How can you avoid political discussion

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Global virtual collaboration is easier than ever - even with Americans. But there are some faux pas, especially when it comes to politics. Nancy Rienow, American and intercultural trainer at the non-profit Carl Duisberg Centers, has tips for successful economic cooperation between Germans and Americans.

Small talk is the key: Time is money, in Germany as well as in the USA. But just like in face-to-face conversations, small talk in virtual meetings is the icing on the cake and not a waste of time. Because a harmonious work environment with pleasant social interaction is desirable for the self-image and appreciation of many Americans. Intermediate discussions and laughing together are part of the American meeting culture. In any case, avoid starting the topic directly. This seems abrupt and cold. Instead, take the time for a friendly exchange - even if it sounds superficial. Try cordiality and genuine interest. Or ask a few questions before someone introduces the topic.

Let's talk about: In contrast to e-mail or telephone, personal contact in the virtual space allows you to get closer to current developments on site. Address critical issues, yes or no? You can briefly address topics such as Covid-19 superficially in order to show interest in the local situation. However, focus the conversation on personal aspects, such as the question of the well-being of family and friends, and pay attention to the reaction of your interlocutor. Sport, work, vacation or culture are always grateful opportunities for discussion. Or show appreciation for the work done by the other person. Praise is very welcome - even for normal tasks. Because in the USA, a sense of achievement is very important for personal identity.

Caution fat cup: On the other hand, debates about mask requirements and how to deal with Corona are not a good starting point for harmonious small talk. So be careful with everything that concerns politics, social classes, religions and minorities. Even if you are asked for your opinion on these topics, this is not a template for a discussion. Answer very carefully and as neutrally as possible and change the subject if possible. Always be aware of your position as an outsider and do not assume that others agree.

Time for Business: Small talk well and good. But how do you create or recognize a transition to the actual topic? In the virtual world in particular, it is helpful to master linguistic subtleties and to recognize the signs of a change of subject. American small talk tends to be longer than in Germany, although there are regional differences: the southern states, west coast and midwest take more time for it than the north-east. Once you have scheduled the meeting yourself, you should transition to the topic. Similar to German, a “so”, “okay”, “how about we get down to business?” Or “let's focus on our topic now” helps. Otherwise, you'd better wait until the person inviting you over to the business part.

All right: In the USA, too, people communicate directly, but in a different way than in Germany. The goal is clarity, even more so in virtual space than in real contact. Repetition is the method of choice. The repetition of facts underscores an agreement or a common understanding. Sentences like "let's just recap this" or "just to make sure we're on the same page" underline this. Even if things are clear to you: Use these sentences explicitly so that everyone else is on board. Do you have your own linguistic or content-related ambiguities? Reach out to open questions. Instead of "I didn't understand that", ask questions like "what exactly did you mean by ...?" Or repeat what you understood and let the other person fill in the gaps.

Keeping a long story short: Especially when it comes to presentations in virtual space, it is said: less is more. Germans often mention a lot of details. If something isn't explicitly said, it doesn't exist. Americans are more interested in the practical application of the information. If you need background knowledge, ask for it. If too many details come up, the question might arise when you will finally get to the point. Do not think that a shorter presentation seems too superficial or does not do justice to your competence. First name the solution, then the way to get there. Limit yourself to the bare essentials and structure yourself well so that the audience is not overwhelmed by background knowledge and flood of detail.

The sound makes the music: Lively factual discussions, as they are quite common and valued in German offices and also on German screens, are quickly perceived by Americans as too serious or too combative. So deal with your virtual effect and pay particular attention to your intonation and body language. Avoid using a pitch that is too intense or aggressive and try to keep an open and interested look. Crossed arms combined with rare eye contact will find your virtual counterpart to be repulsive. Tip: Americans value open eye contact. So that this works better on the screen, place a webcam in the middle of the screen or raise it.

Well packed: In a global comparison, Americans are known for a very direct style of communication: however, they are many times more cautious when expressing criticism and assigning tasks. For this reason, package criticism in the virtual space by starting and ending it with positive topics or praise. Use neutral words and phrases such as "unfortunately" or "it seems that" and avoid addressing them directly with "you" if possible. American colleagues counter emerging tensions or issues by creating harmony, for example by saying: “Maybe we can talk about that later”, “that's not so important at the moment”, “I'm sorry, maybe I misunderstood you” , “We'll find a solution for this”. Better to settle discrepancies in retrospect in private.

There is no end to work: When it comes to working hours, great flexibility is required: You can therefore expect appointment proposals outside of your normal office hours. Many Americans start working very early, and meetings at seven in the morning are not uncommon. There is no strict separation between private and work life and the same is expected of your business partners. You can also take part in virtual appointments from home or from the car while driving to work, if there is no other time. When planning appointments, make a note of which time suits you best. But be prepared for American business customers to contact you when you are on vacation. Because: Even in the virtual space, the customer is king. (Anja Thiede)