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Teresa May: When a German Says No They Mean No!

Matthew MacLachlan

31 Oct 2016

Brexit negotiations are going to be tough. Many commentators say that the British negotiators will be inexperienced and naïve as the UK has not had to negotiate a trade deal for more than 40 years (as the E.U trade negotiators have done the work for us).

But one thing is apparent at this early stage – the British inability to understand our European neighbours will be a key factor in these negotiations.

German Direct Communication

The signing of the European Union-Canada trade deal yesterday highlighted how torturous trade negotiations can be.

Clear and unambiguous communication plays a key role in any negotiation – no matter which negotiation strategy you choose to adopt. What is clear to our soon to be ex-European partners is that the Brits do not understand how Europeans communicate.

In cultures, such as Germany, there is little subtext, there is no implicit understanding, and the words said are all important.  When you say “no” it means “no”. German direct communication is what it is – direct!

This is not always a question of English, although to improve her chances in the negotiations, the British Prime Minster, Theresa May should consider some French or German lessons.  It is a question of understanding how to communicate effectively with people from a different culture when working in a common language.

British Politeness

In Britain, we have cultivated a self-opinion that we are exceptionally polite, we avoid direct conflict, and we ensure that whatever our meaning is, it is expressed in such a way that the harsh message is coated in much softer language.

“Would you possibly mind considering staying a little later after work to finish off that project that was due this afternoon?”

An English worker will recognise immediately that they have messed up and missed a deadline and will need to stay late at work until the work is finished.  A German would have just said, “You need to stay late to finish your work.” Another example of direct German communication.

Theresa May has a problem – she cannot find common ground with Angela Merkel;  Ms Merkel, as one of the most respected politicians in the world, is going to be hugely influential as Britain negotiates an exit from the EU.

language-web

© The Independent/The Economist

Have a Biscuit

Damien McGuinness, the BBC News correspondent in Berlin has identified the cause of the problem, likening Britain’s understanding of German communication styles to handing out biscuits in polite company.

In Britain, we have cultivated a self-opinion that we are exceptionally polite and avoid direct conflict

A Brit is just as likely to politely decline, knowing that the plate will be handed round a second time.  In cultures, such as Germany, there is little subtext, there is no implicit understanding, and the words said are all important.  When you say “no” it means “no”.   The plate will not be circulated again, so when you refuse, the host accepts your refusal and doesn’t offer again. You have missed out on the biscuits!

Germany is also a task oriented culture: the relationship is a key factor in the negotiations.  Once you are out, you might as well be on a different continent regarding agreements – the shared history is largely irrelevant, and any agreements are to be negotiated from a clean sheet of paper.   The bank of trust and credibility is empty, waiting to be refilled.

The members of the EU have a common interest in finding areas of commonality, and working through differences.  The members are, at least in principle, equals.  By leaving the EU, Britain finds itself in the position of a supplicant, so understanding the communication styles of the countries we want to partner with is crucial.

Germany is also a task oriented culture: the relationship is a key factor in the negotiations.

We must not let ourselves be deceived into thinking that because the Germans speak such excellent English that they are using it in the same way that native English speakers do.  Self-deprecating humour, irony, and instructions hidden away by polite, but meaningless, padding do not work in international business.

How Should We Communicate with Germans?

The best advice is to ‘say what you mean, and mean what you say.’  More importantly, we need to understand that Germans, by and large, mean what they say.  If you are told that it is not possible to compromise, the chances are that any further negotiations will cause frustration on both sides and won’t change anything.  If you want a concession, be upfront and direct and put it on the table.  Don’t hide your request in flattery and other secondary offers.

The best advice (when negotiating with Germans) is to ‘say what you mean, and mean what you say.’

For a German, a negotiation is not a fishing trip – where you go and see what you catch by testing the water.  You go with a set of parameters and try to get as close to your ideal position as possible.  With a German, it makes sense to be explicit and upfront, setting out your position, and asking for clarification on points you don’t understand.

Don’t Underestimate the Germans

That is not to say that Germans lack guile and cunning.  German direct communication is an effective negotiating tactic in itself.  However, facts, statistics and details are persuasive elements, with much less credence given to the passion with which they are expressed.

For a German, a negotiation is not a fishing trip

Patience is key as the important information will need to be fully considered and analysed from all angles.  You can expect to be challenged on key points; it is important to ensure that your answers are concise and to the point, and do not contradict any previous points.

If Theresa May was hoping to win support for Brexit she should have gone to her meetings last week with a clear plan, well-defined parameters and a direct approach.  Her indirectness and lack of clarity make her appear untrustworthy and lacking credibility; this weakens her negotiating position and influence and, ultimately, makes it harder for Britain to find its place outside the EU but still in Europe.

Why not try a little German direct communication and say what you mean, and mean what you say? You never know – it might get you what you want with all ther English amibuituity and politeness?