German vs. American: Making promises

Culture-clash

Germans tend to think that “Americans” (meaning anyone from North or South America) don’t always mean what they say.  I.e. we are unreliable or fake. Especially North Americans.

A big example that Germans use is the “Hi, how are you?” example, because when we ask such a question, we aren’t reaaally interested in how someone is doing. We’re only interested in hearing a watered down “fine”, even if the person isn’t actually fine. In German culture, if you don’t want to know how someone is, you simply stay silent even if it’s awkward!

This how are you question is largely misunderstood by Germans though. How are you is really an extension of saying Hi, but with a little added friendliness. Like the German version of “Hallo, naaaa?“. Same thing!

So the straightforwardness of Germans is kind of biting me in the ass now!

Let me just quickly illustrate what I mean about straightforwardness, or specifically making promises from a cultural POV:

German – If I say A, then A will happen.

American – If I say A, then B might happen. B is a permutation of A.

When laid out like this, it looks like the American way is a bit tricky, but hear me out first and then tell me what you think!!

Cultural misunderstanding #1

In February, when I started freelancing with my new client, she asked me for some commitment that I would stay working with her for at least a year, and that I would stay in Germany too.

At the time, Martin and I had just moved to our new city and new apartment, and I had every intention of staying put in Germany for at least a year.

So I agreed, and she was happy.

But then things changed!! As things tend to change in life.

I decided to leave Germany in 6 months. This was made more pressing because of German freelancing rules that are too stressful to keep. Plus I saw this as an opportunity to make an important life change. Because while I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I really needed a life change. Or at least be working towards a life change (since things haven’t changed yet).

Turns out, I didn’t want to stay in Germany until February 2017 afterall. In my mind, staying until October or November 2016 was still very acceptable, especially because the work that we do does not require me to be IN Germany or even physically present.

Let me also say that our contract is only until June 2016. Only a verbal agreement was made until February 2017.

When I broke the news to my client, she was really disappointed in my decision. She surprised me by taking the news really badly, but then the next day she graciously apologized for her reaction, and we talked it out. Now we have a new agreement, but it still really surprised me how different our reactions and interpretations were.

To me it’s not at all a big deal that I’ve changed my plan from living in Germany for 12 months, to living in Germany for 9 months, WHILE giving a 6 month notice about it!

That’s not deceptive, unreliable, or unprofessional, and it disappoints me that it’s taken this way.

Potential cultural misunderstanding #2

I’m working on a project right now, that I agreed to do for a friend. She works for my client so she is also my client.

I stupidly agreed to work on this project before really understanding what it was. It’s not a long project, will take about a week, but I sorely underestimated the level of work that’s required. Which means I won’t get paid as much as I expect to as a freelancer.

It’s still early stages so I haven’t started the work yet, and I’m seriously considering backing out.

I have a call about it this afternoon, so maybe I will give it one more chance.

But I lean towards just being honest and saying I can’t do it. It’s a bit advanced for me, and not that I will say this, but it doesn’t pay me enough to do.

I would rather keep myself open to other easier, more fun projects.

So I think I will ask another freelancer to take it on. But I just feel like the Germans will get very upset about it, because I *agreed* to do it. Even though there is no contract yet and I’m backing out really early with a good excuse (“it’s out of my scope”) and a replacement.

In my experience, Germans get weirded out by these change of plans. So we’ll see what happens.


If you are German or understand German culture, what do you think? Did I really make some big mistakes here? Am I really that unreliable? How would you deal with these situations if you were me? Have you had any cultural misunderstandings with Germans?

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