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German vs. US Communication Styles: Dr. Ellen Moran of Leadership Dialogues

Dr. Ellen Moran

Cultural communication assumptions can short-circuit or advance business deals. St. Louis-based Dr. Ellen Moran demonstrates how German vs. American assumptions differ and how to integrate questions, statements and listening that forward the action in both directions. The same methods can be applied when interacting with other countries or even with M&A when meshing two different corporate cultures, whether domestic or foreign.

Highlights:

Ellen’s journey

Difference between the Swiss and German versions of the German Language

How to get input from managers from lower levels and employees.

The top-down German approach vs the American approach.

The problem with the German word “influence”

Dr. Ellen Moran Bio:

Dr. Ellen Moran is a St. Louis-based business psychologist and executive coach certified by the International Coach Federation as well as a speaker and facilitator. Speaking good conversational German, she works with leaders of major companies and their teams, both in the US and abroad – primarily in Germany and Switzerland – to create collaborative conversations, cultures, and work climates …. because even though words are correct, people may still not connect. Her main focus is to equip business leaders to spark employees’ creativity and connection to the business mission and purpose.

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Full Transcript

Hello everyone! Since today’s guest speaks very good conversational German and has worked a lot with Germans, I thought it would be appropriate to do a blooper from Germany.

This was a sign in the Black Forest where it said –  and what I’m about to read to you is a shortened version of this sign – which states in English that, “it is strictly forbidden on our Black Forest camping site that people of different sexes, for example, men and women, to live together in one tent unless they are married for this purpose.” So, there you have it. 

Today’s guest is Dr. Ellen Moran. 

Ellen is a business psychologist and executive coach certified by the International Coach Federation, as well as a speaker and facilitator. She speaks good conversational German, and she works with leaders of major companies, and their teams both in the US and abroad, primarily in Germany and Switzerland, to create collaborative conversations, cultures, and work climates. Because even though the words may be correct, people may still not connect. Her main focus is to equip business leaders to spark employees’ creativity in connection with the business mission and purpose. 

Welcome, Ellen. We’re thrilled to have you with us.

Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.

So before we begin, perhaps you could tell us a bit about your background, how you gained your doctorate and different degrees in psychology, and how you became the professional that you are.

Sure, my father was a physician, and so I came by the whole idea that professions like that and professions of service were important. And I found in college that I had a real affinity for psychology, even over biology as well as medical matters. 

During that time, I was in college, I also had an abiding interest in my roots. My maiden name was Gutenkauf which is very German, and my grandmothers on both sides had told me stories, some from Germany and some from Switzerland, about different experiences, and this kind of put me on fire, so this was the second sort of passion of mine.

And when I was 19, I had the opportunity to go to an immersion language school in Cologne, Germany. For three months, I was in classes with people from every other country imaginable. But we could only have German as our common language, and I lived with a German family. 

So out of that experience, I came out speaking pretty good conversational German. I continued with my psychology studies and got an assistantship at graduate school; I was going into clinical psychology but was determined to get back to Germany.

Through a story that’s much too long to tell, I wound up getting an assistantship in the clinical psychology department at the University of Munich through some German professors I met in Chicago. When I arrived, the professors decided that because I spoke good conversational German, they should give me their journal articles and see if they couldn’t be translated and published in American journals. 

The first of these words from the chair of the department, translated into English, is “psychoanalytic observations on belief and unbelief. ” The others were just as obtuse, so I had to tell them this is not what they were going to get from me being there. They were not sure what to do with me. 

All the other members were PhDs because the woman in charge of my office was out of the office on sabbatical. So I wrote on a small sign  “Hier wird Amerikanisch gesprochen”  or “American spoken here.” Because they distinguish UK English from American English. 

German society is very hierarchical, even at the university level. At a certain point, the professor became the head of the department and decided that he didn’t want to teach the course in neuroses that he was supposed to teach. He wanted to teach anthropology, which was his love, so he assigned each one of the professors to write a paper on it. I was then asked to carry these into the lecture hall, and what ensued was a competition.

So first I had to mimeograph them and then carry them in so that I could sell this content for a Mark 15, with them having their content and him talking about anthropology.

