When Germans engage outside of the business context they seek topics which lead to lively discussions. Germans are intelligent and well-informed. They enjoy intellectual give and take.
And since this means a difference of opinions, Germans often choose controversial topics. They are also critically-minded.
They look for weak points, for what does not work, is suboptimal or just plain wrong. In discussions Germans state their critical opinion in a straightforward manner.
Americans choose to discuss non-controversial topics. Divisive subjects are seldom raised. And although the age of the cocktail party is long past, Americans still know the answer to the question "What are three subjects you don‘t bring up at a cocktail party?" Sex, religion and politics.
The American logic is to avoid any contention which can damage a personal or working relationship. They seek out commonalities, look for reasons to relate, not separate.
The American inclination to discuss safe topics is often misinterpreted by Germans as being superficial. To the Germans, for whom intelligence, deep thinking, even brooding, is important, superficiality is considered to be a character flaw.
Germans are disappointed when the discussion involves what they call non-topics. They feel that an opportunity has been lost: to debate, compare and contrast, to learn from each other.
Americans have the impression that Germans choose controversial topics in order to provoke. Often Americans feel insulted, for the German approach can lead to criticism of America and Americans.
When that happens, the relationship is damaged. Making things worse, some Americans will report it to colleagues, warning them about contact with "those opinionated Germans“.
Advice to Germans
Develop a sense for which topics in America are considered controversial. There are many of them. Choose very carefully with whom, when and how you address them.
Bring them up indirectly. Ask Americans what they think. If asked, state your opinion diplomatically. Seek dialogue, not debate. If you want to make your statement, perhaps phrase it as a question.
Advice to Americans
Remember, Germans separate between substance and person. Vigorous intellectual give and take on controversial topics is not personal. In fact, it is one way in which the Germans demonstrate respect for America and Americans.
It means that they take your point of view and America seriously. So, engage with the Germans. Help them to understand the American viewpoint. And put some effort into understanding their point of view. It's well worth it.