The secret ingredient? Culture.


Recently I’ve been looking at the shared similarities of effective English and German business writing. Surprisingly, a lot of the basic principles are the same. But there’s one crucial difference: culture.

Common ground

All the basic rules for effective writing work in both languages.

- Write more like you speak, ie avoid jargon, complicated sentences and passive language.

- Think about who you’re writing for.

- Trust your instincts as a reader.

In short: the language is different, but the principles are the same.

Different attitudes

The differences aren’t only around grammar and spelling. It’s also about culture. Here are two examples.

‘You’ vs ‘Du’ and ‘Sie’

English has effectively only one form of address left – ‘you’. And how formal or informal you appear is a matter of the words you choose around it: first name or last name, sir, madam and so on.

German has two distinct levels of formality: the formal ‘Sie’ and the informal ‘Du’. Generally, ‘Du’ is used in families and between friends, and ‘Sie’ between strangers. So for a business, the question then is: how close am I to my customers?

How direct can you be?

Germans are generally quite direct and to the point (which shouldn't be confused with rudeness). Which in return means you can get away with a lot of fluff in English (for example in marketing texts) that just doesn't translate into German. That is, the words do, but they tend to sound extremely cheesy.

So think about culture – a lot

That’s the lesson we took away from our first months in Germany. What are your experiences with different cultures? Do you have any stories about language and culture? Tell us about them in a comment.

 


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on Oct 22, 2012

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