Each week, my box became heavier because each professor decided to make one that was just a little better and a little denser than the one before it. They didn’t quite know what to do with me because of several things, so they gave me a diminutive and turned my name into Gutenkaüfschen but then we all would use the formal form of “Sie” [formal “you”]. 

So that was a pretty fun time. I came back then and finished my degree in clinical psychology, and I was disappointed to find out that that was the year that the German exam was no longer required as an entrance requirement.

A German language exam?

A German language exam. Yes, you had to take a foreign language exam, but it was no longer required at that time.

 So, I continued with my work in clinical psychology, received my Ph.D., worked for the juvenile court for a while, and also did some work in pre-sentence investigations. Once I was out on my own, I was asked to give some testimony in a couple of capital murder cases. And that’s what pretty much made me decide that I no longer wanted to do that kind of work because it seemed like everyone was trying to do it, whether it was the defense or the prosecution. Shaping my testimony aided them in obtaining the desired result. 

I continued with that until I was on a soccer field with one of my three children playing. Someone came up and told me about these marvelous psychologists who were helping him find a new job through outplacement. And I said, “What’s outplacement?” But because I did a lot of testing and was curious, about a month later I was interviewing at an outplacement firm – Drake Beam Morin – and decided that I liked this kind of work. 

I could be more of myself. And there were a whole number of reasons why people weren’t able to make it in the jobs they’d had, and some of them had to do with culture fit issues or being the wrong person. They were simply the wrong person for the job, and when you interviewed them, they would begin by saying, “When I was in high school, my guidance counselor said, “you’re good at this, so you should do it. You should think about this.”

So, it was fascinating to see how, when people got psychological testing, they were able to see other careers that might be better for them given their characteristics. And they frequently found positions that were far superior to the ones they had previously.

Let me pause there for a moment because this is fascinating. But in the interest of time, that leads to some other questions.

Sure. 

So, since you’re talking about psychology and fitness and so forth, I know that you’ve worked both with Germans and with Swiss. Could you give us some examples of differences or similarities between the Germans and the Swiss? Many Americans think, because the Swiss may speak German as well, that they’re all alike, and that’s not quite true.

Well, it’s not true at all. The first major difference is the language itself. 

If you speak High German or regular German, you may understand about half. The Swiss, if you’re lucky, will have something to say about it, because their form of German is very melodic and there are very, very different words that are used in one engagement, they kind of had fun with me. I was over in Switzerland, and it was a breakout room, and they said, “Do we have to use High German?” I said OK, go ahead [and use Swiss German], and so as I listened to it, I thought I got about 50% of it. And then they looked at me, smiling, and I said, “Well, from the part of it I got, this is what I think the issue is for you,” and then it was, “Oh, I guess she got the right part.” 

The other thing that I’ve noticed that’s a little different is that the Germans seem to be a bit more direct in their communication, and what I’ve noticed often in talking with them is that they’ll punctuate their sentences at the end with the word “Klar?,” meaning is it clear or is that clear? 

So, they want to be sure that you have gotten the right message, and it has been crystal clear what they were saying. One thing I’ve noticed recently is that there are differences between northern and southern Germans even within Germany. Again, they have an unflattering phrase for the northern Germans, which dates back to the Prussian days, and they say they would “Saupreussen.”

And what does that mean?

A Pig Prussian.

OK.

Yeah, and the Bavarians are frequently portrayed as people who resemble what we would call “hayseeds,” right? Yeah, so that difference exists even within Germany. There is one in various locations.

That’s fascinating. 

Linguistic and personality differences.

Other guests have said that in general, Germany is perceived to be a bit more rigid: a society with a top-down management structure, which means that the boss decides the direction and what to do, and so forth. 

Other managers are to implement what the boss says to do. Your work is a lot more about collaboration, which involves the participation and input of managers from lower levels and employees. 

How do you reconcile these two styles?

When I do the reconciliation, it helps managers. Leadership development programs help them see the value of that.

Now what you’ll find sometimes is that country culture is not as important as company culture because there’s been a sort of homogenization of certain practices, particularly those that have been adopted with a strong US influence, and so those will have a bit more of that. But in my example of the university department, that was very hierarchical: This is what you’ll do. 

Another distinction I would make between them is their formality. And an engagement I had with a German colleague, also a psychologist, was that we were to deliver 360-degree feedback reports to a group of German executives there, and I was hoping we would then do that for the Americans as well. 

