Do You Want to Know Why Germans Are So Blunt?

Why are Germans so blunt?

“Why are Germans so blunt?” my clients or friends ask frequently. If you knew me personally, you’d agree with my husband that my French blood has mixed well with the German tendency to be direct. However, this is an easy question to answer: Germans are not rude; they just prefer clear communication and dislike beating around the bush. What someone perceives as bluntness is more of a cultural misunderstanding than impolite behavior.

After one last oral exam, my daughter will graduate from the German School in a few days. We all know that she will finish with honors, so I feel confident enough to talk about Mister S., one of her former science teachers and one of the most controlled and direct Germans I’ve ever met.

Mr. S. is a serious person who I’ve never seen smile. Once a year, for three years, I’ve met him during parent-teacher conferences, in the cafeteria, or occasionally at some school events. Usually, when you’ve known somebody for a while, you can expect, even in Germany, to move on to lighter topics or at least to make some small talk. But, Mr. S. always sticks to the facts, informing me how often Jasmine raised her hand, arrived late, or forgot to do her homework. He reminds me which grades she achieved (really good and really bad) and instruct me to talk to her about her behavior in class.

Mr. S. is a good example of the cliché that many foreigners attribute to Germans. He’d meet you with a brisk nod, gesture for you to take a seat, and immediately start to talk. His notes are always neat and organized, and did I mention that he never smiles?

I’ve already demystified the alleged German lack of humor in another post (“Seriously, do Germans have a sense of humor?“). It’s time now to talk about German directness.

Why are Germans blunt?

What someone perceives as bluntness from a German person is more of a cultural misunderstanding than an impolite behavior. There is no room for ambiguity in German communication; they say exactly what they mean because they value directness and honesty. Of course, they don’t mean to be rude and rarely notice the impact of their directness on people from other cultures. Mr. S. probably wouldn’t recognize himself in my earlier story. If he did, he wouldn’t see anything wrong with his behavior.

According to Edward T. Hall, a late American cross-cultural researcher, “The German language is much more literal than English. This means Germans are conditioned from early childhood to be exact in the meaning of words.”

I first learned German at school in France, and I became fluent after moving to the country. In my first job, my German boss always asked me to rewrite her emails because she knew they were too rude for French managers. The first time I did, she was really excited about my work and loved my more temperate tone.

In Doing Business with Germans, Sylvia Schroll-Machl explains that “A clear question gets a clear answer . . . Germans consider this to be the most honest, straightforward, authentic, and believable way to behave.”

Plus, besides honesty, Germans highly appreciate efficiency. Being direct just saves them time!

Of course, I have to quote Adam Fletcher’s hilarious book How to be German. Fletcher doesn’t explain if Germans are blunt or not, but he concedes that “Once you’ve practiced regularly getting to the point, you may find the way to be short very enjoyable.”

How should you deal with German directness?

Don’t take it personally; it’s just the way Germans are. Think about their bluntness as a type of goal-oriented behavior. They say what they want, what they think, and how they feel. Period.

In Germany, my husband got scolded for mowing our lawn on Sunday. Another time, a foreigner rang to ask why my son was crying so loud, as she could hear him from the street. A colleague once told me I was wrong to go back to work while my child was only a few months old since the child would turn into a criminal. My list could go on and on. The point is that almost all Germans act similarly. Some will be nicer and ask you with a smile not to mow on Sunday. Others will lecture you about why Sunday is the Lord’s Day when everyone should rest.

Avoid hasty generalizations!

Germans have been export champions for years. In that time, they have collected a lot of experience by working with foreigners in or outside of Germany. I know many direct Germans who don’t fit into the “rude” category. They are well-behaved, curious, and aware of their bad reputation. They can make small talk and work on establishing a relationship.

Believe me, many Germans are direct, but not all Germans are rude.

 

If you’d like to read more about German bluntness, you can check out these books:

Photo credit by Jan H. Andersen

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8 Comments

  • actually one of the things you mention here about German correcting others for mowing the lawn etc – is not about direct communication – it is about the propensity of many Germans to think they know better – and thus tell you so – as soon as they think you or anyone else have done something wrong – I have been amazed at how inefficient they can be when stuck n this point – so many act as self appointed keepers of the rules – and if they are in another country with different rules – it doesnt matter – the German culltural rules they have brought with them are the best rules in their opinion – this is more like arrogance than directness to me, esp in a country like the USA which is busy going in the opposite direction – where there is antagonism to rules, even laws – the law is whatever your cultural group thinks it should be – as long as you arent atheists or commies!

    • Interesting point of view Kara as there are certainly arrogant Germans outside. Same with the American tendency to oversell everything which is perceived – among non Americans – as arrogant. You point out to their rule loving behavior, and it’s true d that they don’t question the rule!

  • thGermans are certainly not all direct – like all stereotypes this one should be used only as a very rough guide – having worked there – bluntness was NOT a way to work in the office – and recently a German lectured me as to how Saturday is the Lord’s day and all the other Christians are wrong to celebrate it on Sunday, because the Bible says Saturday.

  • I like when people are blunt (saves a lot of time!). Not to the point of being rude, but being clear and direct especially in a business context is something I appreciate. In my personal life, I’ve noticed that the French are less blunt. If my mother-in-law wants me to do something differently, she’ll say “Oh shouldn’t you wash the floor like this?” and I’ll just tell her no. But if she had said something more direct like, “You should do it like this. It’s more efficient,” I’d probably have been more receptive. Maybe I’m more like the Germans 😉

    • Maybe you are one of the 50 million Americans who claims German heritage?
      My mother-in-law (the sweetest person one can imagine!) would never say anything like this. I remember her one day talking with husband “You know Jean, if you think the other way is better, why don’t you try yourself? I would be glad to give you the responsibility back.” This was the rudest thing I ever heard from her and my husband was so stunned that he immediately stopped talking!

  • Catherine,
    thanks to you I have a new appreciation for German bluntness, when and if I see it in action. Up until just now when I read your blog, I had the conception that Germans, out of every other culture in the world, were the most blunt, even about quite delicate subjects like while looking at “human remains” (the way I would say it). Up until tonight, the only example I have had of the German tendency to speak bluntly without smiling came from Sprockets on Saturday Night Live. The host of the Sprocket show could well be your daugher’s teacher, Mr. S., except for the host’s very inappropriate BLUNT vocabulary (He says exactly what he means. No euphemisms.) Go ahead and Google “Sprockets on Saturday Night Live” and select the video titled “Germany’s most disturbing videos” from all the choices that pop up. CAUTION: Short clips are shown of German videos competing for the title of “most disturbing”. THE.NARRATOR.DOES.NOT.MINCE.WORDS. He does NOT say “human remains” as I would say here in America. He says CORPSE. This video from Sprockets is not for the faint of heart. In a very exaggerated way, it completely illustrates what you have written about! Thank you, Catherine, for blending the niceties of the French with the admirable direct nature of the Germans in all you do. I LOVE that you say what you mean and mean what you say (GERMAN part of you) and I LOVE that you smile and know how to say the truth to me in very gentle ways (FRENCH part of you).

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