Education and Language

Expressing Criticism in German: Intercultural Communication

The German style of communication is renowned for being explicit and direct

Saying what you do not like is not a matter of course in every culture. In Germany, however, it is. Many Germans often criticise openly and directly, nevertheless a few rules still have to be observed.

A German boss is supervising a stand at a trade fair with one of his employees, who happens to be from the Czech Republic. The stand is located in an excellent position near the entrance, which is surrounded by walls full of glass windows, the sun is pouring in, it is very warm. “This is unbearable, I can’t take it anymore” says the boss as evening approaches. The next day he arrives at the fair a little later and discovers that the stand is no longer where it was. He finds it at the back of the hall. “What is all this about,” he asks his Czech employees. “We moved it to a place in the shade,” they say. The boss then asked them who told them to do that. “Well, you!” was the answer he received.

Direct or indirect style of communication?

This is a scene from a book entitled Die Deutschen – Wir Deutsche. Fremdwahrnehmung und Selbstsicht im Berufsleben. (The Germans – We Germans. The way we are perceived by others and ourselves in our professional lives) written by the psychologist and intercultural trainer, Sylvia Schroll-Machl. Her book focuses on her experiences while working in an internationally active company. In one chapter she illustrates how directly or indirectly people from different cultures communicate with each other. “The German style of communication is renowned for being explicit and direct,” writes Schroll-Machl. “Leaving margins for interpretation is not part of this style. If the boss had wanted to have the stand moved, he would have said so clearly. The Czech employees, on the other hand, not only heard criticism in his comment, but also an order to do something about it.” As a rule Germans express criticism “relatively openly and sincerely,” writes Schroll-Machl. “They directly address what they do not like and what they are not satisfied with.” Vice-versa the rule reads – when foreigners criticise Germans, they ought to do it in clear language.

Constructive criticism


Expressing criticism – Reacting to Criticism: German and Chinese Perspectives (Youtube.com)

“Alongside this clearly direct way of communicating, there is also the fact that the criticism is often not objective and constructive, but is just expressed in a negative way,” says Carmen Spiegel, Professor of the German Language and its Didactics at the Pädagogische Hochschule Karlsruhe. (University for Teacher Training in Karlsruhe). Ms Spiegel, who focuses a great deal on conversational competence and interculturality, feels that sentences like “You are doing it wrong” or “You can’t do it like that” are totally unproductive. “The person being criticised cannot do anything with them.” Ms Spiegel recommends never be only negative and not to use the words “must” and “should”. It would be better to use a subjunctive, which would take the bite out of the conflict – like “I would” instead of “you should”. For example, anybody complaining about people leaving used coffee cups in the office kitchen should not say, “You should not leave dirty cups on the table,” but rather “Would you please put the cups in the dishwasher.” “Whenever the situation arises, the positive can be emphasised and alternatives provided,” according to Ms Spiegel. “Criticism of this kind makes people think, harsh words like “That is not the way to do it” only result in resistance.”

The direct Germans

The fact that many Germans say what they mean very directly was something that Adans Aldani da Silva from Brazil experienced when he first came to Germany. He will never forget the first time he calmly placed his purchases on the conveyor belt at the supermarket check-out when the cashier suddenly yelled, “A bit faster, please!” The 24-year-old was shocked. “You would never hear anything like that in Brazil.” In the meantime he feels that there is also a positive side to Germans clearly stating what they want. “For me the Germans are still a little harsh, but I like the idea that they do not hide behind a mask,” he says. “They simply say – that is wrong! And that saves time” The idea of him directly contradicting or criticising somebody is, however, still something he cannot imagine himself doing.

Criticise, yes, but with prudence

Just how exact criticism should be is something that has to be thought over, saysCarmen Spiegel. What does one hope to achieve by criticising another person? What feelings do people have when they are criticising? Criticism should, above all, not be emotionally charged, if possible, it should not be uttered spontaneously in an annoying situation. Furthermore one should use one’s own sensitivities when formulating criticism. “I find it nauseating when people do not remove used cups from the table.”  

Others are direct, too

Sylvia Schroll-Machl feels that the direct style of communication used by the Germans is, above all, in direct contrast to that of Asian cultures. In Asia it is not normal to criticise with words and to view a problem in hand as a conflict. Based on her experiences she writes that it is not just the Indians, Chinese and Japanese who feel that the Germans are direct and undiplomatic, but also many British, Spaniards, Hungarians and Turks think the same. 27-year-old Sharon Harel from Israel cannot understand this. She does not find the Germans particularly direct. “In Israel we are like that, too,” she says, “and, what is more, a little bit more aggressive.” She has lived in Berlin for two years and is married to a German “I always actually say what I feel.” Up to now she has not had any problems because of this. Nevertheless something that happened to her in Berlin recently left her somewhat dumbfounded. She was standing in a somewhat full suburban train carriage, holding her bike, near the door. Whenever the train stopped at a station, she tried as best she could not to get in the way of the people getting on and off the train. “When all was said and done I was still in the way,” she says and tells of a woman who finally screamed at her, “Just get off the train with your bike, for God’s sake! “I felt very offended,” she remembers. “Although the woman was in fact right. All I would have had to do would be to get off and then get on again.” She would have preferred the woman to say, “Would you mind getting off the train with your bike for a moment?” 

Katja Hanke
is a free-lance journalist in Berlin.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
October 2014

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