The night before, we got together, and we were just trying to get my colleague and ourselves coordinated, and he looked at the 360-degree feedback and said, “Ellen, this won’t work.” And I said, “Why not?” He said, “Well, these are the phrases at the end, and you know the comments that people make. They aren’t full sentences. They’re only partial sentences. “Sometimes,” I explained, “Well, Wolfgang. You know, we just do what they write, and he said Yes, Philip, but added that if there are mistakes in the text, they may think the whole thing is not to be believed.” And I said, “Well, OK for both.”

This was in English, is that right?

We were talking in English. 

Well, we were going back and forth and ending, but we were going to be presenting in German to these German executives.

OK, yeah. 

So and so was thinking about his audience and saying, “This isn’t going to work.” So finally I said, “Well, Wolfgang, I’m not from your culture, so if this is what you think needs to be done, I’ll defer to you.” And I said, “Well, what do you think you’ll have to do?” And he said, “Well, I’ll have to go home and retype this.” “Well, how much do you think this is off?” and he said “About 5%”

I said, “Nah.” And he said, “You Americans, you’re so pragmatic.” All right, we’ll just go with it the way it is. So, what about the next day? He has gone completely chill. And so we’re having these conversations. He’s pleasant; he’s easy, and he goes on longer than the allotted time. We had four of these to do in one day, and so after about the second one, I said, Wolfgang, I’m concerned that we’re not going to get finished. With all he said, yeah, I think that’s probably right. Ellen, we’ll probably have to take one of them in the next day. And he said this to me in German, “Who’s the German now?” Because I was more concerned about getting things done on time and so forth. 

So, it was a very interesting kind of back and forth in that regard.

That’s very interesting. 

Thank you. Again, the participatory approach outperforms the top-down approach and is more American, whereas the top-down approach is more German. Do you find that German companies are open to the more participatory American style? I believe that’s basically what you’re coaching.

Well, that’s right. 

And that’s why recently—and this happened entirely by chance— I ran into a few German executives who were walking in our neighborhood because their hotel is close to the company. That has been the acquired company, and so they were over here to do some work in the supply chain.

Because I spoke German and we went back and forth. It started to loosen up, and we started talking about the differences between Germans and Americans. I said, “You know, the Germans are much more oriented toward thinking about what is true and what could be the problem with something, whereas the Americans are much more proactive and say, Let’s try it out and see how it works, and much more options are oriented in that way. 

And she made an interesting comment to me. She said that when she tried to get information from the Americans over there, they were always so Blumisch/Blumig which means flowery, and from her point of view, Americans weren’t really direct about what they thought about something but would try and couch it a little bit and be a little nicer. 

This happened with Wolfgang and me when we had to write the reports from the 360 feedback. Once he sent me his, I wrote two in English, and he wrote two in German. And then we would translate the other one. And when I saw what he had written, I wrote back to him, Wolfgang, and we would say in English, “Did you have razor blades for breakfast?” I thought it was so critical, and he thought that mine was not quite as direct as it needed to be to make the point.

Would you give some examples of how the Germans would say something in German versus how the Americans would say something in English?

Well, the Germans would be just as direct in their statement. This is the way it is.

The American…

How would they criticize a person, for example?

Yes, I hope they’re right when they criticize. Well, he has issues with this; you knowEr hat ein Problem mit Zuhören.” which means, “he has problems with listening,” and the Americans might say, “Well, you know, it could be… He seems to have some potential problems with hearing”, and as a result, it would be couched in the subjunctive rather than stated directly.

Right for the passive voice. Yes, it appears that way.

Well, here’s where I got the sense from these others that Americans, rather than saying that this is a real problem and we’re annoyed by it, they say, some people might feel offended by that. The Germans need a distinction—and it’s like, “Are they or aren’t they?” That’s what they want to know. Just be clear. 

That’s fascinating; thank you. 

In your bio, you talked about hidden motivators that might trigger communication. Can you elaborate on what that might mean?

Sure, in any circumstance. We are looking at the situation through our motivational filters, and we’re expecting certain things. And when that doesn’t come, someone expresses it in the opposite language. It can create discord and so forth, even though there’s no hostility whatsoever in it. 

