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Understanding Germanic Cultures

By Janelle Barlow, Ph.D.

German River CastleAll citizens of the United States are a hyphenated blend of cultures—typically the dominant American culture and those of their ethnic origins. Even the first Americans are called Native Americans. It helps identify who we are within the larger American culture. A question for all Americans, therefore, is how strongly are we influenced by American culture and by our ethnic identities?

Although we’d like to use the descriptions of culturally inspired behavior to understand people from societies other than our own, as the world becomes more diverse, national identity may have less to do with influencing us than our cultures of origin. The current influx of Syrian refugees by the hundreds of thousands into European countries will put this question to a test. How long will it take for the Syrians to become predominantly French-, German-, or English-influenced and, therefore, less Syrian-influenced? Some people think it will never happen in Europe because immigrants there tend not to…

For example, I am a second-generation American of German and Austrian heritage. My personal questions regarding cultural identity are: Am I more American than Germanic? How strongly influenced am I by American culture? My Austrian mother grew up speaking German. Although she never spoke the language with me or my siblings, I can feel her German values and attitudes in me. And German food is still comforting to me. 

My father’s German ancestors left Germany to escape military conflict. My mother’s ancestors left Austria to escape poverty. My parents wanted their children to be Americans. Most Americans are in this position, and if we understand this we are better able to recognize the complexity of cultural behaviors. 

When I travel in Germanic nations (Germany, Austria, and Switzerland), people assume I speak German. I always disappoint people I meet, as I speak hardly a word. But I suspect my German ancestry leaks through and that’s what people see. I certainly see it in my German business partners who are associated with the global company of which I am a part.

What do we know about Germanic cultures? Basically, they are orderly, clean, neat, and well-organized. Obviously some Germans are not, but most Germans prefer order to disorder. Because of their focus on planning and hard work, they also tend to be productive. They currently have a huge economic impact on the European Union and therefore the world. 

They are also a direct culture. They have little reluctance in describing what they see or want. They are loyal to their business relationships, families, and countries. They display a strong, Protestant work ethic. They are good people to have on your side and on your teams. 

For centuries, Germans have had a strong influence on philosophy and science. Think of Leibnitz, Kant, Schopenhauer, and Einstein as examples. They likewise have had a remarkable influence on the arts, literature, philosophy, and music. Consider influential Germanic musicians. Bach and Mozart probably lead the group, but not to be forgotten are Brahms, Beethoven, Wagner, Haydn, Handel, and Mendelssohn. All of them were giants. And where would psychology be today without Freud and Jung? 

When you deal with Germanic culture, whether in the Germanic group of European nations or with German-Americans, remember their penchant for predictability and order. Most individuals who grew up in households influenced by Germanic culture know how important it is to have things clean and neat. Although I hate to admit it, I do judge people who don’t make their beds in the morning—or who constantly create messes on their office desks.

The largest ethnic group in the United States is German. Over half of the counties in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming are populated by a majority of people with German ancestry. Today there are more Americans claiming German ancestry than there are Germans in Berlin. 

People from Germanic cultures tend to downplay social status in organizations. I remember this lesson well from my mother, who would often remind me, “Just because they have more money than we do, they aren’t any better.” And she demanded that her children do better. Indeed, most Germans tend to do well wherever they end up. In the United States they are, for example, better educated than the average population. They tend to hold professional positions at work.

When dealing with Germans, be punctual. Ride the trains through Switzerland to France. In Switzerland you can set your watch by arrivals and departures. Oddly, those same train engineers immediately seem to have lost their watches once they cross the border into France or Italy. Fairness is a huge value for Germans, and it is a good idea to not treat someone unfairly when dealing with people from this cultural group (or any cultural group, actually). 

Be prepared to hear blunt talk from Germans, whether from the German cluster of countries or from German-Americans. While Germans have high respect for academics, they are also willing to argue about anything and everything—and with anybody. For this reason, look them directly in the eyes and speak with respect while you give them a strong handshake. Show them you are their equal. They’ll appreciate it. I know I do!