with the second compliment.

In the workplace, many Americans in Germany notice that there is a distinct lack of positive feedback, at least compared to the US. I’m not saying that praise is never given in German offices, but in line with “no news is good news” it’s not considered necessary for work well done. That’s what you’re getting paid for, aren’t you? By doing your work well you’re doing your job. Praise is kept for exceptional achievements. So if you get no feedback that usually means that you’re doing a good job. Because….

….criticism is given freely when necessary. If you’re not doing a good job, you will be told so, in no uncertain terms. In the US, the “sandwich approach” towards criticism is recommended and usual: start with something nice, say the criticism in a positive way (more in a “this could be improved”, less in a “you did this wrong” wording), end with something nice. Germans don’t do this. The purpose of the sandwich approach is to make the other person feel good (or as good as possible in the situation) in spite of the criticism, to be nice, not to hurt the other person’s feelings. In Germany, criticism (as long as it is well-founded and factual, not personal) is not necessarily considered something that would hurt feelings. Of course that doesn’t mean that Germans can all take such criticism in their stride. But the basic principle is that the truth shouldn’t hurt. So there is no need to butter it up, no need to start with a compliment (also, that just wastes time). The criticism will be expressed directly. This often seems unnecessarily rude for people from cultures who are used to less direct wording in such situations. Most Germans however would be rather irritated if a positive feeback was just an introduction for a negative feedback. Again, this is something that would appear insincere.

But back to compliments. As you see, there are not many “situational compliments”, so when they are given, they are usually sincere. After all, why should I make a compliment if I don’t mean it? Just to be nice? And what is that good for? (Remember my Be Nice! article?) This is why I’m always a bit taken aback at the “Oh, you’re just saying this” reaction. It makes me feel as if I have just been called insincere, even though I know that this is not the message (but it’s a great example of how our culture influences our interpretation).

Of course, just like with everything I’m telling you about German culture, this doesn’t apply to all Germans. There are those who give insincere compliments (more in private life where the relationship is in fact the deciding factor). But generally, German feedback culture could be summed up like this:

  1. No feedback is good feedback
  2. When giving a compliment, don’t exaggerate and don’t be too enthusiastic, it will seem insincere (or one of those occasions where the divine Sheldon Cooper from ‘The Big Bang Theory’ would ask: “Sarcasm?”)
  3. Criticism is worded politely but directly (this is no contradiction of terms in Germany) without any buttering up.
  4.  A compliment is usually sincere

It was a pleasure writing for you. And I mean that!

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