So, for example, an American might be talking about this wonderful idea and how it would be great, and all the things we could accomplish with it, and so forth. Meanwhile, the German counterpart may be considering what might go wrong that they aren’t discussing.

And thus, they might say, “Well, there could be a problem with this, and I see a problem.” Immediately, they get polarized. And so, in one person’s mind, you wouldn’t be saying that and being so confident if you thought things through. The Americans might be thinking you really are a wet blanket and you’re always trying to find a problem with something, right? 

But they’re just expressing it differently, so one of the things I teach people is what we call influencing language. So, if you want the other person to hear you out, you need to express it in their language. So, for example, if the German person – and I’m just stereotyping them for the sake of this program – is what we’d all recognize in our colleagues, isn’t that what we’d all recognize in our colleagues? 

But, you might say, “Well, you know, I see where you’re going with this.” And if you want to get there, what have you considered about this, and what have you considered about other things? That’s a way of beginning to raise the issue, but it’s still much more in goal language.

I’m sorry, and you said the “goal” language. Is that correct?

So, we’re moving toward a goal or away from a problem. Now, on the other side, if the person is very concerned about all the problems they have, you might say, “Well, yes, those certainly are problems, but there’s probably a bigger problem if we don’t consider this.” So now we’re still talking in problem language, but we’re getting our point across. In this manner, it can enter and be heard.

So, there are a number of these motivational patterns that are commonly used. If something has gone wrong, I just ask people to tell me about the conversation. What did you say? What did that person say? And often I can find where the motivational triggers are opposite each other and then say, “If you would just say it this way, that would be easier.” 

Sometimes it’s easier for me to do it for cultures, and I’ll just say, “In this culture, do people like to get moving and make something happen?” Or do they like to think it through first and be sure that they have everything considered before they move forward? 

And so I just go this way and that way: In this culture, is it important to set goals and go after them to meet them, or is it more important to prevent any potential problems? Is it more important in this culture to have things carefully laid out step by step, or is it more important to have a lot of options that people can tell you about? If you phrase it that way, what’s going on I was just discussing before is that the Germans were more reactive, they want it thought through before they take action. And the Americans are ready to give it a try.

It also reminds me of the Asian but Muslim concepts of “saving face.” It’s also Latin American. It’s not so much in the United States. 

The idea of thinking things through and coming up with a solution in advance before you speak is often recommended as a way that face-saving cultures would operate.

I once had the opportunity to coach someone who was working with his Japanese team and was brought over to be the coach/leader, and he had been there for a little while and was telling me the colors.

Was this person American or Japanese?

is American, and he was assuming that he would be brought over into this global company to be one of these guys.

We worked with the Japanese team.

Yes, and he both complained to me that he was trying to be very inclusive and collaborative. As you previously stated, he brought up a specific topic and asked if anyone had anything to say about it, which was, of course, crickets. 

First and foremost, in Japanese culture, you don’t have your own opinion if it might contradict what the bosses think, and if they can’t know, it’s a little risky to do so. 

And secondly, you’ve asked it in a very options-oriented way: what are the different kinds of problems could there be? And that culture seems to be more procedural and step-by-step. So, if you want to generate ideas, one thing I would suggest is that you first give them a direction. I’d like you to think about something that didn’t work well and that you think could be improved. And after you’ve thought about it, you know, write it down, and then we’ll go around the room, and I’ll have each of you tell us what it is that you think could have been done differently. 

That might give them enough to eat … filters of being deferential, or what we call “external,” to the boss. And procedural to respond because sometimes we’ll say things that, because they don’t compute, can’t even go in. 

We don’t get it.

That’s fascinating. Thank you very much. 

Before we began, you were talking about the German word “influence” and how that’s not a good word to use in German, so perhaps you could elaborate on that because it’s similar to what you’re just talking about.

Yeah, this was a case in which I was working with a German colleague, and we were delivering a leadership development program for this global team, and I was teaching this methodology that I’ve just been demonstrating here as part of the curriculum for them so that they could communicate better with people above them, below them, and so forth. 

And in English, we would talk about this as being more influential and having the competency of influence. And when I went on about this, one of them finally said, “Ellen, we’re not going to do that.” They stated that wasn’t right. And I said, “Well, tell me more about that.” Later, I found out that the word “Einfluss,” which is the direct translation, is associated with manipulation and the Hitler era. And so there would have to be a different word used to make it more neutral, even though that would probably be the first translation from English to German. 

