Which of the two national cultures is more willing to address cultural differences?
John Otto Magee
This is a very sensitive question. Why?
First: Often we don’t address cultural differences because we aren’t aware of them. We don’t see them. Noone has pointed them out to us. We simply assumed that “people are people.”
I, John Magee, lived in Germany for five years before they were pointed out to me. Pointed out to me. After five years. And it was a German who pointed them out to me. I did not discover them by myself.
To admit to not being aware of them, is to admit to being ignorant. Who wants to admit to being ignorant?
Second: To be aware of the differences between the two national cultures, but to not address them, is a willful act. It is saying: “I know there are differences. I know that I should address them. But I choose not to.”
It is saying: “I am not interested in who you are and how you think.” Who wants to admit to being uncooperative?
Third: Even if we are aware of differences between Americans and Germans, and even if we do want to address them, some people are more willing and/or more capable at addressing the differences.
Who wants to admit to being less willing and/or less capable at anything?
The question above was submitted by a German. It is not the first time that a German has asked me this question. Americans, too, have asked. But in more cases it is Germans who ask.
I can only speculate. I suspect – and I try not to attribute motives to other people – that it is assumed by Germans that Americans are often ignorant and/or uninterested in understanding other national cultures.
If this is their thinking, I can understand it, from the German perspective.
However, over the last fifteen years I have had very many Americans as customers – in workshops, in seminars, in consulting projects – who very much want to understand the Germans.
And I have had many Germans who are not terribly interested in understanding Americans. In fact, I continue to maintain my belief that many Germans overestimate their knowledge of America and of Americans. Often their attitude is: “We know far more about America and Americans than the Americans know about Germany and us Germans.”
This is certainly true. And I say this to the Germans. I confirm their statement. However, two things need to be considered. And these I state to them, also:
First, knowing is not the same as understanding. Knowing facts, figures, names, numbers, following the news about America, spending time in the U.S., etc. does not necessarily mean understanding America and Americans. Knowing and understanding are not the same. Understanding is far deeper than knowing.
Second, the true test is a culture’s willingness to allow itself to be influenced by another culture. “another” means literally an other, a different, a foreign culture. Address. Understand. Be influenced by.
In this sense, I am not sure that the German culture is more willing than the American to allow itself – it’s very thinking and action – to be influenced by another culture, by the outside.
But this is an issue – and a very complex one – for another day.