A German tells you he or she is afraid to meet you? No need to panic! Break a leg (“Hals- und Beinbruch”) we are just facing some language problem. Even if the Germans you are talking to speak English at some advanced level, be aware that there is still plenty of room for linguistic misunderstanding.
Often, everything said is translated word by word
First of all, you should keep in mind that if people are not fluent in English (or any language), very often, they would translate anything said in a foreign tongue word by word. Because Germans also tend to take everything said literally, a friendly “Hi! How are you doing?” can really disconcert some. The “Hi” can easily be perceived as too informal (am I your buddy?!), and some Germans might feel that they should seriously answer a question about their well-being. We ask the same question (“Wie geht’s?”), but only when we already know somebody and then we have all the possible answers at hand (Germans would very often say “Geht so. Viel Arbeit” – “I am okay. Lots of work to do”). I would suggest that you instead say “good morning,” “good afternoon,” or simply “hello.”
A German living and working in the United Kingdom observed how, sometimes, Germans just translate their slogans (word for word) and expect the British to understand them. He said to me, “This does not always work; for example, when labeling rucksacks (Rucksäcke) as ‘body bags’ (Leichensäcke).” One of my German course participants told me how, during an international conference, he felt slightly embarrassed when he realized that he was not supposed to have “a date” with his potential client, but “an appointment.” He had just translated “Verabredung,” a term you can use for a romantic meeting or business luncheon.
Cross-cultural communication promotes talking at cross-purposes
Realizing that you are talking at cross-purposes with one another (although you’re both using the same words) is still one of the greatest challenges in (intercultural) communication for me. A Finnish client once wanted me to assess whether his company’s service would also sell in Germany. When he and his colleagues explained their business model in detail, I told them that, based on my gut feeling and (at the time still) very cursory knowledge of the market in question, I believed that a certain aspect of their business model could be a deal-breaker because, I said, “Germans think more long term.” All three gentlemen looked puzzled and explained that my point was not valid because “Finns also think very long term.” It was only some weeks later, when I presented the results of my research, that it turned out that when I was thinking “12–24 months,” my client’s association with “long-term” was three months!
Let me give you another example: I was explaining to one of my prospects how Germans tend to be very risk-averse, and how we “have lots of insurance policies.” “So do we; Allianz is very big in India,” my contact from Pune replied. What followed was a back and forth involving him trying to convince me that Indians tend to put as much emphasis on insurance as Germans do (my world was shaken!), and my firm conviction to the contrary. Only when I gave an example, telling my prospective client that, among many other policies, most probably 99 percent of Germans have Haftpflichtversicherung (liability insurance), and that if I accidentally smashed his TV set, the insurance would pay for it, he gave in, admitting that he had never heard of such a (weird) thing. When talking about insurance, he had thought of “life insurance.”
Giving examples and asking questions can be a good strategy to narrow-down potential misunderstandings. “When you talk about bureaucratic hurdles, what exactly can we expect and how do you suggest we handle the matter?” I would, for instance, ask, trying to find out whether we (just) need to set aside plenty of time (whatever plenty of time means…), are required to talk to a grumpy official in a worn out fleece pullover who has hopefully already had his or her coffee, must not forget to pull a token number from the machine in the waiting room … or something else entirely.
Reading is not talking – especially with limited vocabulary
What else should you consider? Senior Business Development Manager Stephan Janouch drew my attention to the fact that, although most Germans should know enough English to provide directions or engage in a short conversation, and while comprehension of the English language might be above average on a global scale (particularly within companies that are conducting business internationally), there are two things that are ignored quite frequently: firstly, he highlights what you can subsume under the heading reading is not talking. “A lot of people do have an excellent English vocabulary and understanding of the English language, but feel uncomfortable when they are forced to engage in a live conversation,” he explains. “In many cases, this results from a lack of practice.” As an example, he mentions the average engineer who is used to reading datasheets, specifications, or conference papers, which are typically available only in English. “He or she may not have issues verbalizing facts in written form but could easily find it challenging when asked to do real-time interpreting,” Janouch warns.
Secondly, the business development manager points out that, in many cases, the vocabulary of German English speakers is limited to two categories – the basic set of words, grammar, and semantics you learn in school and the specialized terminology according to one’s profession. Between these usually lies a gap that contains a lot of the subtleties and idioms of English language which may result in a misunderstanding (bad) or miscommunication (dangerous). One should bear in mind that, although both languages are similar in many ways, there are words a typical German would have difficulty understanding (e.g., the term “evangelizing”). There are words with a completely unrelated translation – a German would be able to relate to roentgen rays (Röntgenstrahlen) but maybe not to X-rays – and there are similar sounding words with a completely different meaning. Take, for example, the German word “eventuell,” which should be translated as “possibly,” rather than “eventually;” a German could easily decode a “we will eventually reach a conclusion” as “we will maybe reach a conclusion.” I remember how I, as a 12-year-old, told my English teacher’s mom (an elderly lady from Great Britain) that I was afraid to meet her; “afraid” just sounded so similar to the very polite “erfreut” (pleased, delighted).
Today, I sometimes still get confused by “you must not,” which if you translate it into German word by word, means that you don’t need to (do something). If a German tells you that you must not do something, and you wonder how this could make sense (e.g., “you must not reconfirm our meeting”), better ask him or her to explain or rephrase.
And, try to understand how proficient your counterpart is in speaking English and adapt accordingly.