And what word do they use instead?

They said you’d be difficult to persuade and would be more palatable. and I ran into that twice. The second time I was ready for it, so I said, “Well, let’s have a conversation about motivation, influence, and manipulation.”

It’s very interesting.

And what are the distinctions among those, and how do you know them?

That’s fascinating because, of course, that’s a lot of factors in German history. Recent German history.

Yes, yes.

One of the other issues that you’ve stated in your bio and the introduction is that words may be correct, but people may still not “connect,” and I think that’s a wonderful way of saying it, and I think you’ve illustrated that. 

Is there anything else you’d like to elaborate about that one?

There are a number of those that we have, so how much change is there? For example, this can be a big one. In mergers and acquisitions, this is particularly fraught. And they’re complicated in a couple of ways. 

For starters, because the acquirer has a certain culture, they expect people to just go along with it because it’s better. Well, and so we call this being internal. Making the decision based on your internal factors. The other culture may believe that they have been doing things well and that there is no reason why they should not continue, resulting in a clash because both are in internal mode and expect the other to defer and say, Oh, you’re right. 

This is a huge undertaking, so you know it’s almost a recipe for disaster, at least until you spend the time understanding the culture, saying what’s important to you in this situation, and learning a lot of their language. You’re not going to be that effective, but once you get a lot of their language, their rationale, and their standards, you can offer your suggestions or your thoughts within the framework of their language and the way they see the world. 

And so that becomes hugely important, and it can be so subtle in terms of just the expectation that I’m in charge or that I know more about this. And so, you will defer to me. With the change, if the person who’s coming in is the change agent, we’ll almost always use another language by default, or we’re going to transform this. Things will be very different and go very well.

If culture or the culture of any company is any indication, people have been doing things the same way for a long time. Then they have a pattern of similarity. They’re looking for, how is this similar to what I already know, and what happens the moment they hear this? All of this talk about transformational change They get terrified because they have no idea what this means. 

So, you’re going to bring in someone to be a change agent. They’ll tear up the pea patch with the opposite language from the culture, then return to the people who hired them and say, “You never told me they were this resistant.”

That’s true. That’s very funny and very true.

Do you find that this is the same in the United States and Germany or Europe, or are there other cultural factors involved as well?

Well, some of the larger-scale cultural factors that we’ve talked about can be involved, and so you’d want to be aware if you’re going to talk with someone who is German, first and foremost, you want to do something that either equalizes us or says, “You know, I’m wondering if you’re thinking the same way about this.”

However, the simplest way is to say it both ways and say, “You know, here is a goal that we have, and we have thought through some of the risks that might be involved.” So now they can hear you because you’ve mentioned risk, and you’re not scary in person. Right? 

“You know, there are some things that some of you will notice as a change, while others will notice nothing has changed. We’re still dedicated to customer service. We still have these values, so you can bring in change, but you’ve connected with them.”

It’s on a person-to-person basis, regardless of the culture. Because some people may differ, you simply listen to how they’re speaking and explain what you want to say in both motivational triggers and styles, and they’ll take the one that goes in, and you won’t necessarily break rapport.

That’s marvelous. Thank you. That’s extremely insightful and very beneficial. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add before we conclude?

Only that which became clear to me when I was first learning German as a language. One of the statements I heard from someone was that when you learn another language, you acquire another soul.

Certainly. A new way of thinking.

Another way of thinking was incorporated into the term “soul,” and it is extremely beneficial to people. I believe it is critical to understand that there is more than one way of thinking. I will still read online German newspapers to see how we’re perceived over here and to see that there’s another way of looking at it. 

And I think because we’ve had only borders with Canada and Mexico, we’ve had no impetus to learn other languages and see things from other people’s perspectives. And even if you’re reading it in English, I think getting the perspective of other countries can be enormously valuable.

Very much so, as is international travel as you well know.

Exactly. 

Thank you so much. This has been a conversation with Dr. Ellen Moran. Fascinating. 

Ellen is based in St. Louis, and her information will be in the podcast information. I look forward to seeing you all next week for another edition of Global Gurus and their stories of international business. Thank you. 

Thank you, Philip.

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