Today, this interesting article was on my Twitter feed, reminding me that I meant to write an article on peaches and coconut for a while. What do fruit have to do with frustrations of the expat life, you might ask now.
I’ll introduce this topic as I usually do in my trainings: picture a peach and a coconut. Which one do you think is the German? And which one do you think is the American? (This works with other cultures as well , but these are the two I use most frequently). If your answer is: coconut is the German, peach is the American, you are right (nothing to do with impeachment, by the way, even though that would be lovely at the moment). When I ask why people come to this conclusion, the answer is invariably: because Germans have such a hard shell / are unapproachable / are so reserved. And yes, that is the correct answer, or at least part of it.
Germans are reserved – that is usually one of the first statements I hear about Germans and it is also one of the topics in the article linked above. This is more than a stereotype, Germans really are reserved. Not all 83 million of us, and of course it is a matter of perception – Scandinavians don’t find us overly reserved (they are also coconuts). All cultural characteristics have to be seen in comparison. If you look at the world’s cultures, Germans are definitely among the more reserved ones and Americans are among the more open ones (on the other hand, Brazilians might consider Americans to be coconuts). If someone from a more open culture moves to a country with a more reserved culture, it can be difficult and, yes, frustrating. There you are, all new, you know nobody and nobody seems to be interested to get to know you. At work, people go home without asking if you have any plans, if you want to go for a drink or if you need any help settling in. Neighbours might nod and exchange greetings, but not more. People don’t chat in waiting lines and give you a strange look if you try to chat. You are a peach among coconuts.
As mentioned before, coconuts have hard shells. It’s not easy to crack them. Peaches have no shell. Translated to human behaviour it means that coconuts (=people from reserved cultures) behave like I just described. They don’t open up easily, they are reserved, whereas peaches (=people from open cultures) quickly get in touch and establish contact.
Another big difference is the inside, the core. A peach has a small stone, whereas the coconut consists almost completely of its core. In the peach-coconut analogy, this core stands for information one only shares with those close to one, what one considers private. The peach shares quite a lot of information with others, even upon a first meeting. There are Americans who told me more about themselves within 30 minutes than some Germans told me in a lifetime. The underlying reason is a different concept of privacy. For Germans, privacy is a major cultural value. You don’t even need to delve deep into the culture to notice it – we have extremely strong data protection laws, we have many blurred-out houses on Google Street View, there are many German court cases against Facebook, WhatsApp and similar data gatherers. In daily life you will notice that Germans don’t reveal much about themselves in conversation, that in the workplace topics are work-related rather than personal, that there is in general a focus on task rather than relationship. Only when we know people very well do we share more about ourselves – step by step.
So imagine a meeting between an American and a German expat to the US, for example at the neighbourhood bus stop and then in the bus. American is bored and starts a chat. German is a bit surprised, maybe irritated, but goes along. American shares plenty of information about home life, children, work life, recent argument with a friend, and so on. American inquires how long German will be in the US and says “Oh, then let’s have lunch one day!”
At the end of the bus ride, American leaves the bus and thinks “That was a nice diversion”. German leaves the bus and thinks: “Wow, I made a new friend! She must really like me, she shared so much about herself. Can’t wait to meet for lunch.”
Lunch never happens. German feels cheated and also convinced that Americans are superficial and dishonest. This is in fact something Germans moving to the US often worry about – they tell me in trainings “Americans are so dishonest, I don’t know how to deal with that.”
So, as you see, the coconut – peach situation can leave both sides with wrong impressions. Peaches might end up thinking that coconuts are unfriendly, cold, uncaring. Coconuts might end up thinking that peaches are superficial and dishonest. A classical cultural misunderstanding.
An American once told me that the American way of making contact quickly goes back to frontier days when you didn’t often meet other people and each new contact could help you acquire news, goods, protection, help. It does make a lot of sense to me, as culture is what people found out works for them. If you look at German history – German was not a mobile society for most of its history (and compared to the US still is not very mobile). We had no frontier, people lived in close-knit communities, knew each other and based trust on this. New developments, new people often didn’t bring such good things, so there was distrust towards them or at least reserve until one got to know them better. Add to this the sense of privacy – Germany is rather densely populated and in earlier centuries, people were huddled together. No wide plains, but small villages and towns surrounded by town walls. Respecting privacy means giving each other some space. This is what Germans found to work for them.
So, your average reserved German is doing two things – respecting your privacy and getting to know you slowly. We are a bit like an old car. It needs a while before it warms up. A British friend of mine said that Germans need about 18 months to decide whether they want to be friends. I wouldn’t put that time frame so high, but I agree with the statement in principle. When Germans make friends, they often make them for life, whereas Americans often make situational friends. If I’m stuck with that friend for life, I want to make sure it’s worth the investment. Many Germans are not aware that this reserved behaviour – which, I repeat this on purpose, is considered polite and considerate in Germany – might leave a foreigner feeling disliked or left out. Just some weeks ago I had a training with a German who told me about his business trip to India and how every evening, someone invited him, how people engaged him in conversation and always made sure that he would never feel alone. Then he said: “Some years ago, we had an expat from India here in the German office. Nobody invited him or anything similar. We just didn’t think about it – a new German colleague wouldn’t have expected it and we didn’t realize how alone the colleague from India must have felt. I feel really bad about this after I saw how differently this is handled in India.”
One German expat to the US has to put small talk in the office on her mental agenda for the day – I described it in my article about small talk.
So there you go – Germans, like everybody else, use their own cultural background to guide them in their behaviour and if they don’t know about other cultural backgrounds, they might not be aware that their behaviour might be interpreted in a very different way. When I have people from peach cultures in my training, I dedicate quite a lot of time to try and make them understand the background of German reserved behaviour.
While it is helpful to know the motivation behind the behaviour, it does not necessarily help with the frustration of being new in a country with reserved coconuts. The good news is – it is possible to meet Germans and to build up friendships. An American friend of mine joined a German volleyball team. She didn’t speak any German, the German team spoke hardly any English. However, volleyball rules are the same everywhere and gradually my American friend improved her German and she made very good friends in that team. Common interests go a long way. Others go through international clubs or Internations – there are German members there who are interested in meeting expats. Some neighbours are open for a chat which leads to gradually getting to know each other better. However, it takes patience – cracking a coconut just takes more time. The younger you are, the easier it is – younger Germans are much less reserved. It also depends on the surroundings – in Northern Germany, people are more reserved than in the South. In smaller towns, people might be more approachable than in big cities, which are more anonymous, but on the other hand, people in bigger towns are more open towards newcomers.
Just remember – you are dealing with coconuts here. Once you cracked them, they are really good.