Sugar-coated and dishonest or overly assertive and rude?

    Business Spotlight 11/2021
    an illustration of a man holding a tray with a sign of a hand with the middle finger up on it
    © Kreangagirl, Allure Graphic Design, RobinOlimb/
    Von Professor Peter Franklin

    Some 15 years into my stay in Germany, I was to be due to do sth.etw. tun sollendue to go on a business trip with a German colleague, who was also a friend. We were on the phone arranging which train we should take to Düsseldorf airport. I told him there was one at 10.35. “You’re wrong,” he replied in German. His directness was a bit much for my tenderzart, empfindlich; hier: harte Töne nicht gewöhnttender English ears. I had the timetable in my hands and, having interpreted the symbols and read the footnotes, I was sure I was right. And, after all, we were friends. 

    Although I was beginning to get used to the assertivenessBestimmtheitassertiveness with which disagreement (and other speech intentions) tended to be expressed in German, I was more than a bit miffedverstimmtmiffed by what he had said. Or, rather, how he had said it. Perhaps I was having a bad day. Or perhaps not. Whatever. From my point of view, the directness of the disagreement had brought unnecessary “turbulence” into the relationship, as Helen Spencer-Oatey’s rapportharmonisches VerhältnisRapport Management Theory (RMT) describes it. Rapport had been damaged, although I wouldn’t have used that term at the time.

    This directness, nothing exceptional in German, is a featureMerkmalfeature of what interculturalists call low-context communication. And it led me to feel I had lost face — that I hadn’t been treated by a colleague and friend in a way that to pay due respect to sth.etw. gebührend respektierenpaid due respect to my competence at what was, after all, not a particularly demanding action. 

    Rapport Management Theory points out that we need to pay particular attention to, amongst other things, the face sensitivityhier: Höflichkeitsempfindungface sensitivity of the other party (see my column on this topic in Business Spotlight 7/2021). How to be sensitive to sth.sensibel auf etw. reagierensensitive are you to losing face, and what things are you especially face-sensitive about? This varies from person to person. And it may be that, for most Germans, I was reacting a little oversensitively to this expression of disagreement by my German colleague. And this is precisely where culturally influenced preferences come in.

    English country culture is well known for preferring indirect language in many contexts. Imagine my colleague had been English. How could he have expressed his disagreement without to offend sth.etw. verletzenoffending my “oversensitive” face regarding competence in a relatively simple skill? He could have expressed it more tentativelyversuchsweise; hier: vorsichtig, indirekttentatively: “I’m not sure you are right.” He could have avoided the word “you”, thus removing me as the overtoffenkundigovert cause of the mistake: “Is that right?” Or, he could have given me face by showing understanding before threatening my face and expressing his disagreement: “I know you are stressed out because time is running out, but could you just check that time again?”

    For Germans and bluffraubeinig; hier: direktbluffer English people, allegedlyangeblichallegedly located in the north of the country, this preference for indirectness needs some getting used to. It also requires interpretation by those unfamiliar with the English language and culture. “What did the person mean?” is the question that needs to be asked as well as “What did the person say?” As an English colleague once remarked to me, when a Brit says he has “a bit of a problem”, you need to find out how big the “bit” is: it could be big, it could be small.

    What drives this preference for directness or indirectness? When I ask German managers why they prefer to communicate directly and explicitly (if they do), they generally mention three reasons: it is quick and allows them to get things done; it is clear and reduces ambiguityDoppel-, Mehrdeutigkeitambiguity and misunderstanding; and, after some reflection, they often say directness is honest. Research by Sylvia Schroll-Machl confirms this insightErkenntnisinsight. The English will say their frequent preference for indirectness is because it is polite. 

    How do the two sides evaluate the style of the other if they don’t like it? The English negative evaluation of German directness is often that it is “overly assertivebestimmt, durchsetzungsfähigassertive” and “rudeunhöflichrude”. The most extreme German negative evaluation of English indirectness is that it is “dishonest” or, less judgementallywertend; hier auch: missbilligendjudgementally, “sugar-coatedmit Zucker überzogen; hier: weichgespült, schöngefärbtsugar-coated” (weichgespült, as one German manager contemptuouslyverächtlichcontemptuously described it to me).

    I wonder whether my German colleague and friend realized that I thought he had been rude. My preference for indirectness prevented me from telling him honestly what I thought.

    Low-context and high-context communication

    Low-context communication is characterized by the direct and explicit expression of meaning, a reliance on words rather than non-verbal signals, an emphasisBetonung, Akzentemphasis on detail and exactness, and a valuing of written texts. Such a communication style is valued as showing honesty. Country cultures typically to display sth.hier: etw. aufweisendisplaying low-context communication behaviour include Israel, the Netherlands and Germany. 

    Extreme low-context communication is at one end of a continuumhier: Spektrumcontinuum. At the other end is extreme high-context communication, in which much meaning is to imply sth.etw. andeutenimplied by the speaker and to infer sth.etw. schlussfolgern, ableiteninferred by the listener, and less is expressed explicitly. Such a style is valued as being harmonious and polite.

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