Without a doubt, Americans smile more than Germans. This trait comes from the country’s strong history of immigration. Back in the 18th century, because Americans didn’t all speak the same language, they had to rely on nonverbal communication.
After experiencing American friendliness, many Europeans are left wondering if Americans are giving fake smiles or hiding their feelings. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of a more obvious difference between Americans and Germans than smiling. Americans smile more often and more enthusiastically than Germans, who don’t reveal their dimples regularly. But, why do Americans smile so often and so brightly?
Germany and America: as different as peaches and coconuts!
In many intercultural circles, Kurt Lewin’s theory prevails: the German-American psychologist divided the world’s cultures into “peaches” and “coconuts.” Peaches are soft on the outside but have a hard pit in the center. In contrast, coconuts are hard on the outside but soft inside.
In “peach” cultures like the United States, people regularly smile, are helpful, and talk easily with strangers. However, establishing a true friendship can take some effort because many Americans firmly protect certain parts of their privacy behind a wall (the pit).
In “coconut” cultures, people don’t engage easily in conversation. They don’t really smile at people they don’t know and are often perceived as rude. Germans are generally part of a coconut culture: they’re hard to crack, but once they let you in, they are loyal friends for life.
There are many articles about this theory, but Christian Höferle from The Culture Mastery wrote a good summary of many German-American stereotypes in the following post: Why are Americans so…? Why are Germans so…?
Fruit salad aside, why do Americans smile constantly?
In 2015, a team of international researchers found that countries with a strong immigration background rely more on nonverbal communication in order to build trust and cooperation. With 83 source countries represented by its citizenry, the US has a larger immigrant population than any other country in the world (Source: United Nations).
According to author Olga Khazan in The Atlantic,
“Americans smile a lot because our Swedish forefathers wanted to befriend their Italian neighbors, but they couldn’t figure out how to pronounce buongiorno”
In a 2016 study, researchers proposed that American business and government leaders smile more enthusiastically than their Chinese equivalents. In the same year, they also discovered that:
“The more nations valued excitement and other high-arousal positive states, the more their leaders showed excited smiles; similarly, the more nations valued calm and other low-arousal positive states, the more their leaders showed calm smiles.”
Bright American smiles can create confusion
Reading between the lines is even harder when somebody smiles at you and uses positive words to share criticism or negative feedback. In business, when a German manager speaks of “gute” (good) results, Americans assume their performance was average while Germans are completely satisfied. However, Germans who receive “good” feedback from an American manager will assume that their work was excellent.
Walmart’s failure to succeed in Germany serves as a good example of how a smile can be misunderstood.
The Walmart example
I remember when Walmart opened in their first German stores in 1997. Now, these stores were not larger and didn’t offer better value for money than other supermarkets (like Massa or Wertkauf and Aldi). Instead, I liked Walmart because the staff members were so friendly. When I asked for a special item, the associate would help me find the right shelf instead of waving a hand vaguely toward an aisle.
In 2006, Walmart withdrew from Germany. According to the media reports at that point, the German market didn’t meet the expectations of the giant grocery chain in terms of growth and return on investment. But, from an intercultural point of view, Walmart clearly misunderstood the German psyche. When they tried to apply the company philosophy 100%, they met resistance and a lot of misunderstanding.
Unsurprisingly, Walmart soon stopped requiring employees to smile at customers. Apparently, some German shoppers interpreted the gesture as a kind of flirting!
Did you like this post? Then, you will love this one: Seriously, do Germans have a sense of humor?