Seeing a full or an empty glass is not just about individual attitudes

3 years ago, I changed job and joined another team in the same company where I was the only non-German. I had already lived in Germany for about 3 years by then and spoke the language fluently so I assumed it would not be a big deal and guess what I was super wrong. 
One of the first challenge I faced in this position had to do with receiving feedback and understanding where they came from and challenge my own cultural norm.

German constantly strive for perfection

In Germany honesty “ehrlichkeit” is one of the most important value and kids are taught from childhood to be bluntly honest, so if you ask for feedback on your work and people trash it for 10 to 15 minutes that does not necessarily mean that what you did was bad but mostly that they want to give you things you can work on to improve yourself and there will be no consequences to critic except for the measure you yourself chose to derive from it. There is a German saying that basically says no critic is enough of a compliment (Nicht geschimpft ist genug gelobt). After a while I learned to take those “constructive critics” as a way to improve rather than an attack to my ego. I would be lying if I said that it has become easy but I have also taken the habit to systematically add a close question to get a better feeling of how they perceived my overall performance and not just the nitty gritty details. Did you find my presentation useful? Overall was the report I delivered matching your expectation? 

The German way to constructive criticism

In France any topic is up for discussion but critics has to be addressed in private

Growing up in France, we were not encouraged as much to evaluate and formulate constructive criticism. France is still a very hierarchical society and the only feedback which matter is the one from the person in a situation of authority be it your teacher, your boss or your parents. We love to debate, discuss and often complain about everything but maintaining relationships with our peers and superiors is very important for us and we usually use subtext to express direct criticism. Another option is to sugarcoat the criticism and express it in private unless one wants to starts a conflict for political reason (we are pretty good at that too :-)). I tried using this in Germany and realized that I was perceived as nice but weak. It was tough for me to go the German way as direct and open criticism in France is seen as a lack of respect.

Trying to formulate properly

In US being perceived as negative is a stigma no one wants to bear

Living in the US I felt some kind of injunction to always be happy and positive. I was struck by how this way to want to see the world with a happy filter affected the language used to discuss difficult life situation. In the US someone battling cancer is often referred to in media as a hero or a person going through a divorce is transitioning into a new phase in life. Paradoxically you are asked all the time for your opinion as every receipt offer the promise of a reward in exchange for a filled customer survey. I used to fill-in those regularly but to be honest I never really dared to voice a real complaints when things went really wrong in fear that the person might loose its job*.   I suspect most Americans followed the same principle as they would always tell you that things are awesome and great even if sometimes it’s just okay or simply good.

American positive thinking to its best

It was very energizing to be surrounded by all the positive attitude in the US and I definitely saw the direct benefits on my day to day life. Now that I am back in good old Europe I am reminded of the joy of getting an honest opinion and the chance to use it to hone my skill set. No matter in which culture you have been raised and where you are, you can always choose which of the French, German or American approach suits you best.  You can decide to see things under a positive light, decide to spare your feelings counterpart or just tell them frankly and honestly how you perceive their actions. The beauty of having intercultural awareness is that it expands the way you view the word and the number of options you have to deal with day to day challenges.

I am very interested to read your comments on this and how people express criticism and feedbacks in your respective country.

*In most of Europe an employee might have a tough talk with its boss after a bad complaint but it would not get him/her fired unless they really crossed the line or it is a recurring problem.

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