The German Standard – Or Is It the Standard German?…

Don’t worry, I am not going to bore you with yet another foray into ISO Quality Management, DIN-Standards, TÜV or the like. But it still doesn’t hurt to stay a little giddy (where’s that glass of rosé?) for this (literally) serious topic.

As you all probably know, a cultural standard is the specific and fairly consistent way a group of people perceive and interpret reality; the way they think, feel, relate and behave – how they make sense of their lives and environments and how they typically act in certain situations.

So what are the Germans like, as a culture? What are the values they endorse and sanction, what is their cultural standard? And how can you expect the standard German to think, feel and act/react about work, family, time, space, communication, etc.?

According to Schroll-Machl (Die Deutschen – Wir Deutsche, 2002), the German cultural standard is best represented by the following 7 pillars:

1. Factual and task orientation – The task at hand, getting results, discussing facts is more important than relationships and emotional involvement does not signal competence, are not welcome and should not be displayed freely. A focus on facts and tasks often results in “flatter” hierarchies, where the specialist or expert receives a higher status even though he may be in a lower hierarchical position in the organisation.

2. Direct communication – Honesty is a huge plus, duplicity is not liked and actually quite despised. Germans prefer to communicate in a way that is polite, yet direct and leaves no room for misinterpretation. The most important things are specified verbally in a clear way. Beating about the bush and innuendo is often not understood (as is the case with certain jokes, too). Conflicts are addressed openly on a factual level. Verbal assertiveness, analysis and criticism are positive values.

3. Structure, rules and regulations are valued and seen as a good uncertainty/anxiety reduction mechanism. (They increase predictability and decrease the room for error, they help plan the future) – Structure and rules generate a sense of direction, clarity and security. They are considered the best way to solve a problem, or better yet, to avoid it. Germans will spend a lot of time thinking about details and all possible outcomes or consequences of an action before actually taking it. They are, however, ill-equipped to deal with sudden changes and atypical situations. Breaking the rules is always punished. Foreigners sometimes perceive this as too rigid, “lacking in imagination” or “following blindly”.

4. Individualism – For all its social policies and programs, Germany is a highly individualistic society, with relatively weak family ties. Caring for others is not very high on the value scale, and together with directness and task-orientation, this can make Germany seem a pretty masculine, cold and tough place, especially for those coming from Eastern, Southern or Latin cultures. Warmer natures tend to interpret Germany as “pretty heartless” or “a place without poetry”. Individuals (including children) expect and enjoy a high degree of personal freedom and privacy. Building personal relationships in the workplace can be hard sometimes.

5. Self-control – A free flow of (intense) emotion in public is extremely rare and not desirable. Intrinsic motivation is considered the engine of performance and reliability is paramount. You will not hear plates breaking and flowerpots flying through the air when Germans have arguments. I can still remember an older neighbor telling me about how “temperamental” her late husband used to be during their fights. It turns out all he did was say “Leave me alone!” and slam the door (a little).

6. Rigorous time management and planning – Time is considered a valuable asset and it is planned in detail, even at home. Germany is a monochronic culture, meaning that it has a linear understanding of time as an axis, and people always do one thing after another, without multitasking or simultaneously attending to several tasks. This becomes quickly (and sometimes painfully) apparent with German sales people, who will have no problem ignoring new customers until they are absolutely finished with the previous one – and that can take a while. Good time management is considered a quality.

7. A clear separation between work and personal life – Compartmentalization is a feature of the German way of thinking. The workplace is a space of cold reason, facts, formal roles and results. Emotions are relegated to the private settings, within couples and in the families. Although more and more Germans complain about receiving phone calls from work during vacation or in the evenings, this is by no means the rule. Private time usually stays private.

In the hope of having demystified at least some aspects of life in Germany, I wish you a great evening… und einen schönen Feierabend! (ok, perhaps you’d like to grab a wheat beer now, instead of that initial rosé…)

Other sources: Angloher, Astrid – MASCR.

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