Et voilà, just one Word offers plenty of Room for Cross-cultural Misunderstandings

Today, I retrieved an old copy of Beruflich in Frankreich (Working in France) where we find the different meanings of “concept” in French and “Konzept” in German being discussed. The authors Stefan Mayr and Alexander Thomas explain that while Germans would associate the “shared” term with an elaborate plan or design, people in France tend to understand “concept” more as a rough idea, or—when invited to discussing a concept—would rather expect a casual exchange of ideas, or a discussion of creative ideas. Et voilà, just one word offers plenty of room for cross-cultural misunderstandings.

Comic on French-German misunderstandings
Herr Dr. Müller presenting his “concept” in France.

As I had pointed out in my book Doing Business in Germany: A Concise Guide to Understanding Germans and Their Business Practices (2019), 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 (English and German) 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. It is highly recommended (try) understanding how proficient your counterpart is in speaking English and to adapt accordingly.

If you feel you’d better get some help communicating with Germans in business situations, please don’t hesitate to get in touch—I am looking forward to hearing from you: hello[at]andra-ibf.com.