Cultural learning and our minds

Cultural differences influence how German and U.S. teams think and operate – 3 implications for your Expat life

How often do you reflect on your behavior in the context of your cultural background?

How does your cultural background influence your thinking and discussing styles?

It’s never too late to start thinking about this tis topic.
If you have never noticed big differences in your own environment, the following study results will convince you that different thinking and reasoning styles, formed by cultural backgrounds, can foster misunderstandings in international teams, if they are not reflected and integrated.

One big problem for international assignments is that a substantial number of expatriates prematurely terminate their assignment or experience performance issues due to cultural and adaption difficulties (take a look at the article about culture shock). Therefore, we should never miss valuable opportunities for self-discovery as well as learning about others and validating other’s strategies.

How good are you at embracing cultural distinctions, even when they challenge you? Adaption and working together in an international team can be a fascinating cultural odyssey.

When research results are consistens with your own personal experience…

My approach includes proactively identifying potential issues to mitigate them during the process. Admittedly, this reflects a typical German thinking style (as you will learn below). Does this align with your thinking style as well? Probably, that is exactly why I find the study about thinking and discussion styles in German and U.S. American students highly valuable. The results pinpoint some typical topics my clients bring to me. They also reflect some of my personal experiences.

Comparing German and U.S. thinking and discussion styles

Three international universities, the University of Nebraska in Omaha (USA), the VU University Amsterdam (the Netherlands), and the TU Braunschweig (Germany) aimed at better understanding behavioral patterns in discussion groups and conducted this intriguing study comparing U.S. American and German students1. In total, the interactions of 30 discussion teams, comprising 73 U.S. American students in 15 U.S. teams and 52 German students in 17 German teams, respectively, were analyzed. Each team was given the same task and asked to carefully read and discuss it until consensus was reached.

Here is what they found:

Finding 1: Problem Solving Analysis vs. Solution Production

German teams focused more on problem solving analysis while U.S. teams prioritized solution production.

Let me give you some examples to help you better grasp this difference:

One significant finding was that German students displayed a greater preference for acquiring additional background information. They frequently used if-then clauses in their discussion to gain a deeper understanding of the problem. For instance, a sentence like “If he was just average then I wouldn’t advise him to go to University X”2 illustrates such a clause.

In general, Germans tended to prefer clarity over uncertainty, which is in line with findings of  Germans scoring higher on what is known as the Uncertainty Avoidance Index3.

Americans, on the other hand, more often neglected the absence of information leaned towards presenting potential solution statements. They appeared to be less afraid of uncertainty. To achieve this, participants from the American groups put forward more suggestions than their German counterparts, such as “I would advise him to go for the gusto”4.

Finding 2: Discussion Structure

German teams demonstrated a greater need for strcture and almost 2x as many behaviors dedicated to define it.

In detail, this means that Germans used more communication to structure the procedures, like “Well, who wants to start” or “So should we just start at the beginning, and everyone says what they think is the right answer?”4.

Have you also experienced that structure can be so important in German’s reasoning processes?

Expat Coaching Sarah Eisenacher - How our culture influences our thinking and discussion styles

Finding 3: Social and emotional interaction

U.S. American teams displayed more social and emotional behavior, like encourage-ments, or positive feedback.

Making other people feel good in discussions and also creating a positive self-image has been defined as an American characteristic before5. Instead of saying “That’s true, okay, that is a good point”4, Germans more often said sentences that depicted the truth like “No, I don’t think that would be enough for me” in the student discussion groups4.

Finding 4: Counteractive behavior

Counteractive meeting behavior, such as verbalizing negative statements, was more common in German teams.

Is that a common prejudice that you have heard about Germans before?

Counteractive behavior can be any communication that focuses on the negative, for example complaining, seeking someone to blame, trying to end the discussion early. German discussion teams in the study made expressions like “That’s an unrealistic question anyway” “This is way hard”.6

Both findings, 3 and 4, mirror the significance of direct and clear communication as  common in German teams and more socially accepted for individuals with a German cultural background.

Applying knowledge about our background to enhance resilience

My psychological work involves reflecting risks to my client’s well-being. Misunderstandings, problematic flows in meeting situation, being isolated with one’s thinking style, and team conflicts definitely pose a high risk potential for expat’s well-being and job performance. And while the results of the study are of course very prototypical and not universally applicable, they yet offer important implications. As a psychologist, I know that having terms for a recognized cultural differences can already be immensely supportive and validating.

Our own life has to be our message.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Implications

Three implications that can be drawn from the results

1) Cultural differences in meeting behavior significantly impact discussions. Investing in comprehensive training to raise the awareness and foster understanding of intercultural differences in teams, as well as improving reactions to differences, is crucial. The training should be tailored and country-specific to raise awareness of behavior and thought patterns associated with the most prevalent cultures in one’s company. This knowledge will help us focus on cumulative advantages for the daily business operations.

2) While global teams encourage diverse interaction, providing targeted training can reduce misunderstandings and unintended conflicts. For example, in German-U.S. American teams, balancing problem-focused and solution-focused approaches will need a well-defined plan. Likewise, differences in need for structure or emotional input, and social dynamics can cause conflicting feelings.

3) To enhance alignment, it’s essential to confirm shared goals and provide explicit validation to team members throughout the process. Additionally, the study authors encourage regular team reflections of meeting interaction. Systematically reviewing past meetings can enhance mindfulness and cultural sensitivity to facilitate a smoother exchange of ideas.

Starting with self-reflection, proceeding with team work

Changing strategies and improving social interaction always starts with self-reflection. By acknowledging our own cultural biases and being open to understanding others, we pave the way for more successful global collaborations. This in turn will help stabilizing our personal well-being, satisfaction, and resilience. Let’s get  started with the fascination of the cultural odyssey.enjoying movie nights with films from your childhood.

    If you’re in need of guidance and support as you navigate the challenges of expatriation and culture shock, don’t hesitate to reach out. As a coach specialized in this area, I’m here to provide assistance and help you thrive in your new cultural environment. Feel free to contact me to explore how I can support you on your expatriation journey.

    Hi, I am Sarah.  It is my passion to learn and teach about human thinking, emotions, and behavior.

    Sarah Eisenacher

    Expat Coach and Psychologist (PhD)

    References

    1 Lehmann-Willenbrock, N., Allen, J. A., & Meinecke, A. L. (2014). Observing culture: Differences in U.S.-American and German team meeting behaviors. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 17(2), 252-271. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430213497066

    2 Lehmann-Willenbrock, N., Allen, J. A., & Meinecke, A. L. (2014). Observing culture: Differences in U.S.-American and German team meeting behaviors. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 17(2), 252-271, p.11.

    3 Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G.J., Minkov, M. (2010) “Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind,” Third Revised Edition, McGrawHill.

    4 Lehmann-Willenbrock, N., Allen, J. A., & Meinecke, A. L. (2014). Observing culture: Differences in U.S.-American and German team meeting behaviors. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 17(2), 252-271, p.12.

    5 Yin, J. (2002). Telling the Truth? A Cultural Comparison of “Facilitating Discussion” in American Talk, Discourse Processes, 33:3, 235-256. doi10.1207/S15326950DP3303_3.

    6 Lehmann-Willenbrock, N., Allen, J. A., & Meinecke, A. L. (2014). Observing culture: Differences in U.S.-American and German team meeting behaviors. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 17(2), 252-271, p.14.

     

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