Culture Clash


Customer service reflects
culture in U.S., Germany

WHEN I give workshops dealing with culture and cultural differences, I try to encouragement participant involvement as soon as possible. One way is to ask, "All of you have interacted with people from other cultures. Some of you have traveled to other countries. What differences have you observed compared to your own culture?" People from Germany often comment on America's approach to customer service. They point out that stores in the United States are open for many more hours than in Germany. "Back home, stores are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and people don't expect to do their shopping during evening hours."

There are more consumer products available, and more choices among makes and models of products such as personal computers, cameras, music on compact disks and home furnishings. Germans also comment that they are often greeted by American salespeople in a much more open, enthusiastic manner. "Hello, how are you today?" is a near-universal greeting in the United States but is heard far less frequently in Germany.

People's everyday behaviors serve their goals. In the United States, people are individualists. They want to purse their goals on their own schedules. They also want to be noticeably different from others. These goals are served if stores have many products, have different makes and models of those products, and if they can shop when it is convenient for them. In Germany, there is not as strong an emphasis on individualism and so choices among many makes and models are not as important. Predictability is valued. If stores are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., then people can arrange their days to allow for shopping. Store owners and staff can also plan their days. If they close their stores at 5 p.m., they will have time for other activities in their lives, especially time with their families.

Questions about "how are you today?" are heard less frequently among Germans. This is captured in their use of pronouns. Where English has "you," Germans divide the second person singular into "Sie" and "Du" and make careful distinctions in their use. "Du" is personal and is used for family and friends. "Sie" is more formal and is used for people not well known, such as customers in a store. Germans are not comfortable greeting people for whom "Sie" is appropriate and then asking personal questions.

This incident and analysis developed from conversations with Barbara Obermaier of the University of Hawaii College of Business Administration. She is originally from Munich, Germany. When advising Americans about to move to Germany, she points out that if Germans begin to ask, "How are you today?" they are likely to be sincere and are interested in the answer.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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