Germans don’t care for sandwiches

A while ago, my friend Susanne emailed me a link to this article as we talk about different feedback cultures quite a lot. “Ah, my old friend, the sandwich approach!” I emailed back. If you are a faithful reader of my blog, you might remember two previous articles (Without Compliments and “But I told you!”) which mentioned the approach and some German reactions to it. The article Susanne now sent to me was an interesting read from an intercultural perspective as it gave a very German (and very exclusively German) viewpoint on why the sandwich approach is a “communication madness”. This German viewpoint might enlighten some expatriates working with or for Germans as to why Germans don’t care for the sandwich approach.

As you might remember from previous posts, Germans, just like Sheldon Cooper, are not good at reading between the lines. The German way of communication strives (like the Germans themselves) for maximum efficiency and clarity. We say what we mean and we say it without beating about the bush. Therefore, Germans are simply not accustomed to look for indirect messages. If one is not accustomed to look for them, if one grew up in a culture that almost completely works without them – well, then one doesn’t always get the hidden message. The article (remember: German perspective) calls using indirect communication by mixing criticism with praise a “game of confusion”. If one knows the rules of the game, it works well. If one doesn’t even know a game is being played…well, imagine playing hide and seek with someone who doesn’t know you are playing hide and seek you will be cowering in your hiding place for ever.

An important issue with regard to this is the different perception of direct and indirect in cultures. I have many training participants who assure me that they are direct communicators, and in their country they might very well be. That does not necessarily mean that this person is direct by German standards. Remember, Germans are the most direct communicators in the world. So if you are from a more indirect culture, give negative feedback to a German (or a person from a country with direct communication) and then get annoyed that said person does not improve the criticized behaviour – don’t get angry, don’t fire the person (good luck with that in Germany anyway 😉 ). It might be a good first step to check your communication methods and see if there is a chance that the feedback recipient simply wasn’t aware of any behaviour being criticized. You would be surprised how often different feedback cultures can lead to major misunderstandings and career problems!

Another important issue mentioned in the article is the attitude towards receiving feedback. The article very decisively – almost emotionally – states that of course adults can take criticism and that it would be insulting to imply otherwise by using the sandwich approach. There are many cultures who would find this shocking and heartless. Keeping face is a major concept in many cultures using indirect communication. That is not to say that adults in other cultures can’t take criticism – but a lot depends on how this criticism is delivered. Whereas Germans often consider it belittling and dishonest to phrase criticism in an overly careful way, many other cultures would consider it hurtful and actually destructive to phrase criticism in a direct manner. “This was bad work, you need to change x and y,” is quick and efficient, leaves no questions. Very German. Germans will not be dancing with joy when they get this feedback, but they won’t consider it inappropriate (provided that the feedback is justified, of course). Many other cultures would consider it unnecessary hurtful, rude. For them the message “I appreciate all the time and dedication you gave to your work. It is overall good, but maybe you could look at changing x and y” is just as clear as the above message to a German, but far less hurtful. We have the German “why waste time and be dishonest?”-approach colliding with the indirect “why not take a few extra seconds to let everyone keep face and nurture the relationship?”-approach of many other cultures.
So, if you are working with Germans or people from other direct cultures, it might be good to remember that the sandwich approach can be considered dishonest or even belittling.

The article even – again very decisively – states that an indirect approach is ineffective – even “absolutely absurd” in a critical situation. It is stated that the conversation partner needs to understand what is said. It implies that indirect communication is equivalent to unclear communication. Again, a very German point. Content over style.This emphasizes the points mentioned above: German culture wants communication to convey a message quickly and clearly. If there is need to interprete a statement, that means 1) loss of time and 2) possibility of uncertainty. We Germans don’t care too much for either.

It might be helpful to remember this when working with Germans or for Germans. If you know enough German, I would recommend reading the article – it is rather concise and I think the wording shows the German perspective very well. The advice given at the end – if you want to give both praise and criticism, state at the beginning that there will be both and that you will start with the praise – is also very German, giving the implication that otherwise one might not be able to read between the lines as to what is praise and what is criticism. It could, however, also be a good guideline for those who find the direct German way of giving feedback too harsh, but also want to ensure that they are understood by their German conversation partner. At the end of my “But I told you!” post, I also have some tips on how to give and receive feedback when talking with someone who has a different communication style.


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